‘BCCI tried to bribe me’. Indeed?

“A particular South Indian lobby tried to bribe me to withdraw the case,” Verma told Mail Today on Wednesday. “It offered me many things, including money, but I did not buckle under any pressure and continued my fight for cleansing Indian cricket of corruption. They told me that I would benefit a lot if I withdrew the case. They also tried to bribe me in many other ways.”

The man making the allegation is Aditya Verma, secretary of the Cricket Association of Bihar (CAB), whose PIL led to the Bombay High Court declaring the BCCI-appointed two-member inquiry committee “illegal”.

When reading this, bear in mind that the CAB was de-recognized by the BCCI over allegations of corruption, and this is now the subject of a prolonged court battle.  Prima facie, that would suggest that Verma and his association have a vested interest in throwing mud at the BCCI.

However, without suggesting that the CAB is a well-run state body (which state association actually is?), the BCCI taking action against one of its members over corruption is risible, to say the least. We are, after all, talking of the same body that filed a police case against Jagmohan Dalmiya for misappropriation of over Rs 46 crore, then when it became expedient wrote off that amount, and today has (illegally) installed him as interim president. (Details documented here).

That — and many other instances of state associations being allowed to get away with murder — leads to the inference that the BCCI uses the carrot and stick policy as part of its standard operating procedure; that it has institutionalized the use of bribery and/or threats to get its way (Read). And this in turn suggests that Verma’s allegation cannot be totally dismissed as muck-throwing by a disgruntled official.

Here is Verma in his own words:

“A particular South Indian lobby tried to bribe me to withdraw the case,” Verma told Mail Today on Wednesday. “It offered me many things, including money, but I did not buckle under any pressure and continued my fight for cleansing Indian cricket of corruption. They told me that I would benefit a lot if I withdrew the case. They also tried to bribe me in many other ways.”

He, however, refused to divulge the names of the people who tried to bribe him to withdraw the case, saying the matter was sub-judice. Then, Verma said, the lobby tried to intimidate him by telling him he was putting the career of his young cricketer son in jeopardy by fighting against the BCCI.

“They asked me. Why are you playing with the future of the career of your cricketer son?”. However, Verma, whose son plays under-19 cricket, refused to give up his fight. “I have been fighting single-handedly against the BCCI for the legitimate rights of the Bihar cricket for the past three years,” he said. “I am not one to give in to any kind of pressure.” Verma said this was the first time when the BCCI had tasted defeat in a court case.

The allegation is in and off itself serious; it is of a piece with how the BCCI has operated in the past. And it is because the BCCI has been allowed to get away with each individual act of corruption, extortion and general malfeasance that it has become increasingly emboldened; why each successive act has been more egregious than the last.

It is time (most would argue that it is way past time) that a line was drawn in the sand — and the way to do that, here, is by naming the people involved, by bringing it out in the open, and by seeking official/judicial intervention.

Verma refuses to divulge the names by saying the matter is sub-judice, but that cat won’t jump — if it is, if this combination of bribe and threat is part of his official case, then he shouldn’t be talking about it at all. Doing a tease, then refusing to go the whole hog, does everyone — the game, the fans — a disservice; it airs an allegation but does not substantiate it. Which is why I hope Verma, who now flies the flag for probity and has set himself up as the crusader against corruption, now does a full Monty, either through the legal mechanism or in public.

Now is as good a time as any to let sunlight into a body that has traditionally operated in deep shadow. There have been numerous opportunities in the past, and the game has paid, continues to pay, a heavy price for missing them. At the risk of being sententious, I really hope this latest allegation doesn’t turn out to be yet another one day sensation that is forgotten by tomorrow.

 

 

 

Paradise Lost

And so I find myself in an emotional cauldron; in a sport I love, in a tournament whose cricket I genuinely believe in, but in an atmosphere, even if created by a few, tinged with moral decay and danger. I feel sadness and fear. I am angry very often, but from time to time expectation wells up within: that my sport might emerge stronger, that out of pain a better sport will evolve.

I am partly in denial; I want my sport to embody everything I have experienced within it: beauty, bravery and flair, everything that brings a smile. I want to be happy, I want to shout out that good vastly overwhelms bad. But another part of me is hoping that whatever has to tumble out does, that cricket finds its deepest caverns so those conspiring there can be exposed; that cricket feels so much pain that it will do what it takes to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Neither emotion is viable, for I know cricket will continue to exist, like everything else, with the nicest and the bravest alongside the cowardly and the machiavellian.

In his latest think piece for Cricinfo, Harsha speaks of sadness, of fear and of anger — and all of these emotions are reflected in the minds of fans. SMSes from friends, Twitter posts I noticed in passing, blogs written by cricket fans, emails — they all speak of the same feelings.

To that list I have one entry to add: bereavement. The abiding sense of loss that is a direct consequence of being deprived of something dear to me.

Losing mom, then losing the last vestiges of faith in a game that has captivated me (and, for a time, even paid for my daily bread and butter) since childhood, all in the same week, is I guess just an exemplar of misfortunes not coming singly — but never mind that.

