Exactly 23 months ago, in the 2018 ICC Under-19 World Cup final, India chased down Australia’s total of 216 with eight wickets and 11.1 overs to spare. The player of the match was opener Manjot Kalra, who scored an unbeaten century to guide his team to the title.

And as the new year began, it was announced on Wednesday that the Delhi and District Cricket Association Ombudsman has suspended Kalra from playing Ranji Trophy for a year and age-group cricket for two years for age fraud during his Under-16 and Under-19 days.

This development raises an obvious and important question – what about the result of the 2018 Under-19 World Cup?

In that tournament, the left-handed batsman scored 252 runs from five games at an average of 84. It was a significant contribution, the bulk of which came in the all-important final, and went a long way in helping India lift the coveted trophy for a record-extending fourth time.

But if he has been proven guilty of age fraud, should India still be the Under-19 world champions?

According to the International Cricket Council’s Player Eligibility Regulations for Under-19 events, players can be allowed to represent their country if they are ‘aged under 19 on the 31 August immediately preceding the date on which the first match in the relevant tournament is due to take place’.

Here’s what this means: The 2018 Under-19 World Cup started on January 12 that year. Kalra, who was born on January 15, 1999, was 18 years old on August 31 of the previous year. Thus, he satisfied the ICC clause. In fact, he just about made the cut as his 19th birthday was during the World Cup itself.

Now, Kalra’s latest ban implies that he did an age fraud of at least one year if not more, which means he was definitely overage during the 2018 Under-19 World Cup and wasn’t eligible to be a part of it.

Here are the other key points from ICC’s Age Verification Regulations for Under-19 events:

  • Once a player has been selected, they need to submit the ‘Age Determination Form’ along with the ‘Age Determination Documents’ to their country’s cricket board. The board must then review the documents and ensure that the player complies with the eligibility regulation mentioned above.
  • The board then has to submit all the documents to the ICC at least one month before the start of the tournament.
  • The ICC then reviews the documents and can ask for additional proof to verify a player’s age. If the player fails or refuses to submit that information, she/he can be disqualified by the ICC immediately.
  • Once the ICC has reviewed all the documents, they can disqualify a player if they aren’t satisfied by the proof they have received. The player then has the option of lodging an appeal.
  • During the tournament, too, the chairman of the event’s Technical Committee or her/his delegate may select (at random, or otherwise) any player for another check. If the ICC isn’t satisfied by the information provided, it may disqualify the player at that point as well.
  • Importantly, if the Technical Committee, during the tournament, disqualifies more than one player from the same team, it may disqualify the entire squad from the event.

The rules stated above raise three questions.

Firstly, if Kalra was overage at the time of the Under-19 World Cup in 2018, both the BCCI and the ICC need to share the blame for it. It was the BCCI’s duty to ensure that they vetted the age determination documents carefully. And the ICC, too, evidently failed on its part to notice the fraud, despite the many provisions it has armed itself with in its law book. The case is even more dodgy because Kalra was under the scanner for age fraud in September 2017. Surely, a better system would have ensured he did not take part in the World Cup.

Secondly, the aforementioned regulations state that the entire squad can be disqualified only if more than one member is proven guilty. Why is that? How did the ICC decide on this number? Is it actually saying that just one player’s performance is not enough to decide the outcome of a match? Surely, Kalra’s century in the final was one of the most important contributions of the match. Also, each individual’s performance has a bearing on every other player’s performance; it has a definite impact on the momentum of the match.

Lastly, the ICC’s laws don’t say anything about what happens if a player is caught for age fraud at a later date, which, of course, is the case with Kalra. If the ICC, despite all the regulations in place, failed to spot a case of fraud before or during the tournament, should not there be provisions to rectify a mistake at a later stage?

Stringent measures needed?

Two years ago, sprint legend Usain Bolt was stripped of a gold medal he had won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The reason for that was his teammate in the 4x100 meter relay race, Nesta Carter, had been found guilty of a doping violation by the International Olympic Committee. The entire Jamaican team had to pay the price for Carter’s mistake, and Bolt missed out on becoming a triple-triple Olympic gold medalist.

The important thing to note here is that the IOC could right a wrong because it had stored Carter’s urine sample all those years and followed a practice of running tests even years later, since traces of doping violation often show up at a much later date. The ICC, on the other hand, has no regulation in place for taking retroactive decisions.

Rahul Dravid, the India Under-19 coach when Prithvi Shaw led the side to an unbeaten triumph culminating with Kalra’s ton, had said during his MAK Pataudi Memorial lecture in 2015 that the “scourge of overage players is no different to fixing and corruption”.

“I think of this overage business as dangerous and even toxic and to me, gives rise to a question: If a child sees his parents and coaches cheating and creating a fake birth certificate, will he not be encouraged to become a cheat? He is being taught to lie by his own elders. At 14, it may be in the matter of the age criteria, at 25 it may be fixing and corruption. How are the two different in any way? In both cases, is it not blatant cheating?” the former India captain had said.

What’s the deterrent?

Harsh as it may sound, should the ICC strip India of the Under-19 World Cup title they won in 2018? It could be argued that such a decision would be unfair to the rest of the Indian players. But in a team sport, there is no denying that each player’s performance has a bearing on the result, a fact even the great Usain Bolt was made to learn at the biggest stage. And if the young Indian players were to feel hard done by such a decision, what about the Australians who, perhaps, are the worthy champions and were robbed of their moment of glory.

“The truth is that the player who has faked his age might make it at the junior level not necessarily because he is better or more talented, but because he is stronger and bigger,” Dravid had said five years ago. “We all know how much of a difference a couple of years can make at that age. That incident will have another ripple effect: an honest player deprived of his place by an overage player, is disillusioned. We run the risk of losing him forever.”

The ICC has an opportunity to set the right example and put a strong deterrent in place. Age fraud in age-group tournaments defeats the entire purpose of the exercise and surely, the ICC needs to make the players and the boards realise that there is a lot more at stake than just a ban.