With close to Rs 300,000 crore at stake, the underground betting syndicates have adopted new methods to up their game significantly.
New Delhi: A team of ‘professional commentators’, a hacked TV feed, delayed telecast and honey-traps are some of the latest dimensions that define the murky contours of the cricket betting industry. Thanks to the lucrative but vulnerable Indian Premier League (IPL), the bookies seem to be a few steps ahead of the law enforcement agencies in breaching the secure perimeter around the cricketers with the help of technology and old-world techniques.
Just a week before the night of May 15-16, 2013, when police teams conducted raids in Delhi and Mumbai and arrested three Rajasthan Royals players, S. Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankit Chavan, security staff posted at the gate of the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) stadium in Mohali questioned a man, who was carrying three mobile phones and five batteries.
The short-statured, thin man, wearing slippers, came up with an incredible, but hardly believable, story. He told the security staff that his mother was unwell and since the mobile phone signal was patchy inside the stadium, he was carrying three phones and extra batteries to ensure that his family members could reach him in case there was an emergency at home. Interestingly enough, the officer on duty digested the story without it occurring to him that if someone’s mother is seriously unwell, what is that person doing inside a stadium watching an IPL match? He went past the multiple layers of security without much problem.
Two years later, in May 2015 during the eighth edition of the IPL, the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) Ahmedabad branch allegedly busted a Rs 2,000 crore betting racket and netted some big names connected with underground betting syndicates. During the course of interrogation, the ED officers were finally able to resolve the mystery of the man with three mobile phones and batteries who entered the PCA stadium after selling a dummy to the security staff.
A ‘commentator’ in the crowd
The man was identified as one of the ‘commentators’ hired by top cricket bookies to provide ball-by-ball ‘live’ commentary of international matches played in India from inside the stadiums. The investigators found out that around 5,000 people subscribed to such ‘live telephone commentary’ for Rs 4,000 for real-time updates. This gave the punters the big advantage of knowing the outcome at any point in the match before placing bets on betting websites like cicketlivebet.com that are hosted on servers based in other countries.
So, what’s the connection between a live commentator inside the stadium and dynamic odds put out by a cricket betting website based in England? “That was a very interesting finding of our investigation. These commentators are professionals,who have deep knowledge about the game,” says an ED officer who is aware of the details of the investigation conducted by the Ahmedabad branch. “They are very fast and broadcast even the minutest detail about what is happening on the ground. We found out that these people travel by air and stay in expensive hotels. Of course, they get paid handsomely for their expertise in the job.”
The chargesheet filed by the ED (Ahmedabad) gives an idea of how the bookies gamed the online system. “Accused-5 (Ritesh Bansal) disclosed that during the course of every match, one person, ‘Chotu Jalandhar’, used to sit in stadium and provide ball-by-ball details over the phone so that they (bookies) have prior knowledge of (the) actual match proceeding(s) before the same could be viewed by others on TV, which is generally 6-7 second(s) late,” reads the chargesheet. The six-seven seconds advantage is enough for punters to either place their bets or pull out. The case is still pending in an Ahmedabad court.
Is delayed broadcast a book?
Depending on the broadcast platform and format (cable, DTH and HD), the broadcast delay can range from six to12 seconds, which gives the bookies a huge unfair advantage with the help of ‘pitchsiders’ who provide live commentary from the stands. Last season, the IPL telecast was delayed by 12-13 seconds.
“We can’t delay the feed. For live telecast, the link from the match venue is uplinked to Singapore and then it’s bounced back to India. This process takes some time,” says a production official working with an international broadcaster. “There could also be an issue with the connection of the provider. But downlink is supposed to take three to five seconds only. A 10- to 12-second lag is definitely huge.”
However, Prasanna Krishnan, business head of Sony Six, the broadcaster of IPL, told Hindustan Times, “Live broadcast of any event from the venue to a viewer’s television screen involves transmission of the broadcast signal across several intermediate stages via satellite and cable, which leads to a time lag of a few seconds. This is standard across the industry, irrespective of the event being broadcast.” Investigators, however, believe that a few seconds’ delay between live action and telecast could be enough for ‘market manipulation’ in countries where betting is legal.