What I wonder now, amidst these ruins, is this: how do I watch a cricket match again?

Earlier, when a batsman of the highest caliber had a brain-fade and got out to a silly shot, I’d marvel at the impact of pressure on even the strongest and most skilled.

Earlier, when a bowler known to get bounce and turn bowled flat and short, I’d wonder why his muscle memory was breaking down, whether he had developed some form of twinge in shoulder or arm and was attempting to soldier on regardless.

Earlier, when towels were brandished on the field of play I wondered whether, unseen and unnoticed by us in front of our TV screens, dew had begun to play a part in proceedings, and if so how it would impact on the remaining course of play.

Earlier, when an umpire flubbed a simple LBW appeal I’d think, the guy is human, look at the demands on him — he has to be looking down, monitoring the landing of the bowler’s front foot and less than a second later, he had to have shifted his gaze to the other end and computed a dozen different parameters relating to where the ball landed and the line it held or did not and movement or lack thereof and bounce or lack thereof and batsman’s intent to play or not and… it is a miracle they get any call right, I’d think.

Now? What do I do now, when every action on the field of play makes me wonder?

Is that player adjusting his wrist band because it was getting sweat-soaked, or because oh god no…

That batsman who played a shot that would have provoked censure in schoolboy cricket — ‘What was he thinking?’ has now become ‘Who paid him how much to do that?’

That player who was promoted out of turn while far better batsmen waited in the hut? ‘Captain’s gamble’ has now become ‘bookie’s fix’.

That fast full ball down the leg side? I used to think that was the bowler second-guessing the batsman’s intent to charge him and adjusting accordingly. Now I think, uh oh, is that a means of ensuring that the target for runs delivered in that over is met?

That umpiring mistake? In my mind, ‘human error’ has been replaced by ‘human greed’.

Harsha speaks in his piece of the hope that this present mess will end in the eventual cleansing of cricket (a hope, incidentally, that has been expressed by him, and so many well-meaning commentators like him, any number of times these past 13 years — despite repeated manifestations of evidence to the contrary).

I agree with his premise that such a tragedy is opportunity in disguise; that it can, properly utilized, result in leaving the game healthier, cleaner than before.

Skim through this, however — what conclusion can you draw other than that the sport and its administrators have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

There are very, very few illusions that survive our childhood. In fact, there is just one — that sport is clean and pure and wholesome and good. Thanks to the greed of the few and the willful blindness of those who run this game, even that last illusion now lies shattered.

In a little under 48 hours I have to be at this holy place in Kerala, to consign the last vestiges of my mother to the elements. Seems to me that at the same time, I will also be ridding myself of the last remaining vestiges of my innocence; mourning the end of one of the very, very few things that were capable of giving me unalloyed joy.

Given time, I could forgive the administrators of this sport for all their sins of omission and commission. But this?

How do you forgive someone for taking from you the one thing that was clean, and good, and wholesome?

PS: Just how scary is it when Lalit Modi makes sense?

Isn’t Srinivasan’s conflict of interest (he is the BCCI president and owns Chennai Super Kings) hurting the IPL?

Of course! I’ve been saying that for years — and for years no one has listened. Now the penny is beginning to drop. I was wrongly accused of having an interest in franchises and wrongly castigated as a consequence. The board president’s ownership of Chennai is indisputable but for him, it doesn’t seem to matter. Of course it is hurting the IPL. It strikes at the very credibility of the tournament and the results are there for all to see. Strangely, everyone has just shrugged shoulders and let him get on with it.

Has Srinivasan succeeded in diluting the powers of the IPL commissioner?

It seems no one else has any direct power these days and it is as if no one can speak unless given permission. When this latest spot-fixing scandal was reported, the IPL commissioner did not say anything. The paying public, the people who fill the stadiums, deserve answers but the man who runs the specific tournament in question was nowhere to be seen. Now that might not be entirely down to him, I don’t know, but the lack of communication was terrifying. The problem was massive to start with but so much extra damage is done if the people directly responsible for the tournament don’t react.

And a very happy 2011 to all

So I made a New Year resolution, to blog every day (and to apologize for the prolonged absence late last year, during which many of you apparently came, repeatedly, looking for updates. Sorry — life happened).

On second thoughts… the resolution is to blog every working day.

Actually, second guessing the second thoughts, it is to blog every working day that I am actually at my desk.

Oh hell — let’s just say, to blog more regularly, and leave it at that.

Here, for now — with plans to migrate the blog to a Yahoo platform at the earliest opportunity. Details of that, as and when it happens.

Meanwhile, it’s great to start the year with a Test — a meaningful one against a quality opponent. Perfect kick off to the next 12 months which, besides distractions like the World Cup and the IPL, contains away tours of England and the West Indies.

Day one of the Newlands Test (kicking back and watching the play was the perfect start to the year; having to return to the work station today is not quite so perfect) was a bit of a curate’s egg — patchy excellence where sustained brilliance was called for.

