We know it’s so, Joe

On March 23, 2003, I wrote my last match report, ending seven years of non-stop commentary and reports/analysis. By then, ‘match-fixing’ was inextricably embedded in the vocabulary of the cricket fan; it had become increasingly difficult to write with conviction about ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ and ‘turning points’ while deep down inside of you, there was a voice constantly second-guessing; it was difficult to write with any honesty, let alone passion, when deep down inside of you a cynical alter ego kept going, yeah, right, like you don’t know better.

This is a true story [and knowing you guys, the comments field will fill up with speculation on the identity of the central characters. Speculate all you like, I'm not telling]:

There was once an opening batsman known as much for his impeccable technique as for his preternatural sense of the ebbs and flows, the rhythms, of Test cricket. The way he constructed an innings was both masterclass and template: the early watchfulness, the constant use of the well placed single to get away from strike and go to the other end, from where he could observe the behavior of pitch and bowler, the imperceptible change of gears and then, as the lunch interval loomed, the gradual down-shifting of gears as commentators marveled: ‘He is pulling down the shutters… he knows it is important not to give away his wicket just before the break… the onus is on him to return after the break and build his innings all over again… the man is a master of focus…’

I followed along, on radio first and later, on television, and I marveled along with the commentators, the experts. And then, years later, I heard a story — of how, when the toss went the way of his team and this opener went out to bat on the first day of a Test, a close relative would bet with not one, but several, bookies, about whether the batsman would get to 50 before lunch. Or not. ‘So he would get to 45 or so, and there would be 20 minutes to go before lunch, and he would defend like hell, and all these experts would talk about how he is downing shutters for lunch when the fact was, there was a lot of money riding on his not getting 50 before the break,’ is a paraphrase of what one of the bookies who suffered from such well-placed bets said.

That is just one story, of the dozens that come your way once you become a journalist, and gain entree into the Kabuki world of cricket.

So I stopped writing match reports. The intervening years have done nothing to lessen the belief that it was the right thing to do at the right time. [You know those match previews you write, about the best composition of the team for the morrow? What if, even as you wrote about which spinner was likely to be picked, you knew that he was a business partner of the captain? Or if you knew of the increasingly tight nexus between the agents of various players, representatives of corporate sponsors, and even some journalists who are on the payroll of the former? How much conviction can you bring to a match report on, say, a must-win game, when you notice that umpires, so prone to what the ICC calls 'human err', become more human in such games, and also notice that somehow, their sudden attack of human-ness seems to benefit the team under pressure to win? How straight can you keep your face while analyzing the 'strategy', the 'tactical call' a captain of a leading franchise makes in the final of a short-form tournament when, needing to up the run rate, said captain holds back the most explosive batting star in the lineup till the very end? I could go on, but you get the idea].

And then, June 23 this year, I went off this blog as well after the umpteenth post on the mess that was the IPL. Just how much of sanctimonious posturing can you take from the Pawars, the Manohars, the Srinivasans of this world? How do you keep yourself from gagging when people of that ilk talk about ‘conflict of interest’ — calculated, self-serving sound bytes eagerly seized on and amplified by a hypertensive electronic media? Lalit Modi is so crooked he doesn’t need to own a corkscrew, yes — but the cloak of ‘moral indignation’ the BCCI honchos shrouded themselves with, even as they routinely leaked what served their interests while shrilly denying information leaked by the other side, seemed as risible as a clown suit.

So how long do you write this stuff? And why would you even want to?

During this two-month sabbatical, I read a lot to the detriment of my credit card, and also re-read several books as the mood took me. One of the books I revisited was The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, which should be on any discriminating reader’s short list of the best five books on football sport, ever [on wikipedia; a sample chapter].

For those who came in late, it is the story of an American who, thanks to happenstance, discovers the abundant beauty of football, falls passionately in love, and sets out to a remote hamlet in Italy to immerse himself in the area’s ‘miracle team’ for the length of a season. It is part sports narrative, part bildungsroman, part travelog — and wholly compelling, as only a writer of Joe McGinniss’ calibre can make it.

I read it partly because I recalled, from my first reading some years back, that it was far more un-putdownable than the latest out of James Patterson’s ‘thriller factory’. I also hoped, through re-visiting the story of a team that achieved more than the sum of its parts and of a fan’s passionate immersion in sport, to rediscover something of what I had lost. Bad idea — I had forgotten, when I dug my copy of the book out of a packing case labelled ‘Sports’, dusted it off, and settled down with it, how the story ended. This is how [This first passage is a conversation the author overhears]:

“Three goals at most,” a player said.

“Yes,” another answered, “but not three to nothing.”

