Late last June, while the world was at a standstill, two teams walked out on to the cricket field in the little city of Badulla, high in the Sri Lankan hills, to play the opening game of the inaugural UvaT20 League.
It was a new, seven-day round-robin tournament between what the marketing people described as “four star-studded teams” of local Sri Lankan players, each led by an “icon”.
The blurb mentioned Tillakaratne Dilshan, Thilan Thushara, Farveez Maharoof, and Ajantha Mendis, although, oddly, neither Dilshan nor Mendis seemed to be there for the toss on Monday June 29th for the first game between their two teams, the Monaragala Hornets and the Wellawaya Vipers.
Maharoof, who played 22 Tests for Sri Lanka, didn't seem to know anything about it.
“This is fake. No one has spoken to me neither I’m interested to speak or to play the tournament,” he wrote on Twitter, “please don’t give any publicity.”
Still the sun was out, the Hornets had won the toss and decided to bat first and the live stream was up and running on YouTube.
“Live action is coming all the way from Badulla Cricket Ground,” said the commentators. “It’s a grassy ground, and we can see everywhere, grass, so no chance of any fielders getting injured.”
The footage was a little fuzzy, the camera angles a little awkward, but at least they were playing. Matches had been cancelled, or postponed, around the world, Bangladesh had only just announced they were pulling out of a planned tour of Sri Lanka, but at least "the Uva T20 Premier League is here to keep fans entertained".
Since this was the only live game at the time, and the scores were being carried on a popular Indian streaming app, viewing figures started to grow – first hundreds, then thousands, and the online betting markets, starved of action for the previous few weeks, sprung into life.
It was a great game too.
The Hornets finished on 203 for six after their No 6, “Pradeep Witharana”, walloped 76 off the final four overs, and the Vipers chased it down with nine balls to spare, through a fine 67 off 36 from their No 4, “Lahiru Maduwantha”.
The result was all the more startling for the few people who were at the Badulla cricket ground that day, because the place was empty.
But 1,660 miles away in Mohali, northern India, local police were closing in on the Strokers Cricket Association Academy ground in the village of Sawara. The Strokers' ground had recently been hired for the week by a local businessman who said he wanted to use it to stage an age-group tournament. He had paid a £100 deposit, and promised another £200 when the tournament was over, so the club let him get on with it.
“We don’t know who came to the ground, and other such details,” one of the club officials told the Indian Express. “We don’t know who was organising this match. Even we were not allowed inside. They had blocked the view with tents around the ground.”
It wasn't an age-group tournament at all, but one of the most elaborate gambling scams since Robert Redford and Paul Newman persuaded Robert Shaw to stick half-a-million on Lucky Dan to win the third at Riverside.
Among all the people affected by the shutdown, – the players, coaches, fans, and administrators – the fixers were hit as badly as anyone. With no sport there was no action and with no action there was no income. Since there was no live sport to try to fix, one syndicate decided it would just have to stage its own event instead.
“It was an outrageous plot,” says one of the investigating anti-corruption officials, “but it grew out of lockdown desperation, because they’d run out of things to try to target. It was completely bizarre. We’ve seen ghost events before, where people report on things that aren’t actually happening, but nothing quite like this. Their ability to shift markets, shift methods, is amazing.”
The syndicate behind the scam had already been organising “unofficial” local tournaments, which were not recognised by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (it got around that problem by setting up its own organisation, the “Cricket Council of India”, with a strikingly similar logo to the one used by the BCCI) involving players from small villages across northern India. They recruited a group of “20 or 30” of those unknown and unregistered players and gave them all Sri Lankan pseudonyms.
When the police got inside the Strokers’ ground, they found the syndicate had even put up a series of fake advertising hoardings featuring the names of well-known Sri Lankan companies, just to give it an added authenticity.
It turned out it had also hired a local media consultant to design the teams, build a website, distribute press releases and promotional material, and forged a series of emails from officials at Sri Lanka Cricket that it used to persuade service providers to carry its streams and live scores.
It had also ordered boxes of new kit decorated with fake logos and sponsors, leased an internet connection, set up three cameras on a five-second delay and roped in two commentators.
“All just so they could create a betting market pretending it was in Sri Lanka,” one of the investigators said, a market they then manipulated by giving instructions to the players.
The first anyone in Badulla, or at Sri Lanka Cricket, knew about the UvaT20 League they were supposedly hosting but was taking place 1,600 miles away was when they began to get inquiries asking them what was going on. The same goes for all the Sri Lankan players who were supposed to be involved.
The UvaT20 League that never was folded after two matches, a surreal little footnote in the history of cricket, and one of the stranger sports stories of lockdown. - Guardian