MS winning a rare toss was the best way to start. Bowling first? I’m personally not convinced it was an attempt to give the Indian bowlers the best conditions — the decision seemed to be influenced, at least in part, by Dhoni’s desire to spare the batsmen the pain facing Steyn and Morkel on a seaming track in overcast conditions would entail. Hence my comment on Twitter at the time of the toss:

I hope, when MS opted to bowl, that he calculated the advantage of 2 hours good bowling conditions against chasing over 200 in 4th innings.

Nothing I saw in the day’s play caused a revision of that initial thought. Zak bowled with his usual competence, and got Smith out yet again to the ploy of moving the ball away consistently, each time drawing the batsman further across the stumps, before bringing one back in sharply to trap the Proteas captain in front. You’d have thought, given the number of times Smith has fallen to this trap, that he would have worked out an antidote by now — but no.

On a wicket without the bounce of Durban, and with just enough cloud cover and sub-surface moisture to help the bowlers move the ball in the air and off the wicket, the heartening bit was that all three Indian seamers hit the optimal fuller length. Not so heartening though was the fact that they seemed to have misplaced the edge they had found in the second Test — there was a pacifist quality to their bowling, and how much of it is the result of MS publicly reprimanding Sreesanth for kicking over the verbal traces is anyone’s guess.

There is no denying that the Kerala pacer tends to overdo things. This, after all, is the guy who explained his behavior by saying he was merely attempting to see “how far he could go” — apparently his motormouth tendencies are motivated by a spirit of scientific inquiry.

The Sreesanth story follows a predictable cycle: He makes it to the team. He is on his best behavior. He gets a few wickets. He loses his head. He behaves in execrable fashion. He gets a final warning — the latest of many such final warnings. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a pity, really, because the lad is a good talent, if he could be persuaded to focus on his already excellent skills.

All of that said, I am not sure MS should have taken his grouse to the public forum, and spoken to the media about his strictures to Sreesanth — that is a conversation that should have been confined to the dressing room, preferably in the presence of the coach, Zak, and some of the senior players. To publicly excoriate a player in that fashion was surprising — and unless I am misreading the signs, it appears to have cast a dampener on the ebullience of the entire bowling unit. Through the day, there were brief glimpses of quality from Zak, Sree and Ishant — but not the sustained intent, the aggression, that could have helped India utilize the toss to optimal effect. The bowling — and strangely, even the in-out field setting — was indicative more of a desire to contain, than to smash through — and at close, the unbeaten 68-run Prince-Kallis partnership, and the score of 232/4, meant South Africa had done far better than they had any right to expect after losing four top batsmen, including the prolific Amla and de Villiers, relatively cheap. (Keep in mind that the average first innings score in Newlands hovers around the 235-240 mark).

The most inexplicable aspect of the day’s play was the sustained use of Harbhajan as a defensive, ‘holding’, bowler. At no time did MS look to attack with his “star spinner”; the fields were routinely set to contain; the lines Harbhajan bowled reflected that desire, and the upshot was that neither could he break through, nor did he contain (his personal run rate of 3.03 is merely a fraction below the Proteas overall run rate of 3.13).

An ideal (from the Indian point of view) situation would have seen the Proteas end the day 5/6 wickets down, for just around 200 — absent such a result, the advantage of the toss is nullified. As matters stand, India has a brief window of opportunity when play resumes today — an hour, max, to knock over Kallis, Prince and Boucher and ensure that SA ends up with a sub-300 score. The trap for India now, though, is the choice of bowlers to take advantage of that first hour — the ball is 74 overs old, and if Dhoni lets two of his seamers lead the attack in the first hour, they will begin to tire by the time the new ball becomes due. If on the other hand he opts to bowl one seamer and Harbhajan in tandem, the likely result will be to allow Prince and Kallis to settle back in, and set themselves for a big partnership in conditions that, as the pitch dries further, will favor batting.

To borrow from the Ravi Shastri template for a moment — “the first session will be crucial”. For once, the cliche is true. See you back here at lunch, with a quick update.

And again — here’s to 2011; may it be the best year ever.

Falling out of love

Gleanings from a weekend spent reading corruption-related content on various newsmagazines and sites:

A beleaguered people seethed at the betrayal, at the battering of their hope, at their realisation that cricket, as every sport, can at best only be a metaphor for the nation playing it. Pakistan, today, is cricket’s graveyard, its players the hangmen of the game. But they have acquired such disrepute, such infamy, only because so many of Pakistan’s cherished values lie crushed, because its politics has become pathological.

People understood this instinctively and, for a change, reacted spontaneously, refusing to spin conspiracy theories. In Lahore, an angry mob pelted rotten tomatoes on donkeys named Asif, Aamer, Kamran (Akmal) and Salman. One of them said, “We are already facing so many problems…they took away our one source of joy.” One Wajahat commented on Facebook, “In 1999 you (the Pakistani cricket team) broke my heart. But I was 16, and I learnt to love you again. I fear I am too old to love you again.” A sarcastic SMS doing the rounds reads, “We, the flood-stricken people of Pakistan, salute the worthy members of our national cricket team for their daring move to collect huge donations for the flood victims, even through match-fixing.” Newspapers howled, TV channels bristled and commentators said cricket’s hangmen must be made to pay.