“No,” said a third, “we must score one.”

“But not too early,” said another, “or it looks like a minaccia” — a threat.

“But three at the most, that is agreed.” There was a murmur of concurrence. I could not be sure how many players were actively involved in this discussion, but it was at least half a dozen.

“Maybe Bari gets greedy and tries for more?”

“Don’t worry. They have been instructed also.”

“How do we score? And when?”

There’s more, but you get the idea. [Try a thought experiment: Imagine a conversation between various Pakistan players about how precisely the fix will be implemented; imagine the experienced Mohammad Asif telling his divinely talented junior that umpires sometimes don't catch no-balls, so the trick is to be sure to transgress by a sufficient margin to compensate for official myopia].

This next passage, towards the very end of the book, describes the match played, the next afternoon, between Castel and Bari [by which point, you need to know, Castel had achieved its goal of staving off relegation, while Bari was desperate to get back into Serie B, from where it had been relegated the previous season]:

As for the match? At the opening whistle Tonino kicked the ball directly to a Bari midfielder who passed to an undefended Bari forward who shot from fifteen yards out as De Juliis, waiting until the ball was safely past him, dove in its direction. That procedure had taken less than twenty seconds.

For the next half hour the teams took turns kicking the ball out of bounds. Then a Bari player sent a long pass downfield to a teammate who was standing in front of the goal, with Luca D’Angelo behind him. Luca, who had blocked a hundred such passes during the season, jumped, but at the same time twisted his head out of the way to ensure it would not make contact with the ball. The Bari player, unimpeded, headed it directly into the net.

Two minutes before the half ended, as a coterie of Castel di Sangro players stood by watching, a Bari midfielder launched a shot from 20 yards. De Juliis gave it a friendly wave as it went by. That made three, so De Juliis knew that his work, such as it might have been, was now finished for the season.

When Joe first overhears the conversation detailing the fix, he goes ballistic, rants and raves, calls the Castel di Sangro players — to whom he is friend and mascot both — traitors. One of the players takes him aside, and explains to him that this is typical for the end of season; that owners get together to fix which team will go through and which team will not, and then orchestrate the results of the final league games accordingly. E molto complicato, Joe, the player tells him. It is complicated. You will not understand.

And then, the player says this:

“I am sorry if this makes you sad. I am sorry if this makes you angry. But I must tell you as a friend that I am sorry also that last night, you believed it was necessary for you to curse and to shout at these players. When one does not understand, Joe, that is the time for the soft voice. Or maybe better, for no voice at all.”

As I typed the above passages, I could hear in the background the breathless voice of Arnab Goswami, driving himself to his usual state of imminent apoplexy over the latest ‘spot-fixing scandal’ and, in the same breath, solving all these ills in a fashion originally invented by Lewis Carroll. Remember?

Queen of Hearts: Who’s been painting my roses red? WHO’S BEEN PAINTING MY ROSES RED? /Who dares to taint / With vulgar paint / The royal flower bed? / For painting my roses red / Someone will lose his head.
Card Painter: Oh please, your majesty, please! It’s all his fault!
Card Painter: Not me, your grace! The ace, the ace!
Queen of Hearts: You?
Card Painter: No, two!
Queen of Hearts: The two, you say?
Card Painter: Not me! The three!
Queen of Hearts: That’s enough! Off with their heads!

[If Charles Dodgson were writing today, this character would be based not on Queen Victoria, but fashioned on the lines of a television anchor we all know and love.]

But I digress. A book by a fan, about discovering and immersing himself in the passion that pure sport can provide, proved to be not such a good choice after all. It began with Joe McGinniss being mesmerized by the innocence, the purity, the beauty of sport; it ended with a terrible loss of innocence.

What of us cricket fans? Those who spent the late eighties and nineties [here's a timeline] pretending that the portents we were seeing were figments of our imagination? Those of us who lost our collective innocence in 2000, as we followed court proceedings in far off South Africa, unable even to echo the plaintive wail of the young White Sox fan to ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson? [That fan's wail was the peg for this column I wrote at the height of the match-fixing furor].

We’ve spent two decades since then, willy nilly suspending our disbelief [Think of this: During this same period, many fine cricket writers, mostly from Cricinfo, dropped out of sight, reinvented themselves, and/or discovered other areas to focus on. Why do you suppose that happened?]. That is easy enough to do for the three hours a Ram Gopal Varma movie takes; it is far harder to do over two decades of following international cricket — but we fans are capable of anything; we managed even that feat.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, it is now possible to be a serial virgin. Innocence, not so much — you can lose it just once, and we’ve been there, done that, and worn that T-shirt to tatters.

