By Boria Majumdar
It is now in the public domain that the BCCI has filed an FIR against two individuals for alleged attempts at match fixing ahead of the India-England women’s ODI series in February. The head of the BCCI’s anti-corruption unit (ACU), Ajit Singh, is on record confirming the FIR, while also saying the two men tried to rope in a national player and, through her, reach out to India’s ODI skipper Mithali Raj. The player reported the approach and the ACU was able to take steps to pre-empt any act of wrongdoing. While this is a one-off, three questions become relevant against the backdrop of this FIR. First is, why now? Why is it that the two men involved tried to fix women’s games and not men’s?
Second, what are the amounts we are talking about? If the reports are to be believed, the cricketer who was approached was offered Rs 1 lakh per match to influence the results. Third, and perhaps the most important, is how will the BCCI treat this approach? Will it be treated as a one-off stray incident and the FIR the logical corrective or will steps be taken to negate any such attempt going forward?
Women’s cricket, it is time to argue, is the next big thing in world cricket. Not only are women’s leagues, Big Bash or the Kia super league in England gaining in viability, the BCCI was pleasantly surprised to see a 20,000 crowd turn up to watch the final of the exhibition women’s IPL organised earlier this year in Jaipur. In every game, men’s or women’s, we now have a group of women commentators or presenters.
And the women’s world cup in February-March 2020 is already attracting significant media attention. Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana and Jhulan Goswami are all mainstream celebrities in India with biopics in the pipeline for all or most of them. In sum, women’s cricket is fast turning into a glamourised, commercially viable proposition. And at the centre of this transformation is broadcast.
Most of the games are now broadcast live on television failing which they are live streamed on the digital platform. Even relatively poor boards like the WICB live stream every game played by the women’s team in the Caribbean. For example the West Indies versus Australia women’s T-20 was live on the WICB YouTube channel recently. Broadcast or live streaming has opened up women’s cricket for the corrupt influencers as a viable property to look into and invest in. The men’s games are far more closely monitored and the monies paid to men cricketers by franchises mean the lure of the corrupt dollar has turned less significant for men. A cricketer who simply plays the IPL is assured of a multi-crore income from this one tournament alone and he stands to lose everything if he turns rogue. As a result, possible corruption in the men’s game has moved to the lesser leagues, which are struggling and are far less monitored or controlled. It is natural that the BCCI is now investigating a slew of TNPL matches played in July-August for match-fixing.
In contrast, women’s cricket, despite its growing commercialisation, is a soft target. Women get a tenth of the money the men do and the value of central contracts are small when compared to those of men. Logically then the lure of the dollar will be far more for women who mostly come from backgrounds where money is a dire need. While broadcast has opened up the game, limited commercialisation makes the women’s game an attractive proposition for the betting mafia. What helps is that not all women playing for India are professionally managed and except a few none of the others have brands queuing up to sign them on. For them, the lure of the fast buck is always going to be high. A person posing as a sports manager will have a far better chance to reach out to a middle-level woman cricketer than a lower-rung IPL star. And the expectation is that the women, vulnerable and confused, will fall for the trap.
The BCCI or the ICC, I wish to argue, can’t ignore the approach and look at it as a one-off. Rather, it is evidence of how the women’s game is now being perceived and chances are such attempts at influencing games will only grow in future. While on the one hand we need to make the women’s game cash rich, reducing the temptation of the quick buck for the elite women players, and on the other, we also need better monitoring and mentoring of the stars. Acute lack of facilities, which was a constant companion of the women’s game till very recently, will inevitably mean acts of corruption becoming endemic. Players facing familial and other pressures may decide to cross the line without really coming to terms with what is in store. And that’s why we need to be more vigilant.
Corruption and commercialisation go hand in hand and that’s what is happening to the women’s game at the moment. Unless a set of correctives are put in place, things might get out of hand like it had happened with the men’s game. Perception, more than reality, is corruption is still prevalent in cricket and that’s a price we continue to pay for failing to deal with the problem at the turn of the century. Women’s cricket is giving us another chance. We can only pray lessons have been learnt and this time round the men and women in power deal with the issue better than they did in the past.