Outlook’s story underlines the essential tragedy of the latest developments: that the greed of the few irreparably harms the many. ‘I fear I am too old to love you again’ ranks, on the poignance scale, with ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe!’

The magazine also features Dawn correspondent Kamran Shafi on the need to root out the present administration and reformat the running of Pakistan cricket; what he says serves as a cautionary tale for an IPL, and an administration, obsessed with la dolce vita [And while on cautionary tales, here’s Rohit Mahajan, also in Outlook, on why India is not inoculated against this evil]:

There is only one way for Pakistan cricket to go, and that is to dismiss the whole shoot: PCB, team and all. Our players should be banned from playing any international cricket for five years during which time cricket academies should be set up at the district level which should train players and form two teams each. These teams should then play each other with the winners playing the winning teams from other districts. At the national level, matches could be held between provincial teams and from this pool of talent, a national side chosen.

The PCB’s secretariat (yes, they have a plush secretariat too, including executive dining and living facilities and accommodations that would shame a seven-star hotel) ought to be cut down to half its huge size and proper accounting procedures instituted. The royal style—fat salaries, first-class travel, five-star hotels, daily allowances that would put even a prince’s privy purse to shame—that the PCB bosses arrogate to themselves should be controlled and the money, thus wasted, spent on the cricket academies.

Within the fraternity of journalists covering cricket, a talking point for quite some time is the increasing power and pervasive influence of the agent, who in recent times has been known to go outside of the stated brief of managing the player-client’s finances, and intervene in cricketing aspects up to and including selection of players. Mahajan’s piece elaborates on that theme:

Insiders say that agents chasing players, and trying to build relationships with officials, is a serious problem. “This is rampant in domestic cricket,” says a source. “In Delhi, for instance, some officials are long-time betters and have links with bookies. In some states, selectors receive a cut from agents for selecting their players.” The source says that at the national level, agents have become less important due to a BCCI decision—paid selectors. “Earlier, agents used to be seen taking selectors to dinner etc, and it was believed they influenced selection,” he says. “Now at least in public they don’t hang out together.”

Agents and the access they have to the players, or the access they facilitate for others, could also cause problems. The ICC suggests no or limited access to players during matches, but agents and their friends are always with players. During the Asia Cup earlier this year, the Sri Lankan chief of security wrote to the acu that a woman had gained access to an Indian player’s room. “The situation was managed, but it’s a potentially hazardous, in which a woman could be used to lure a player towards wrongdoing,” says a source.

A senior BCCI official says it’s time there was some regulation of the agents: “There are some good ones, but one or two are known to be of dubious integrity, misleading players about deals, attempting to influence selection. It might be a good idea to register agents, like in football and nba, so that there could be a thorough check of their antecedents.”

And in his piece, Mike Marqusee tangentially underlines the reason behind the growing power of the agent:

One of the sad but striking parts of the News of the World recording shows the way the agent-cum-fixer Mazhar Majeed treats the young cricketers—as inferior social beings dependent on his largesse. And they seem to accept him as such. After all, he has the money and the connections, just like all the others they have been told to obey and admire.

India Today has a story that hits the right spots with its toxic mix of corrupt cricketers, the fix, and the underworld — but speaking for myself, I am not entirely convinced by this one. For something on this scale to have happened — and remember, the Rs 50 crore cited here is not the sum total of the bets, merely the extent of losses suffered — I have to believe that such astronomical sums were wagered on the possibility of only two no-balls being bowled in course of an innings. Stretches credulity, that — fix or no, there is no bowling side in the world that can guarantee to bowl only a specific number of no balls in course of an innings; the no-ball [the non-fixed ones, that is] is an involuntary, heat of the moment act, mostly caused by a temporary blip in the bowler’s circuitry. You can as a bowler/bowling team guarantee to bowl one on demand; the converse, that you can guarantee not to bowl one, is a bridge too far for me to contemplate crossing.

To understand a crime, you have to understand context — and when it comes to Pakistan cricket, there are few that can explain context better than Osman Samiuddin. Two pieces of his that I read over the weekend provided context and backstory — from The Guardian and The Times of India.

Along with context, there is this: the past is always prologue, in cricket as in life. Gideon Haigh delves into the past, to provide a lesson for the present:

To cricket’s antique traditions, we must turn for a parallel crisis. Because, for much of its early history, from its rise in the Restoration to deep into the Regency, cricket and gambling were inseparable associates. The nobility and gentry who fostered the game understood about the game what the match- and spot-fixers do now – that in a gaming sense it is a target-rich environment, full of possibilities for wagers.

The oldest surviving version of cricket’s laws features extensive provision for the settling of bets.

Cricket also grew rich in potential for malpractice – to the point of almost causing its own downfall.

