Last week, a remarkable story broke about a fraudulent cricket competition in India. At the same time, it was a reminder of a level of invention and entrepreneurship characteristic of the region and of cricket’s historic relationship with betting.
This was common in 17th and 18th century England, when matches, hosted by aristocrats but involving hired professionals, were played for large sums. The matches also allowed the lower classes to indulge in betting.
Echoes of this feudal structure were evident in Indian fraud.
Four people are said to have cleared a space on a farm in a village in Gujarat, western India. There they created a cricket pitch, complete with boundary lines, halogen lights and high-resolution cameras. The setup was complete, with scores displayed on a live broadcast screen, using computer-generated graphics.
The 20 or so players were hired laborers, laborers and unemployed youths, who were paid $5 a game. They wore kits that sought to replicate those of three Indian Premier League teams – Chennai Super Kings, Mumbai Indians and Gujarat Titans.
The matches were shown on a YouTube channel called IPL. No broad view of the game was shown, with a focus on the players. Crowd noise sound effects were downloaded from the internet complete with a speaker that sounded like one of the actual IPL commentators.
All of these features were designed to bring authenticity, but for whom? The real IPL had ended on May 29 and this one started three weeks later. Anyone in cricketing countries would have known. It seems that the target market was Russia, which was not known for its cricket interest or ability.
However, the production of the fake tournament was convincing enough to entice Russian punters in three cities to part with the cash via the Telegram messaging app. The fulcrum of the operation was the referee. After bets were placed, the umpire was alerted by walkie-talkie and the batter and bowler were instructed to handle a six, four, or out. This is not always easy to achieve on demand.
Further details are awaited regarding the main instigators of the hoax and the Indo-Russian links. It seems remarkable that the punters could not have realized that the players were not professional cricketers or that there was a distinct lack of crowd scenes as is normally the case in televised matches . Of course, they may not care. It was an opportunity to make bets, to play. It is not easy for those who do not play to understand the mentality and behavior of those who usually play.
What is easy to grasp is the continued growth of sports betting. Estimates of its size in 2021 are in the range of $70.23 billion to $89.65 billion, with cricket’s share being around 10%. All estimates predict a compound annual growth rate of between 10 and 13% until 2030.
The main drivers of this growth are new leagues and tournaments, deregulation, increased digital connectivity, and adoption by younger generations, especially with the use of smart phones.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on betting as land-based gambling has come to a halt, it has fueled the growth of online betting. No reliable estimate of the proportion of offline and online sports betting can be cited, but it is widely believed that the online share is expected to increase.
This is recognized on the supply side, where competition is fierce as sports betting companies seek to provide attractive and easy to use websites, exclusive offers, attractive welcome offers and an enjoyable experience.
The amount of data available and the greater ability to analyze it lead bettors and betting companies to generate prediction models. Unsurprisingly, there is a growing number of academic papers in India that seek to provide a means of predicting the outcome of IPL matches. A pattern that really beats the bookies doesn’t seem to have emerged, at least not publicly.
The search for such a model is not limited to the advancement of academic careers. According to the Public Gambling Act of 1867, all forms of gambling are illegal in India, although offshore vessels with betting houses are thriving. The law distinguishes games of chance from games of skill.
In a 1996 amendment, the Supreme Court of India ruled that horse racing was a game of skill and betting was legal. This is because the bettor must have detailed knowledge of the horse, its fitness and training, the rider, the race venue and the ground conditions. Curiously, cricket was not considered a game of skill.
An Information Technology Act was introduced in 2000 to allow the blocking of foreign betting sites. However, the failure of the legislation to specifically ban online betting means that Indians can access offshore sites.
In India, each state can pass its own laws. The northeastern state of Sikkim legalized online and sports gambling in 2008, subject to regulation and licensing. Goa allows live betting but has not legalized sports betting. More recently, other states, while reinforcing the illegality of offline gambling, have remained silent on the legality of online betting.
The ban on offline and land-based gambling has generated a huge Indian underground betting market. This amount is estimated between 45 and 150 billion dollars and represents a significant loss of tax revenue. It is likely to be riddled with fraudulent and irresponsible activities. It is estimated that 80% of this market is related to cricket and is heavily weighted towards the IPL. This is expected to grow over the next five years, providing even more betting opportunities.
India’s gambling laws, based on 155-year-old legislation, cannot be said to be fit for purpose in an increasingly digitized world in which online betting is set to thrive. The policies based on the laws are confused and inconsistent and badly in need of revision. Currently, they allow global sports betting companies to circumvent national laws through an offshore offer. At the other end of the spectrum, a bold, homegrown initiative in western India has shown how easily these laws can be circumvented on home soil.