During the proceedings against Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan, the Delhi police claimed that the arrest and subsequent interrogation of accused bookie Ashwani Aggarwal revealed that he owned a master account on betfair.com, an online betting site registered in the UK and Australia. He then sold sub-passwords to people who enjoyed pre-paid facility for holding an account with him. For example, Person A would open an account with Aggarwal by paying him a certain amount in Indian currency. He would in turn remit the money to an off-shore bank account using hawala channels and open a sub-account on the betting site for Person A that would allow him to bet freely, without carrying out transactions in foreign currency directly that would have attracted the attention of the Reserve Bank of India.
According to police, Aggarwal’s account was used to funnel large amounts of money earned through betting that was fixed by the syndicate. Even during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup, a man was arrested from inside the stadium while the New Zealand-Sri Lanka match was underway at Christchurch for providing live information to an off-shore betting syndicate. An ICC spokesperson acknowledged the incident: “They were providing live commentary, which gave people outside the country a little bit of advantage because they could place bets on fall of a wicket or a dropped catch due to the five- to six-second advantage, depending on the lag in transmission.”
Assigning on-spot commentators is only one of the innovations that the bookies have hit upon. They are also relying heavily on technology to rake in big bucks in international matches and the cash-rich IPL. The ED also claims that it had arrested a man called Sanjay who allegedly hacked into live feed from the venue that was redirected to a control room set up by the bookies even before it was uplinked for forward transmission to television sets on various broadcast platforms. However, the police were unable to convince the court that he had cracked the encrypted technology used for uplinking, given the educational background of the man.
“…They used to procure handsets, SIM cards, television sets, dish antennas, decoders etc. after taking place on rent. Farmhouses were preferred; they used to install their electronic gadgets in one room for receiving live telecasts on the ongoing matches, that for cricket betting they were using special decoders which gives them live streaming without any breakup on account of advertisements and they were able to have advantage of around 5 to 10 seconds; the annual payment for the three special decoders which were being used by them was Rs. 65,000…,” reads the ED chargesheet.
Independent experts with knowledge of modern broadcast technology confirmed on condition of anonymity that hacking into live feed, though difficult, is entirely possible with a little bit of insider information about encryption frequencies and codes, azimuth of the dish used by the feed producer to uplink and the right decoders. In a country where there are close to 900 television channels – national and regional – there are enough people with adequate technical expertise who can crack feeds.
Over the past year, arrested bookies in Pune, Mumbai and Goa told the police that all these new technologies and other innovative methods are being used by the thriving underground betting industry that involves hundreds of crores of rupees.
ACSU is helpless
Even as new technologies keep the law enforcement agencies on the hop, match-fixers still rely on some of the old-world methods for ‘trapping’ unsuspecting players to do their bidding. “Money from the IPL has made many young players rich overnight and they are rushed into a very different world at a tender age,” says a former official with the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). “Money is just flowing. People offer money to attend parties, fashion shows and many other events. You just don’t know when someone makes an offer, which the vulnerable players might find difficult to refuse. That’s what happened in the past in the IPL.”
In the 2013 spot-fixing scandal, the Delhi Police presented recorded conversations between players, or their representatives, and bookies as evidence. Investigations suggested that one of the alleged bookies, Manan, was in touch with Jiju Janardhanan, who had represented Gujarat in the Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy (1999-2000), Under-19 Cooch Behar Trophy (2001-02) and the Under-22 Col C.K. Nayudu Trophy (2003-05). The Delhi Police further alleged that Janardhanan was negotiating on behalf of Sreesanth. But there was no evidence to suggest that the former India fast bowler was directly in touch with any bookie himself.
Chandila, on the other hand, was allegedly found to be in touch with a Delhi-based bookie identified as Bhupender Nagar, who in turn was in touch with Vicky Chaudhary, Vinod Sharma alias Monu, Nitin Jain alias Susu and Deepak, a bookie fromPunjab. According to the police, Chandila allegedly agreed to play according to the instructions of the bookies.
On May 5, 2013, Rajasthan Royals played against Pune Warriors at Jaipur’s Sawai Mansingh Stadium. The intercepted calls revealed Chandila allegedly had a conversation with oneAmit Singh, who instructed the bowler to give away 14 or more runs in the second over of his bowling spell after providing a decided upon signal.
Legal technicalities a road block?
According to the Delhi police, Chandila gave away nine runs in the first over and in the second over he gave away 14 runs but forgot to give the signal to the fixer, which in turn upset bookie Chandresh Patel because he couldn’t accept bets in the absence of confirmation in the over that had already been fixed for gains. However, a Delhi court acquitted all of them on“technical grounds.”
A sample of the intercepted conversation between Janardhanan and Sreesanth that was submitted as evidence reveals why the court didn’t take cognisance of it as evidence.
Sreesanth: Teen chahiye. (Need three)
Janardhanan: OK, Main dekhta hoon (Ok, let me see)
Baki laga dega…paisa kyun kharch karna hain (I’ll put the rest, why should the money be spent) Abhi das hai…teen leta hoon… saat yahin rakha hai … saat tereko de doonga… kab chahiye batana. (At present we have 10…I’ll take three…seven is right here…will give seven to you…tell me when you want)
The court concluded that there was no evidence to show that Rs 10 lakh had been handed over to Janardhanan by the bookies, which in turn was to be handed over to Sreesanth. “The conversation between P. Jiju Janardhanan and S. Sreesanth are innocuous and are not suggestive that any money came from the so-called spot-fixing fund. All that S. Sreesanth was asking P. Jiju Janardhanan to do was to buy three cellphones,” reads the court’s verdict.
The verdict further pointed out that the call detail records of the mobile numbers of Sreesanth and Janardhanan contained material discrepancies and these conversations had been intercepted in violation of Section 5 of the Telegraph Act that made them inadmissible as evidence in the court as held in the case of State of UP vs Singhara Sinh & Ors. AIR1964 SC 358. The court also pointed out that the intercepted conversations were not “state substantive evidence” but only corroborative in nature. Undoubtedly, legal technicalities and the absence of a legal framework, specifically targeting match- and spot-fixing, leaves a loophole, allowing those involved to escape without punishment.
This creates a piquant situation. Players who were found to be involved with bookies and fixers have been handed out punishments by the BCCI under its existing laws and regulations, including life bans, but those operating outside the purview of the board remain untouched, free to carry on corrupting the game.
Sports Fraud Prevention Bill, sports integrity intelligence gathering unit
The proposed Sports Fraud Prevention Bill (2013) contains provisions for six months to five years of imprisonment for whoever, including private companies, directly or indirectly indulges in or assists or attempts to indulge in any sporting fraud. The Bill clearly defines ‘inside information,’ and ‘sporting fraud’, while manipulating or attempting to manipulate a sports result(s), irrespective of whether the outcome is actually altered or not, will invite a jail term. This important Bill from the sporting perspective is yet to be tabled in a cabinet meeting before being put up for discussion in parliament en route to making it a law.
“You can’t do anything about it. We know who these people are, but we can’t declare them publicly as bookies. It may invite defamation cases against the board,” says a senior BCCI official.“This is the only reason for the BCCI not revealing their names in the public domain or filing criminal cases against them. They are still approaching the players. The only bright side is that the players have become very alert and are reporting to the board in case they have been approached. I think our anti-corruption education is showing positive results.”
Besides education, the BCCI has initiated a number of steps to insulate the players from unscrupulous characters. For example, one of its anti-corruption guidelines reads: “At no point of time the players or support staff are to entertain any guest in their hotel room except a blood relation, wife and fiancée.” Other measures include not allowing any player to use mobile phones or the internet in the PMO (Players and Match Officials) area during international, domestic and IPL matches. But investigators have found that the bookies and fixers are still managing to get access to the players in hotel rooms or at private functions.
The absence of intelligence gathering or policing powers with the ACSU is hindering the BCCI’s efforts to root out dubious characters from the cricketing world.To overcome this stumbling block in the fight against match-fixing, the BCCI had requested the government of Maharashtra to establish a Sports Integrity Intelligence Gathering Unit under the joint aegis of the BCCI and the Maharashtra police while offering to fund the cost of setting up such a unit. The board even informed the Supreme Court of this initiative during the hearing of the Lodha Committee’s recommendations. But there is no update on this.