As one repentant player explained: ”Matches were bought and matches were sold, and gentlemen who meant honestly lost large sums of money, till the rogues beat themselves at last. They over-did it; they spoilt their own trade …”

What ended up saving cricket was that it became so obviously corrupt as to endanger its increasingly lucrative trade as a spectator sport, which was enough to scare its practitioners and impresarios straight.

That’s the view from the world at large; me, I am content — no, not content, more like resigned — to allow this drama to play itself out under the aegis of the ICC; to wait for a determination of guilt and innocence and all shades in-between. As Haigh said in his piece:

Cricket has in its hands the instruments of its own deliverance. The question is whether it has the courage to use them.

PS: I’m off, starting tomorrow, for an off-site that will take up the rest of the week. Expect blogging to be desultory to non-existent, for the duration.

The wellspring of corruption

Writing in Cricinfo this morning, Harsha Bhogle makes a point that plugs straight into something a cricketer and a friend told me last night.

Why do I play this game?

If the answer is that you want to excel at the one thing that you are good at, that you want to find the limits of your ability, that you relish the challenge of a competition, that you get goose pimples putting on your country’s colours and walking out to the expectations of your countrymen, you will pursue those goals and take whatever reward you get. Invariably it will be handsome.

If the answer is that you want to earn a good living as quickly as you can, that you want to bask in the comforts of the material pleasures that your talent delivers to you, you will take whatever financial inducement comes your way. Inevitably it will be tainted, inevitably the dessert will be laced.

It is our choices that tell us who we are.

But these choices can be influenced; sometimes, and I hope never, young players can be coerced into walking down a specific path. And so it comes down to the air they breathe when their minds are still fragile. It could be the air of excellence that drives a young man to newer heights of achievement. Or it could be the putrid air of greed that could infect him and snuff a career out before it has had time to blossom.

The point is well taken — like any other seed, corruption needs fertile ground in which to spout, to flourish. [While on that, read Tariq Ali] And the saddest part of the ongoing corruption saga is that all conversation is about rooting out the individual plant, never about clearing up the soil itself.

That is the point my cricketer friend made last night, while we were discussing the recent developments. I was arguing for ‘zero tolerance’ in practice, not merely in words. I’ll paraphrase his reply, from my notes:

Great! “Zero tolerance” — sounds wonderful. So let’s look at how you’ve applied this principle in real life, in recent times. The ‘commissioner’ of the most cash-rich cricket tournament in the world has been accused of corruption to the tune of dozens, hundreds of millions. And — nothing. Yesterday he was holidaying in the Bahamas, today he is enjoying life in London, tomorrow he will fly in a private jet bought with money earned from the sweat of cricketers to some other playground of the super rich. The second in command of the BCCI has been publicly accused of deeds ranging from manipulating his own acquiring of a franchise, to fixing auctions, to fixing umpires to favor the interests of his side. And — nothing. He denies it, throws mud at his accuser, remains in his post. The then president of the BCCI has been accused of, even proven to have, undisclosed interests in various franchises; he has been accused of actively working to manipulate the results of franchise auctions. And? He is now the head of the ICC.

This, the cricketer said, is the atmosphere in which the game is played in India today; this is the example we set the young and the upcoming: that corruption comes with benefits, but it does not carry a price tag.

He has a point. In any corporate environment, if there is an accusation of corruption, the first official act is to suspend the concerned person from his post. That is not a proclamation of guilt, but merely a routine part of the investigative process. If I am accused of finagling the books and siphoning money off from the editorial budget, say, and you leave me at my post while my guilt is being probed, I can use that time to hide all traces of my malfeasance. That is why the company’s first act will be to suspend me pending investigation. [Read Kamran Abbasi on why the suspension of Butt, Asif and Amir is right, why that does not conflict with the presumption of innocence that is the right of every human being; this is also why the ridiculous posturing of the likes of Wajid Shamsul Hasan will do more harm than good.]

Yet, in recent times, every single top official in the administration has been accused of corruption to varying degrees — and every single one of them remains in his post [with the exception of the ‘commissioner/suspended’ — and that suspension was not so much the result of a genuine desire to probe the charges, as it was a manifestation of the internal power politics within the board].

This [my friend said] is the example you are setting for the young, impressionable players. They see a bunch of officials who have never sweated it out on the field of play, never put their skills on the line, making untold millions from the sport and getting away with it. And yet you think that they, themselves, will have the moral fibre to resist all opportunities to make a fast buck. That sounds realistic to you?

That is the “putrid air of greed” Harsha is talking about. It is the “putrid air” that Indian [and Pakistani] cricket has breathed from the early nineties on, through successive administrations, each of which has proved to be more corrupt than the last. So I agree with my friend — the real surprise is not that a few are corrupt, but that so many others are not.

There is another way of looking at this issue. Money, not talent, dictates whether we get admission to a school or college of our choice; money, not ability, dictates whether we get a job as a policeman, a jurist, a doctor, an engineer, whatever. So, if I have to bribe my way into a cop’s uniform, why is it surprising if I use that uniform to cloak my own corruption? Surely I didn’t spend all that money to get that post simply so I could uphold law and order? That bribe was an investment; now that I’ve gotten what I wanted, I need to make that investment pay dividends. [Society accepts, or at least does not actively question, this practice — what the hell, a judge, no less, who was accused of large scale corruption was ‘punished’ by being made chief justice of a state high court. This bloke is going to uphold the law?!]

