There were floodlights, high-definition cameras, and referees with walkie-talkies on their shoulders. The cricketers wore brightly colored uniforms. The show featured the voices of acclaimed commentators and the logo of the world’s acclaimed television broadcaster: the BBC.
But this wasn’t Indian Premier League, the lucrative cricket tournament that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It was an elaborate scam that turned a large farm in a small village in the western Indian state of Gujarat into an arena of sporting excitement.
The goal? Russians bet on the odds of winning an unfamiliar sport far from home.
Police officials in Gujarat said over the weekend they had dismantled the scheme run by four local men who spent 14 days swindling thousands of dollars from Russian bettors. The fake league was given a name very close to the real one: The Indian Cricket Premier League.
“It was all hoaxes,” said Akhal Tyagi, a senior police official overseeing the investigation. “We have arrested four people and are also investigating some Indians living in Russia who are involved in the scam.”
News of the audacious swindle ripped through social media in India and across the cricket world, shocking fans of a sport known as the ‘gentleman’s game’ which has fueled bitter international rivalry, huge cricket stars and lucrative wins .
About 24 “players” were involved in the hoax. The men in the fields were actually unemployed village boys and construction workers. The “show” was streamed on YouTube, and the winners of the match were determined in advance. The fake games were played in the village of Molipur.
Videos of the alleged games showed players wearing shirts in the same colors worn by IPL teams such as Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians. The cricket fakers downloaded crowd noise sound effects to enhance online viewers’ experience.
Investigators said the players told them the men acting as referees were receiving instructions via walkie-talkies from organizers, who sat at the edge of the site with their laptops. In return, they discreetly instructed players when to throw a slow ball to a batsman or fold to help the gang members make more money from betting.
Although the players realized the games were fixed, investigators said they continued the ruse for the equivalent of about $5 — an amount of money that was pretty good for unemployed young men in rural India. They have not been charged.
“They were given a uniform and promised 400 rupees for every game,” said Tinku Rathod, a farm worker in Molipur. “They were all happy.”
Police officials said that the organizers of the program accepted bets from many cities in Russia through the messaging app Telegram. An Indian hundreds of miles away was hired to mimic the voice of a famous Indian cricket commentator, Harsha Bhogle, who often comments for the real Premier League. The wrong Mr. Bhogle was released.
Founded in 2007, the Indian Premier League is one of the most valuable sports venues in the world. In India, it has transformed the once-respectable game into a commercial juggernaut, attracting the world’s best multi-million dollar players.
Last month, India’s cricket governing body sold the television and digital broadcasting rights for a record $6.2 billion. But the league has also been embroiled in controversy over betting scandals that resulted in two teams being suspended for two years in 2013.
The fake league started the hoax games about three weeks after the real league ended its games in May, authorities said. The league has not publicly addressed the scam. Investigators were alerted to the scam by a local police officer who had noticed suspicious games being played mornings and evenings with the floodlights on.
When officers from a special investigation team from Gujarat Police arrived at the fake site on Thursday, they checked players’ phones and organizers’ laptops and found multiple Telegram channels. Officials soon discovered that an elaborate betting scam was unfolding, operated by four men seated near the ground, and being worked on by another Indian man working in Russia.
Mr Tyagi, the police officer, said an organizer, who had returned to his native village of Molipur after working in a pub in Moscow famous for betting, revealed during questioning that a fellow Indian in Russia had suggested a fake set up league in his village to earn money.
“He was in constant contact with his partner in Russia,” Mr Tyagi said. “These are new criminals with a technological mindset.”
The four men were charged with criminal conspiracy and gambling, officials told reporters.
When the suspects were caught, the fake league games were in the semifinals, with just one left before the finals. Then after the trick was revealed, the YouTube channel went dark.