On November 6, before the start of the second T20 between India and West Indies at the Ekana Cricket Stadium in Lucknow, Rohit Sharma and Carlos Brathwaite emerged from their dressing rooms to meet Uttar Pradesh Governor Ram Naik. Escorting the two captains was a former employee of the Indian Premier League (IPL) whose presence raised several questions.
In July, News 1, a Lucknow-based Hindi news channel, broadcast a sting operation on Akram Saifi, personal assistant to IPL chairman and Congress leader Rajeev Shukla, in which he is purportedly heard seeking money and sexual favours in return for selection in UP’s under-23 team.
Within the next four months, the BCCI closed an internal probe, the UP association gave him a clean chit, and Saifi was back in the thick of action, sporting an all-access stadium pass around his neck for that T20 game.
An investigation by The Indian Express has found that the clean chit to Saifi ignored the BCCI’s own anti-corruption guidelines and several red flags raised by cricketers and former associates. Over the last month, The Indian Express also travelled to Saifi’s base in Saharanpur, and spoke to several cricketers and officials, to find that he continues to influence team selection in India’s most populous state while flaunting his proximity to Shukla. Shukla, a former secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association (UPCA), is currently one of its directors but officials and cricketers in the state confirmed that he continues to be the “boss”.
Over the last two decades, UP has emerged as the powerhouse of Indian cricket, with at least eight players from the state — Mohammad Kaif, Suresh Raina, R P Singh, Praveen Kumar, Piyush Chawla, Kuldeep Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Sudeep Tyagi — representing India in top-flight cricket. Many others from the state have played for the country at the under-19 level.
In Saifi’s case, the BCCI agreed to investigate the allegations raised in the sting, which featured a purported recording of his conversation with a UP player, Rahul Sharma. In the audio recording, Saifi is purportedly heard demanding prostitutes in his hotel room in exchange for selection in the under-23 team. The BCCI Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) chief asked the channel to share the tapes. Within weeks, however, the board dropped the probe after Saifi resigned as an IPL manager. “Saifi resigned from the BCCI, that is why we didn’t probe him,” said BCCI’s ACU chief Ajit Singh Shekhawat. But Rule 32 of the BCCI’s regulations clearly states that any complaint of misconduct has to be decided by a commissioner, who should submit his findings within 15 days.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Vinod Rai, chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators that is running the BCCI, said: “Since he (Saifi) was never a BCCI employee but a personal assistant of the IPL chairman, as soon as he was sacked by the IPL chairman, no probe could be done against him.”
CoA sources said there was nothing the Committee could do in this case. “It’s a sticky situation. But we don’t want to interfere in matters of state associations, our plate is already full with the administrative reforms recommended by the Lodha Commission,” sources said.
While the BCCI effectively buried the case, the sting resonated within the cricketing fraternity. “Shocked to hear about the extent of corruption in up cricket. Young talent being curbed by corrupt agents asking for favours. Hope @ShuklaRajiv ji ensures a fair investigation and justice to the young talent & helps restore UP cricket. I stand by all those who have been exploited,” former India international and UP ex-captain Mohammad Kaif posted on Twitter.
Under pressure, the UPCA asked its ombudsman to look into the charges against Saifi. After two-and-a-half months, the ombudsman, Justice (retd) C K Prasad, cleared Saifi. “I am of the opinion that the allegations… are untrue, untrustworthy and fit to be rejected,” Justice Prasad, a former Supreme Court Judge and current Press Council of India chairman, concluded in his report submitted last month.
Prasad was appointed UPCA ombudsman in 2016 by Saifi’s boss Shukla who was the association’s all-powerful secretary at the time.
Asked about the probe by the UPCA into the allegations against his assistant, and the clean chit, Shukla said: “The person who had complained had been called, the selectors were called, the accused was called. Everyone was called. Proper procedure was followed. Justice Prasad is a very strict man. He called people twice and thrice for the probe.”
During the investigation, Justice Prasad interviewed Rahul Sharma who had retracted his allegations against Saifi, current UPCA secretary and Shukla loyalist Yudhvir Singh, and three selectors.
However, other names that popped up in the sting were not considered. They include Anurag Mishra, who runs a cricket academy in Unnao, and was allegedly threatened by Saifi for writing on social media against the UPCA’s selection procedure. Among those not called was selector Manoj Mudgal — Saifi is heard telling Sharma in the sting operation that Mudgal had scuttled his (Sharma’s) chances of selection.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Justice Prasad said: “You have seen the report. I have nothing to add, nothing to subtract.”
Saifi denied the allegations but confirmed that he was working for Shukla. “Sab khatam ho gaya…. Sir (Rajeev Shukla) ke saath hun, sir ka assistant rahunga. Mera UP cricket se koi lena-dena nahin hai (Everything is over… I am with sir, I will be his assistant. I don’t have anything to do with UP cricket),” he said.