Maybe it is time for no voice at all?

PostScript: I’d thought of making today’s post about the ongoing spot-fixing controversy — but for the third day in succession, the noise-to-signal ratio remains hugely weighted towards the former. I plan on giving it a day or so more for the dust to settle, before figuring out what I have to say on this. If anything. Meanwhile, appreciate your thoughts. And discovered links. And anything else apropos.

109 thoughts on “We know it’s so, Joe

  1. Pingback: Crime and lack of punishment | Smoke Signals

  2. Wake up guys! Cricket especially post IPL has tuned into a DIRTY business run by the GAMBLING MAFIA of politicians,cricketers and sports officials-if you do not believe so you are living in fool’s paradise and these guys make money at your expense when yo would be better off making a living rather than being glued to TAMASHA cricket. Waht is tyhe differnce between Indian Government and indian cricket-One is dirtier than the other——————

  3. Pingback: Corrupt Cricket

  4. I believe we are dissecting too much into every uncertainty in a cricket match. I know Dravid once made 12 runs in 96 balls in the oval test. India was way ahead of England that time. They had to declare. But Dravid’s slow innings made sure India couldn’t declare with time to bowl out England. I can bring out 100s of such coincidences and blame it as match fixing. But i strongly trust these players and i question the credibility of the sources.

  5. disclaimer: i’m not a cricket fan. i don’t keep tabs on who won what against who, and i don’t know any specifics about the matches u’re talking about. when i watch cricket, i do it in precisely the same way that i do wwe which means hardly ever. if u’re interested, i stumbled on this in a bout of random url-casing.

    oddly, tho, i find sports writing wonderful, esp given that i grew up reading the hindu. :-). so what i’m asking, then is: if one can’t trust cricket matches, how does one trust cricket writing? if things are as u say they are, and the journalists who follow cricket are aware of it, how does “legitimate” cricket-writing work? do writers withhold praise from players they suspect of being crooked? given that u’re planning to write on cricket again (as u say somewhere in the comments) how do /you/ intend to deal with this Dangerous Knowledge that u hold? am interested, in almost a purely anthropological sense.

  6. nobody found a leading indian batsman’s dismissal at eden gardens in the 1996 world cup semi final fishy? he was beaten, looked back at the keeper, saw the ball in his hand and set off for a run. if it was genuine, his mind was surely molten.

    http://www.cricinfo.com/ci/engine/current/match/65190.html

    i also found the way manoj prabhakar was implicated in fixing quite fishy. almost as if the fixing establishment struck back with a vengeance after the tehelka scoop.

    personally i was a die-hard cricket fan till last decade’s scandal broke, but once the innocence was lost, my interest was totally lost (azhar was my favorite player till he was proven guilty but imho he was one of the very few who got an apt punishment-unlike waugh, warne or akram).

    since then, i have watched every match with a healthy dose of skepticism.

    some questions:
    is it possible for some “mr clean”s to operate in a team when he knows that many of his teammates are corrupt?
    it is impossible for someone in a 17-member squad to be totally ignorant of his teammates’ follies.
    is it possible to fix matches without total collusion?

  7. You know, as you mentioned, the spot fixing issue is not specific to cricket and it is not specific to the last few years when the ‘craziness’ for cricket was at its height. It has been there since for ever and in most of the international sports. So really the issue just reflects our society. If the society is healthy these things do not happen too often. Prem, you mentioned that if someone says, ‘Hey, here is 250K, bowl at least 5 no balls in this match’, if the society is a healthy society then it would have taught the bowler to say ‘NO’. I use the word society but it is really ‘We’. So, when does this all stop? When all the other stuff stops, such as corruption, bribery etc which are bothering any government. And when is that? I hope I live to see it….

    • Am compelled to add my 2 penny worth here- When does corruption take place? What do the world economics teach us? 20%rich rule over 80% poor (have vs the have nots) _in our country the ratio is even more lop sided becos not only do we have the poor we also have the ratio compounded by god knows how many foodless, homeless, clotheless whom we don’t look after! So when u give this kinda person Rs 10/100 he will do anything for u! Thr would u call that survival or corruption?

      U say healthy society? How many of us are willing to compel and pressurize current governance to change? Or do something ourselves?:)

      Now reflect this on cricket the only sport that Pak or India know. Suddenly from a low middle class or lower class socio economic b/g u plummet this kid into a world of glitz, power, wealth, money and what not- is he not going to be impacted?:)

  8. sorry about the multiple responses. remember 20% of americans still believe obama is muslim. over 50% of pakistanis believe that september 11 was a zionist conspiracy. and a large section of population believes that idols of ganesh can drink milk. many swear to have seen this with their own eyes. the world is full of people who’ll believe anything at all.

