Fake Indian Cricket League Swindles Russian Gamblers

Source: www.nytimes.com : 2022-07-13 03:52:24 : Sameer Yasir

There were floodlights, high-definition cameras and umpires with walkie-talkies pinned to their shoulders. The cricket players wore colorful uniforms. The broadcast had the voices of recognized commentators, and the logo of the globally recognized television channel: the BBC.

But this was no Indian Premier League, the lucrative cricket tournament that generates hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It was an elaborate fraud, turning a large farm in a small village in the western Indian state of Gujarat into an arena of sporting excitement.

The target? Russians betting on the winning odds of an unfamiliar sport far from home.

Police officials in Gujarat said over the weekend that they had broken up the scheme, which was run by four local men who had swindled thousands of dollars from Russian bettors for 14 days. The fake league was given a name close enough to the real one: The Indian Cricket Premier League.

“It was all hoaxes,” said Achal Tyagi, a top police official overseeing the investigation. “We have arrested four people and also are investigating some Indians living in Russia, who are involved in the scam.”

News of the audacious hoax ricocheted around social media in India and the wider cricket world, shocking fans of a sport that is known as a “gentleman’s game” and that has created fierce international rivalry, huge cricket stars and lucrative profits.

About 24 “players” were involved in the hoax. The men on the field were, in fact, unemployed village boys and construction workers. The “broadcast” was streamed on YouTube, and the winners of the match decided in advance. The fake matches were played in the village of Molipur.

Videos of the purported matches showed players wearing jerseys of the same colors worn by I.P.L. teams like the Chennai Super Kings and the Mumbai Indians. The cricket counterfeiters downloaded crowd-noise sound effects to enhance the online spectators’ experience.

Investigators said the players told them that the men acting as umpires took instructions on walkie-talkies from organizers sitting at the edge of the ground with their laptops. In turn, they discreetly instructed players when to throw a slow ball to a batsman or get out to help members of the gang earn more money from bets.

Though the players realized the matches were fixed, investigators said, they continued the ruse for the equivalent of about $5 — an amount of money that, for jobless young men in rural India, was pretty good. They have not been charged.

“They were given a uniform and promised 400 rupees for each match,” said Tinku Rathod, a farmhand in Molipur. “They were all happy.”

Police officers said that through the messaging app Telegram, the organizers of the scheme accepted bets from many cities in Russia. An Indian man hundreds of miles away was hired to mimic the voice of a famous Indian cricket commentator, Harsha Bhogle, who often does commentary for the real premier league. The fake Mr. Bhogle was released.

The Indian Premier League, created in 2007, is among the world’s most valuable sports properties. In India, it has turned the once-staid game into a commercial juggernaut, luring the world’s best players with million-dollar contracts.

Last month, India’s governing body for cricket sold the television and digital broadcasting rights for a record $6.2 billion. But the league has also been embroiled in controversies with batting scandals, leadings to the suspension of two teams for two years in 2013.

The fake league began the hoax games about three weeks after the real league wrapped up its games in May, the authorities said. The league has not publicly addressed the hoax. Investigators were alerted to the scam by a local police officer, who had noticed suspicious matches being played during mornings and evenings with floodlights on.

On Thursday, when officers from a special investigation team of the Gujarat police arrived on the fake grounds, they checked the phones of players and laptops of the organizers and found multiple Telegram channels. The officers soon realized that there an elaborate betting scam run by four men sitting near the ground was unfolding, and that they were being handled by another Indian man working in Russia.

Mr. Tyagi, the police officer, said that during questioning, one organizer who had returned to Molipur, his native village, after working in a pub in Moscow famous for betting, revealed that in Russia, a fellow Indian had suggested he start a fake league in his village to make money.

“He was in constant touch with his partner in Russia,” Mr. Tyagi said. “These are new criminals with a technological bent of mind.”

The four men have been charged with criminal conspiracy and gambling, officials told reporters.

When the suspects were caught, the fake league matches were in the semifinals, with just one more to go before the finals. Then, after the ruse was revealed, the YouTube channel went dark.

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