In the current scenario, there is little to stop those who try to fix the outcome of cricket matches.
Spy vs spy
It seems no one is immune from the rapacious clutches of the bookies and match-fixers, not even some of the best brains in the intelligence establishment, who have successfully exposed the underground betting networks. In February, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested J.P. Singh, an ED official.
According to the CBI, Singh and three other arrested ED officials, who were investigating the spot-fixing scandal that broke out during the 2013 IPL, allegedly accepted huge amounts of bribes from the arrested bookies to dilute the case. In 2015, the CB-CID of Tamil Nadu also filed a chargesheet against suspended IPS officer Sampath Kumar, alleging that he accepted crores of rupees from bookies involved in the fixing scandal to weaken their case.
Both these officers were instrumental in exposing a well-organised IPL betting syndicate and the intensive investigations under their leadership revealed many of the undetected methods used by the cricket betting industry. The CBI officials claim that the bookies offered the investigating officers such vast sums of money that it was impossible for them to refuse the offers. The accused officers have denied the charges of bribery and wrongdoing.
It’s pertinent to note that it was Singh’s investigation (he was then posted as joint director in the Ahmedabad Zonal Unit of the ED) that blew the lid off the syndicate using the services of ‘pitch-side’ commentators to game the online betting sites. It was his investigation that exposed how the bookies were exploiting the eight-second lag in telecast and that there was a method to the ball-by-ball live commentary from inside the stadium.
Sampath, then a superintendent of police in the Q branch of the Tamil Nadu police, was investigating a human trafficking case that led him to unearth the IPL betting syndicate in 2013. His investigation exposed that bookies were operating an illegal telephone exchange which was providing live commentary from inside the stadium during IPL matches. Both these cases are still pending in the respective courts.
ICC’s big initiative
In February, the Chief Executives’ Committee (CEC) of the International Cricket Council (ICC) authorised the global cricket body’s top management to initiate the process for an amendment to the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Code that would permit extraction of data from mobile phones of players during the duration of international matches, using specialised data extraction equipment and software.
If the proposed amendment is cleared by the ICC’s legal team, the anti-corruption unit of cricket’s global governing body will have full access to data stored in the phones of players. This could turn out to be a landmark step in eliminating corruption from international cricket, but a number of privacy concerns that have been raised need to be addressed. The ASCU also needs to ensure foolproof security of the extracted data due to the sensitive nature of personal information that is stored in mobile phones. However, the big question is: Will the IPL, which is a private and domestic tournament, adopt the ICC’s proposed anti-corruption measure as and when it becomes operational?
The ACSU wing of the ICC has also compiled a dossier that contains the names of 100 suspected bookies, including some Bollywood and Sri Lankan actresses, who have been used as honey-traps by the betting syndicate to snare unsuspecting and gullible cricketers into doing their bidding. An ICC source has verbally confirmed that out of the100 names in the dossier 95 are Indians, including an actor-turned-bookie who was arrested in connection with the 2013 spot-fixing scandal.
India is betting behemoth
According to a 2012 report prepared by international consultancy firm KPMG, the Indian betting market is worth Rs 300,000 crore. If betting is legalised with a 20% tax on the earnings, then the government could net anything between Rs 12,000-19,000 crore in terms of revenue. A paper published by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) for its conference titled ‘RegulatingSports Betting in India: A Vice To Be Tamed’ carried the results of a survey that the industry body conducted in Delhi. It showed that an overwhelming 74 percent of respondents believed that legalising sports betting would help curb match-fixing.
The Supreme Court in its July 18, 2016, verdict on the Lodha Committee’s recommendations asked the Law Commission of India to float a proposal among the various stakeholders for exploring the legislative framework and ramifications of legalising betting in sports in India. No one knows if and when these proposed measures will take concrete shape. Till then, the betting syndicates and the law enforcement agencies will continue playing the cloak-and-dagger game in the shadow of the gentleman’s game.
By arrangement with Hard News.