  9. what if this is really a hatchet-job for some real or perceived slight done by gavaskar to prem? we all know it happens. we all know of crooked and vindictive journalists. (not calling prem one – just stating a possibility).

    what if i go on tv, and start speculating about ‘a certain malyali cricket journalist with a large fan following and a beard’? this saves me from libel apparently, while leaving me free to libel.

    heck, what if i get on the wrong side of a powerful journalist, and he rips my reputation to shreds because he happens to have a wide readership. who is going to listen to me?

    journalists wield far more power than people with a lot of illegal money. it is a power they should use cautiously.

  10. i agree with those who object to inneundo. there is something not quite right about this. something sneaky. something not quite manly. you can’t hit a guy who has no chance of defending himself.

    what if you’re wrong? what if the bookies (not by reputation the most upright of citizens) were lying, or boasting, or simply reporting rumours? it is natural for bookies or fixers to boast of their connections and abilities to fix.

    gavaskar downed the shutters before *every* break. that is old-school batsmanship.

    reporting rumours is only gossip. there has to be a process of corroboration. has prem followed this process? all journalists are expected to do this. ethics applies to journalism as well.

    somebody wold me this story. when sanjay gandhi’s place crashed, indira gandhi was distraught. she scoured the site of plane crash looking for sanjay’s watch because on the back of the watch, sanjay gandhi’s swiss bank account number was carved. it’s a lovely story everybody believed and faithfully repeated, but there was nothing to back it up. everybody swore it was true and they knew someone who was in a position to know. that is the nature of the urban legend.

  11. What a way to come back! But disappointed that you picked two of India’s finest cricketers for your comeback post. Sir..You’re far better writer and it was not required.

    Conspiracy theories are many…going by these match-fixing theories one can say that MSD fixed the final in the recent SL tournament. We can find many instances when he made those bowling changes and also the team selected for the final. But we know MSD is not like that …why? Because he is not short of cash..So is SRT & SMG. They have earned enough legally that can last through their generations. I think we should discuss and try to find a personal or a cricketing reason behind some of those stupid moves.

  12. Indeed once again we become sociologists and question everything. Normally I wouldn’t have taken much notice of the BCCI Corporate Trophy, but it seems like a tournament ripe for fixing- TV coverage but nothing riding on it for players and so easy money to be made. Look at this scorecard from a Group D match between Income Tax and ONGC:

    http://www.cricinfo.com/ci/engine/current/match/474402.html

    can anyone give a non-fixing explanation for how a team with 7 current or former India reps loses to a bunch of no-names by 171 runs???

  13. As a journalist, I agree that doubts come in when you have to write a preview or analyse a strategy and the conviction’s gone. That’s why I like you as a writer because it came from the heart. But since all not matches are fixed and since your analysis may not exactly be the right one in any case, we have to go about our job.
    And if the whole gist of recalling the book paragraphs shows that fixing is all encompassing – for various ends, of course – how does the logic of giving up on writing cricket reports serve your new belief. Then football and all sport writers should give up their profession. I know your response to this will be ‘to each is his own; I did what I felt right’. But then again, by the same logic, if we all know what is wrong with the Pawars and BCCI and ICC, we don’t stop writing about them or giving up the profession altogether. The challenge is to go deeper into every story and if the conscience is saying the strategy by the captain did not make sense, speak to players, the captain himself unless you convince yourself and the readers on your findings. That was the whole point of Rediff sending you to cover the Cronje trial not to just write on who said what and Hansie’s expressions. But to say you stopped writing cricket reports with a ‘I-don’t-want-to-get-my-hands-dirty’ attitude is misleading, for sure in hindsight. The plain explanation is every one moves on from the rigmarole to bigger things in life which is what you did as managing editor now and like all good Cricinfo writers. Whether you agree or not, welcome back from the break. Looking forward to the next blog post.

  14. Prem,

    This is rumor mongering at best. How can a senior and well respected journalist such as yourself write trash like this? You need to substantiate it with some proof and not hide behind fear of libel all the time. Write honestly if you know something to be the truth, else shut your trap. Just because 10 people say someone is dishonest, doesn’t prove it is true. Tomorrow if few people start spreading rumors about your wife or mother, would you start believing it just because 20 people have heard about it?

    • And the point is not what is proven to be true. The point is that how does a fan know what is real and what is not. And as a fan, he has every right to have those doubts, and eventually lose interest in analyzing the game with confirmed reports on incidents else where. You do realize this is his personal blog, right?

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