From that point of view, consider this: corruption in cricket begins not at the international, but at the regional, level. It is no secret that state-level selectors take money to pick players for the representative side — so if I, as a player, make that investment, what do you suppose I’m going to do once I make the cut? [A tangential point — it is these same state selectors who in time become members of the national selection committee — which, as far as they are concerned, widens their window of opportunity].

I’m not merely theorizing, here, that corruption exists at that level and that corruption, defying the laws of physics, then trickles up: have we forgotten this already? Some of the most senior players of the national team accused the selection committee of their home state of widespread corruption. What was the outcome? A politician who is also head of the state selection committee flat out said there was no such thing. The long-time head of that state association, arguably the most mismanaged in Indian cricket, “assured” that the “complaints would be considered” [ironically, this gent, who has been in his post for aeons,  is one of three members of the disciplinary committee that will hear charges of corruption against Lalit Modi].

Accusations surface, noise is made, nothing further is ever done — and in time, we forget. Change venue, rinse, repeat, and there you have the story of India’s dysfunctional cricket administration. Seriously — what fools are we, that we expect honesty and integrity to flourish in this soil?

Out, damned spot

Our TV channels yesterday dreamt up an interesting storyline to harp on: The PCB, so went the narrative, was back-pedalling on its initial ‘tough action’ stance, and was now paving the way for the inevitable whitewash by mooting a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘defame’ Pakistan cricket. [Did you know that it was RAW that held a gun to the heads of innocent cricketers and forced them into fixing? No, seriously].

‘Evil’ cannot exist without a corresponding ‘Good’, as any kid who knows his Ramayan will tell you — so in furtherance of this narrative, the talking heads set up the ICC president as the good guy, the one who was talking tough, asserting the body’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy, facing down the Pak board.

Compelling — and so incredibly funny.

The ICC president, now blazing away in the service of all that is good, was the same guy who wrested control from the Jagmohan Dalmiya group promising much: complete transparency; a website on which the BCCI would periodically inform the public about its doings and publicize its statements of accounts; professionalism… ah heck, you know the list.

During his tenure and that of his handpicked successor, none of these promises materialized. He did, however, deliver on some line items he had not made part of his election manifesto — among them, the complete rehabilitation of a player who was deemed guilty of match fixing by the very same board, and banned for life.

Said ICC president and his personally chosen successor are so invested in a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that they agreed to allow the ICC’s anti-corruption unit to monitor the 2009 edition of the IPL. Remember how that came about?

The ICC offered the services of its unit; the BCCI sat on the request for months, taking no action whatsoever. When the news hit the media, the BCCI pushed back, saying the ICC was charging an inordinate sum for its services. It turned out that the ICC’s bill for having its inspectors present at all venues, rigorously covering the games and off-field activities, was $1.2 million — a paltry sum when contrasted with what the BCCI was earning from the IPL. When its ‘exorbitant charge’ excuse began to look threadbare, the BCCI promised to ‘study the issue’ and ‘arrive at a solution’. It finally did — on April 17, 2009, it told the ICC that the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit was welcome to monitor the IPL.

The catch? The BCCI had green-lighted the ACSU late afternoon of the day before the IPL actually kicked off. In other words, by sitting on the proposal for months, the BCCI had effectively ensured that the ACSU would not have the time to deploy its personnel to provide adequate safeguards [typically, the ACSU works on a series or tournament two to three months before the start deadline].

It is commonly accepted that the betting syndicate really came into its own with the proliferation of unstructured tournaments in Sharjah, Toronto and elsewhere [again, think of who authorised and pushed through those tournaments]. Such meaningless cricket encounters made it easy for players, who had little or nothing invested in the results, to succumb to succulent lures.

A similar situation has been emerging thanks to the laissez faire nature of the IPL, with its relaxed dug out rules, its after hours parties fueled by much wine, unsupervised mingling, and nubile women trucked in by those who deal in that commodity to warm cricketers’ beds. And that makes you wonder — why is the Indian board so resistant to supervision of the IPL?

It was always known that Pawar’s benevolent hand over Lalit Modi’s head was what enabled the ‘IPL Commissioner [Suspended]’ to do what he pleased. In recent times, it has turned out that Sharad Pawar, his daughter and sundry relatives have their hands in the IPL till. Equally, it is common knowledge that Shashank Manohar has played the role of willing water-boy for Pawar [You do know that Manohar’s daddy is counsel in residence for the NCP, yes? Just one in a spiderweb of interconnections — the two only fell out when Manohar sided with Shashi Tharoor over the franchise auctions, and Pawar for his own reasons wanted the franchises to go elsewhere.], Srinivasan and others in the power elite, using the fig leaf of his authority as BCCI president to help deflect questions about their involvement.

