New Delhi: When he was declared the Man of the Match in the Under-19 cricket World Cup final last year, Indian batsman Manjot Kalra could not have guessed that he would soon be under the lens of Delhi Police along with his parents.
According to the chargesheet filed against the Kalras by Delhi Police on 13 June, his birth date is 15 January 1998, not 1999, which means he was probably not eligible to be in India’s under-19 team.
Aside from Kalra, 11 other male cricketers are accused of the same offence in the Delhi Police chargesheet. Just about a week after the chargesheet was filed, on 20 June, the BCCI banned Mumbai Indians bowler Rasikh Salam for two years for the same offence.
ThePrint analyses the phenomenon of age fraud in sports, how prevalent it is in India, and how the authorities are countering it.
What is age fudging?
In sports, age fudging is when a player deliberately misrepresents her or his age to gain advantage over opponents or take part in age-restricted competitions. Players, their parents and even coaches are usually complicit in this. The offenders produce false documentation of school certificates, PAN cards, Aadhaar cards, passports and sometimes even birth certificates.
Arun Mendiratta, Chairperson of the Medical Commission at Athletics Federation of India (AFI), told ThePrint that medical tests for players take place in the 16-18 years category. It comprises of a dental examination and radiology tests, involving X-rays of hands and wrists.
He also said that types of medical tests vary across age groups. “In nearly all cases we conduct medical examination only when there is an allegation of age fraud or there are instances of dubious pass records. Physical appearance is not a factor that is taken to judge one’s age because players’ height and weight can vary due to many reasons – including if they are vegetarians or meat eaters”.
He, however, added that medical tests are “extremely reliable”. In cases where players do not fit in the official age group by some days, they are also given a benefit of doubt, he said.
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Cricket – divided by federations, united by fraud
Cricket, India’s most popular game, has witnessed age cheating on a large scale. Apart from the 11 players facing an investigation by the Delhi Police, the BCCI had, in September 2015, banned 22 players of the Delhi & District Cricket Association (DDCA) from taking part in age-group cricket tournaments.
The Delhi Police had registered FIRs against the parents of these 22 players in 2014 after complaints were made by former Delhi cricketer and former BJP MP Kirti Azad that they were involved in producing fake birth certificates.
In 2016 again, the BCCI had suspended seven senior female cricketers and 12 under-19 male players of Odisha for a year.
Speaking to ThePrint, former cricketer Bishan Singh Bedi, who has been vocal about the menace, said, “I hope the chargesheets reach their lawful conclusion. As a nation, we are struggling for credibility in various issues. With cut throat competitions today, we somehow do not teach our players to be good human beings.”
Athletics is one area where age cheating can be ‘most advantageous’. With speed and stamina dependent on physical strength and endurance, older athletes have an outright advantage over younger ones.
In 2013, the AFI had banned six states (Delhi, Haryana, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) from taking part in various events for fielding ‘overaged’ athletes. As many as 44 players were found to be overaged.
In their statement, the federation had said: “In order to curb the overage and doping menace the Executive Committee of AFI has decided to enforce stringent measures on both erring athletes and their respective state units.”
Karan Singh, a former athlete who is now founder & head coach of the Indian Track Foundation, said, “Age cheating is extremely hard to fight. How does one contest Aadhaar cards and even birth certificates?”.
Singh also added that the menace is more prevalent in North India compared to the country’s southern parts.
At the 16th National Youth Athletics Championship in Raipur earlier this year, 41 athletes had failed age verification tests. Among them was also Nisar Ahmed – Delhi’s 100m sprinter and fastest runner at the Ministry of Sports’ Khelo India Games. Ahmed had failed the wrist-bone density test administered by Mendiratta.
Ankita Bhambri, former tennis player and current Fed Cup coach who is also a member of the All India Tennis Association’s (AITA) selection committee, said there are few cases of age fudging in the sport.
Yet, in 2017, it was reported that more than 50 parents of tennis players had submitted a petition to AITA to impose strict guidelines to curb this menace.
AITA had then formed a three-member committee that puts onus on parents to call out age fudging. The association’s note said: “Any complaint as regard to possible age manipulation is to be forwarded to this committee with relevant documentary evidence and a draft of Rs 2000 as security, so that further action can be taken”.
But taking action against players is something which seems to have remained elusive. “Documents gathered about a national tennis championship winner showed that she had fudged her age. But all that AITA did was shift her from U-12 to U-14 category,” said the parent of another player, who did not wish to be named.
In December 2018, 37 parents of badminton players had moved the Karnataka High Court asking for a directive to the Badminton Association of India (BAI) to implement a policy to detect and eliminate age fraud from the sport. The BAI had then deactivated IDs of players who were found carrying two different birth certificates and asked them to undergo a medical examination.
Then BAI Secretary General Ajay Singhania had also said that players who had not registered birth certificates within a year of their being born should get tested in a government hospital and submit documents.
Pullela Gopichand, a former badminton player and the Chief National Coach of Indian badminton team, told PTI earlier: “I think firm decisions and strong examples are needed to ensure that age fudging stops. There should be a ban on players too.”
Crackdown on age fraud
In 2010, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports had introduced a National Code Against Age Fraud in Sports to ensure fair play as well as prevent, detect and penalise such offences.
The authorities, under the scope of this code, are: Recognised national sports federations, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), sports control boards managed by state governments and Union Territories.
Neelam Kapur, Director General of SAI, said, “We are implementing the code with utmost seriousness, especially in the Khelo India Games.”
When asked why age fraud is so rampant in India, she said, “Sports has been used as a means to get government jobs here and not as a competitive physical activity. Earlier, the government did not give importance to problem of age fraud. But things are changing now. The number of players fudging their age has come down.”
Parental pressure is regarded as another reason why age cheating takes place. Bhambri said, “Parents are extremely serious about sports now and set really high goals for their wards. Earlier you would think about turning professional when you started doing well. But today youngsters come to learn with the aim of becoming professional athletes.”
“Age fudging cannot happen without the approval of parents, coaches and officials collectively,” said Bedi. “ Somewhere along the line, there is a need to set an example. A wrong is a wrong even if everybody is doing it. And a right is a right even if no one is doing it.”
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