It is difficult to overstate the popularity of cricket in India, but if you caught the livestream of the recent Indian Premier League match between the Maharashtra Rangers and Palanpur Sports Kings, you might have an idea. The floodlit game was treated like a wild carnival by its spectators, with a mad hullabaloo of cheering and chanting and horn-blowing refusing to let up for the match’s entire three-hour duration. The whole thing was nothing less than a perfect microcosm of the Indian cricket scene.

Except there’s just one problem. The match wasn’t real. Neither the Maharashtra Rangers nor the Palanpur Sports Kings actually exist. If you saw the livestream, then you were actually just watching a group of laborers and farm boys playacting on a scrap of cleared farmland in the remote village of Molipur, about 400 miles north of Mumbai. The score had been decided ahead of time. The crowd sounds were piped in from the Internet. The entire thing was an impressively elaborate scam, designed solely to cheat a handful of Russian gamblers out of their money.

M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, in Bengaluru, holds as many as 40,000 cheering cricket fans.

Earlier this month, a special operations unit of the Mehsana police raided a match (between the similarly nonexistent Chennai Fighters and Gandhinagar Challengers) following a tip-off from the public. What they discovered was mind-blowing in its ingenuity.

According to an investigating officer, an Indian man had traveled to Russia, and started to pique the interest of his new drinking chums around the notion of betting on Indian cricket. Once they were sold on the idea, a second scammer went about recruiting low-paid locals in rural India to pose as professional cricket players, offering them the equivalent of five dollars a day for their service.

A full fake tournament was schemed up, with several “teams” pretending to represent major Indian cities. Ground was cleared on a farm, high-definition cameras and professional floodlights were set up, and matches were live-streamed to YouTube. Meanwhile, the Russian viewers placed bets on the messaging app Telegram. The scammers followed the direction of these bets on their laptops and used walkie-talkies to instruct the umpires on how the games should proceed, to maximize their profit.

And then, because every good scammer knows that the devil is in the details, the organizers also hired a soundalike of the well-known commentator Harsha Bhogle to narrate the matches. The entire thing was seamless and earned the organizers thousands of dollars.

Neither the Maharashtra Rangers nor the Palanpur Sports Kings actually exist.

But sadly, it ended far too soon. Just nine matches were played, getting the pretend teams to the quarterfinals of their fake tournament. It has been alleged that an entire year-long schedule had been planned, which would have gone forward had it not been for the raid.

But what’s really amazing about this scam is that it worked at all. To look back at the footage of any of the matches, what’s retrospectively clear is just how terrible it looks. Ignore the crowd sounds and the chyron, and all you can really see are a bunch of shambling amateurs loping around on an impractically dusty pitch. In some matches, the footage intermittently cuts to wide shots showing that—far from being held in a packed stadium—the grounds simply back onto some sad-looking trees. Stare closely enough and you’ll see that the pitch itself, the narrow close-cut rectangle where the bulk of the action plays out, is a scrap of white carpet that has been nailed into the ground.

The Mumbai Indians pose with their trophy after winning the Indian Premier League cricket final against the Rising Pune Supergiant, 2017.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Indian cricket would have been able to smell a rat instantly. Cricket in India is big business. The world’s three richest players, who have a combined worth of almost half a billion dollars, are all Indian. Each year, the sport’s governing body rakes in $100 million more than Cricket Australia, its closest competitor. The matches take place in glittering arenas, and the teams are treated like rock stars.

But this scam was never designed to fool fans. Instead, it was all for the benefit of some distant Russian gamblers, who probably wouldn’t have cared if they’d used walking sticks instead of bats so long as it came with the prospect of a quick buck.

Four men have now been arrested for running the operation, all of them hailing from the same village. But there’s a sense that this might go larger. The latest theory is that the organizers were in fact pawns hired by a shadowy Russian figurehead known only as Efimov, possibly using the renowned theoretical physicist Vitaly Efimov as a Heisenberg-style alias.

The deeper this goes, the less charming it gets. What had the potential to be a charming Ocean’s Eleven story has now begun to take on the murky shadows of the Russian underworld. But if you ignore all that, it’s hard not to be won over by the sheer ingenuity of the racket. The game may be over, but you can guarantee that Bollywood is all over the rights.

Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals