The full facts of the sting operation engineered by India TV have yet to emerge - and they probably never will - but already it's clear that five young men have got themselves into a situation from which they will find it hard to extricate themselves. The two transgressions they stand accused of, on the one hand suggesting that they could bowl no-balls to order and on the other trying to negotiate an off-the-books payment from an IPL team, are not new to those that follow cricket in India closely.
For long, there has been the suspicion that domestic matches, not necessarily a high-profile televised tournament like the IPL, were inadequately policed. If you speak to players and coaches, you will hear countless stories about something that did not look quite right in one match or another. You hear plenty of whispers about a certain player behaving erratically and doing things that defy conventional cricket wisdom. But that's all you get - whispers, rumour and hush-hush insinuations.
The much-maligned anti-corruption authorities in the game hear these whispers too. They are in constant touch with the betting market in one way or the other and already have informal lists of players that they watch more closely than others. One highly placed anti-corruption source told this reporter last year that they knew of players who were particularly vulnerable, but that there was little that could be done in the absence of "actionable evidence." The anti-corruption forces, it must be understood, have limited powers and no resources to tap phones or investigate financial records. They don't have the locus standi to make arrests or bring players in for questioning on the basis of mere suspicion. What're more, it's one thing for a news organisation to set up a sting operation, but the anti-corruption unit could never engage in a similar activity as it would border on entrapment.
While the News of the World sting delivered Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Salman Butt on a platter, it was only possible for the authorities to take action against the three because the illegal activity happened in the United Kingdom, a country that has laws strong enough to deal with this type of infringement. While betting itself is illegal in India, it's a waste of the police's time to go after bookies as the even a successful conviction results only in a small fine and negligible jail time. As for catching cricketers in the act, that hasn't happened in the same vein as with the Pakistani trio, and only when a test case comes up for prosecution will we get a real idea of how strong or otherwise the laws that deal with this are in India.
The comparatively lesser charge of seeking under-the-table payments for IPL contracts is an even more tricky one to prove. After all, in a country where black money still plays a big part when it comes to certain kinds of transactions - from the purchase of property to the sale of cars and a whole lot in between - it's naive to believe that IPL franchises operate in a vacuum. Again, it boils down to what can be proven in black and white, and already we've seen the stung players attacking the claims made in the original news report. While one player has admitted to making some remarks, he suggests that it was only a casual boast, and there was no truth to it. The franchise accused of making the illegal payments has staunchly denied the claim, and has pointed to the player's recanting of his statements as proof that they never indulged in these activities. Another player has gone down the more well-trodden route, suggesting that his voice has been doctored on the tapes presented, and that the allegations were baseless.
In the face of what they were presented with, though, the Board of Control for Cricket in India had little choice but to suspend the players, pending an inquiry that will be chaired by Ravi Sawani, a retired cop with a formidable reputation and someone who is already well-versed with how anti-corruption units function. What remains to be seen is how much actual proof can be unearthed, and that will decide which direction the investigation takes. Any which way, though, five young men will have to live with the fact that their names will be linked to unaccounted-for rupees before runs and wickets.
Anand Vasu is managing editor of Wisden India.