Seriously – how do you write ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘Sharad Pawar/BCCI’ in the same sentence without busting a gut laughing?

The larger point is that current reactions to the spot-fixing controversy has mirrored what has gone before. Every single time cricket comes in the crosshairs, the official reaction has been to appease the fans’ anger by handing down ‘salutary’ punishment to a couple of players, move on, and hope that once the fans have forgotten, the same players can be brought back in, in various capacities, through the backdoor. Or, better yet, climb on the moral high horse and pretend that nothing untoward happened at all.

[Just as an example of the latter, consider this: Why was Salim Malik banned? Because Justice Qayyum, during his hearings into organized corruption, decreed that “he was 100 per cent guilty” of various offenses, including bribing Mark Waugh and Shane Warne to adversely impact on the result of the Karachi Test of the 1994-’95 series. However, the ACB has routinely maintained that Waugh and Warne never took the money. One of the two sides is clearly lying — I mean, if the two Aussie players never took the money, how in hell can Malik be “100 per cent” guilty of giving it? What, the bundle of cash fell somewhere in between the two?]

At no point in the tangled history of cricket corruption has any official, either individually or collectively as a board, ever been questioned regarding his actions. We could look at examples from recent Pakistan cricket history, of players publicly suspected, axed, and promptly rehabilitated. On each occasion, the focus has remained on the player; never do we ask who brought him back, and what that official’s stake was in the rehabilitation.

This tendency is hardly new. Remember Mohammad Azharuddin? The man Sunny Gavaskar once said, after watching his performance in a Sharjah tournament, that he was “running as if there was no tomorrow, and if he keeps running like this there won’t be”? Then Board secretary JY Lele endorsed that view, and on record said Azhar should not be picked for national duty again, remember? And then this happened. We — present company included — questioned why the selectors had done what they did [Followers of fashion might have, at the time, noticed spiffy new Patek Phillippe watches on some selectorial wrists]; we never however questioned who the shadowy figure behind the scenes was, who over-ruled even his own number two and brought Azhar back.

Then, once the Outlook story broke, Dalmiya strenuously, repeatedly, insisted that there was no corruption in cricket. When the shit storm got too hot to handle, he got hold of a fire-extinguisher by the name of Chandrachud, a former jurist known to be inordinately fond of a flutter, and who told us, with soap opera sincerity, about his earnest desire to ‘do something for cricket‘. Boy, did he, just! In case you have forgotten just how much whitewash was then applied, here’s links to two stories I wrote at the time: one, the day before the verdict was to be announced; the other, reviewing the verdict.

Thing though is, Chandrachud was acting on instructions. We blew a raspberry at his report, but we never once questioned why the then BCCI boss was bending over backwards to try and brush all allegations under the carpet [later, when the government got involved and ordered a CBI inquiry, Dalmiya pushed back, refusing to accept the CBI’s involvement in what he said was an internal affair of a private body]; why he was repeatedly involving the authority of office to bring Azhar back into the side. What did Dalmiya have to gain? Did we ask? No — just as we don’t ask questions of Pawar and gang, or of the PCB, today.

The hidden story of corruption in cricket is the story of sundry officials [and, please, let’s not talk of this as a purely ‘sub-continental’ phenomenon — boards across the cricketing world have been complicit, at various times, in various ways, in covering things up] who have, through their acts of omission and commission, created an atmosphere that, if not outright facilitating corruption on the part of players, at least condones it in nudge-wink fashion. And unless the official role in corruption becomes part of the conversation, we are never going to resolve this issue for good. At best, we will kill off the careers of a couple of cricketers, the circus will go underground for a while, and resurface once the dust has settled [Qayyum, if you recall, had issued strictures against the two Ws of Pakistan cricket, back in the day; today, their successors, the two brilliant Ms, are being accused of pretty much the same sort of offense. What is common? A board in denial.]

Spot fixing is not new, despite the media’s breathless seizing on that phrase with all the eagerness of a kid with a new toy [Hey, what did Herschelle Gibbs say he took money from Hansie Cronje for? To score under 20 [It’s a different matter that he then had amnesia and went on to score 74]. Williams? To give more than 50 runs in his 10 overs. And so on, so there you go.]

It is also among the most difficult ‘crimes’ to spot, and take action against. While on that, read Osman Samiuddin’s prescient piece from earlier this year.

Now we know it doesn’t matter what Tendulkar does, for the reality, as the ACSU’s first comprehensive report revealed in 2001, was far more complex. They called it occurrence-fixing, but soon Rashid Latif would give it a far more evocative name: fancy-fixing, which opens up cricket’s vast statistical landscape. With fancy – or spot – fixing, each ball of a match is effectively an event, an opportunity to bet and thus an opportunity to fix. It emerged that bets were being taken on the outcome of the toss, the number of wides or no-balls in a specific over, the timing and specifics of declarations, individual batsmen getting themselves out under a specific score, even field settings.

A visit last year in Karachi to an individual familiar with the world of bookies was mind-altering: bets were placed on what the first-innings total in a county match would be by lunch on the first day, or how many overs a bowler would bowl in the first hour of a session or a day, or on how much difference there would be in first-innings totals, or on how many runs a specified group of players would make. It didn’t stop.

Paul Condon, among others, also explained why spot fixing is difficult to control, in his exit interview from anti-corruption duties:

It is a wonderful game, but if you were designing a game to fix, you would design cricket, because it is a whole series of discreet events, and every ball you can bet on. You can’t guarantee a throw-in or a free kick in soccer, but if you’re a corrupt player, you can guarantee to do certain things at key moments [in cricket], and if you can bet on that you can make a lot of money. Corruption in any walk of life, whether it’s politics or business or sport, is about human frailty and weakness, and opportunity. Most cricketers are totally sound in their integrity, but one or two still mix with the wrong people.

Condon is also worth reading on how easy it is to get sucked into the circle of corruption — and that brings up another point that has baffled me these last few days.

While some talk of ‘zero tolerance’, there seems to be a section of opinion-makers hell bent on parsing corruption. This lot says, okay, spot-fixing is bad — but hey, it is a lesser evil than match-fixing; spot fixing does not affect the outcome of the game, so the punishment should be less severe.

Really? Firstly, the argument that spot fixing cannot affect the outcome of the game is wooly-headed at best. Consider this: I am a bookie/fixer; I fix certain individual outcomes. For instance, a batsman then in prime form, will not score too many runs. Another batsman will get run out. A bowler for the same team will, while defending a score, give away way too many runs at the top. [That’s a real live example — think Cronje] In each case, I’ve “spot-fixed” certain outcomes. Now tell me that cumulatively, those individually bad performances do not adversely affect the team’s result?

The asinine part of this debate on degree of culpability is that it focuses on the offense the News of the World brought to light — to wit, the bowling of no balls. The apologists therefore go, oh hey, kid bowled a no ball and made a shitload of money, big fricking deal, we should be so lucky. What is ignored, though, is that the bowling of no-balls on cue was merely a demonstration, by a fixer to what he thought was a potential client syndicate, of just how well he could control on-field performance. If this wasn’t NOTW carrying out a sting, but a real betting syndicate ‘inspecting the goods’, as it were, then the demonstration would have convinced them the fixer could do what they wanted him to.

And then the real fix would have begun  – a bad over here, a dropped catch or two there, an underperforming bowler, a maladroit batsman…

Still think it is all innocent, and merits no more than a slap on the wrist? Here’s the corollary: once you start down the route of taking money for performance, there is no stopping; in the words of the famous song, ‘you can check in any time you like…’

So this time a Mohammad Amir takes money to bowl a no-ball. Next time, the team is about to bowl under conditions where someone with talent can literally make the ball talk — and that is when the fixer comes to him and orders him to bowl badly. You think he can say no? Not a chance — once you are caught in the toils of the betting syndicate, you are their’s for life — and that is another reason why you cannot treat ‘spot fixing’ as a lesser crime, deserving of a lesser punishment. [Read Amit Varma on the subject of this crime, and appropriate punishment, here].

There’s a heap of angles to this latest controversy; above, I was merely riffing off points that stood out for me. Here’s one last in that list — a Delhi High Court, no less, has argued that betting should be made legal.

That should gladden the heart of, among others, my libertarian friend Amit Varma, who argued this case way back in 2005. Money quote:

In some ways it is perverse that “betting” and “match-fixing” are treated almost as synonymous terms in India. It is like frowning upon sex because rape is a bad thing. Match-fixing is unambiguously wrong because the player who participates in it is betraying an implicit contract with the fans of the sport, and perhaps an explicit one with his cricket board. Why is betting wrong, though? What justifies it being banned in India?

Speaking from a different perspective, R Mohan once made an identical point to me in course of an interview:

The problem is that we, all of us, tend to forget that these are two different issues. Does betting exist? Of course it does. And perhaps 99 per cent of India’s 950 million population are guilty of it. Have you staked a bottle of beer or a pack of cigarettes on the outcome of a match? If you have, you are gambling — the same as the guy who stakes a million on the same game. There is no law that says a little gambling is legal, but a lot of it is not. Gambling exists, period — andeverybody does it. You gamble when you buy stocks, you gamble when you put your money in a fixed deposit because how do you know if the bank will still be there, and in a position to pay you back, five years later?

The laws in this regard make no sense. I mean, I can walk into any racecourse in the land and bet a million on a particular race, and it is all entered in black and white and perfectly legal. But if I bet a rupee on a cricket match, I am guilty of a crime. Where is the sense in that? And again, if I go to Ladbrookes of London and bet on whether Sachin Tendulkar will score a century in the coming game, say, that is perfectly legal too. So, we have a situation where betting on one sport is legal, the other is not. Where betting on the same sport in one place is illegal, in the other, not. Where is the sense in all this?

If the government had any sense at all, they would legalise booking — I mean, it is not going to go away, is it? And give licenses to bookies. And through these means, add maybe Rs 500 million, Rs 100 million to its treasury.

Thoughts?

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.