How about a ‘DMS’?

It has been wrong from the beginning to bill this as a contest between humans and technology, when in reality it has always been a case of humans using technology and interpreting the evidence it provides. Hawk-Eye can, at best, provide an approximation of the ball’s path, and while being relatively more accurate than human judgement, it is dependent on a number of variables, including overhead conditions, to deliver optimal projections. Hot Spot, while it has improved, can still produce misleading evidence, sometimes because of extreme conditions, but sometimes because of simple human error.

Amidst all the sound, the fury, and the emotion-heavy venting, Sambit Bal’s piece on the DRS comes as a relief. And the part underlined above really goes to the crux of a ‘To DRS or not’ argument that seems to be slipping into a game of ‘gotcha’ by the pro and anti factions.

How about we pretend, just for a moment, that we are sensible? How about we put the cart where it belongs — at the arse-end of the horse?

As Sambit points out, the point of having technology is to use it to eliminate, or at the least minimize, error. So, who makes the error? The on-field umpire. When? At the point of rendering the original decision.

Therefore, when do you really need technology? To aid me in my decision-making — not to second guess my decision after I have made it.

So how about this scenario? You are umpiring at the business end. Anderson bowls, Haddin swishes, keeper and fielder go up in appeal — and you are not sure Haddin got the nick the fielders think he did.

The operative bit here is, you are not sure. And that is when you need technology (Errors — a large part of them — stem from your being forced into a decision without having all the facts at your disposal).

So in this hypothetical scenario, the umpire whose decision is sought phones upstairs and goes, mate, can you check the visuals on this one? I know the keeper took it clean, I think I heard a noise, but I didn’t see an edge. Check?

The third umpire checks the front foot, checks Hot Spot, freezes the frame if necessary at the point of supposed impact to see if there is perceptible daylight between bat and ball, and reports his findings back to the on-field umpire. Who, now armed with as much data as is available, then makes the call yea or nay. And that is that.

Today the use of technology has created a game within a game  (You are playing against the system, you’ve got three throws of the dice, let’s see if you are good enough to put your chips on the table at the right time).

What if we move the debate away from whether or not to use tech, to when to use tech?

What if we replace the Decision Review System with a Decision Making System?

Or does that smack of a solution too simple it of course should never even be considered?

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.

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.

Climate change?

Apparently the ICC is now enamored of London’s “working environment” — the attractions of which far outweigh the need to pay tax. Righto. We are totally convinced.

Wilde thoughts

Dear Simon Wilde:

In a cheerless world — you would have noticed this morning another example of India’s lack of self-belief; Virender Sehwag was four boundary hits from being the only batsman in the world to have scored three triple hundreds, but couldn’t make it — thank you for providing something to laugh at.

It takes a mind operating at its best to tie in the ICC ranking system, India’s lack of fibre, Lalit Modi and the IPL millions, all into one “article”.

Quick note: The ICC devised the points/ranking system. The ICC decides the FTP. Together, these two things decide who tops the table. If India does not “deserve” the number one spot earned through such ratings, then by definition no team that ever made the number one slot deserves it — they all got there through the same means [SA beating Bangladesh to become world number one, remember?] except Australia.

So — suck it up.

Thank you

Me

A shot across the bow

In a development that slipped unnoticed past the radar of the mainstream cricket media in India, the international players’ association has trashed the latest edition of the ICC’s Future Tours Program [and given me another excuse to keep banging on about my latest hobby horse: the need for the ICC to urgently rationalize not merely its calendar, but its overall approach to how it manages the game]:

FICA CEO Tim May said the ICC’s proposed international schedule is merely an extension of the existing format that does not address changes in the game and diminishes its value. “The ICC’s draft is just a continuation of the ad-hoc bilateral series that we have seen going on for 100 years,” May told Cricinfo. “The ICC draft does not address an increasingly changing cricket landscape, which demands considerations of changing priorities of players and broadcasters and the increasing need for context, not volume.”

May is aware that FICA could well be whistling into the wind. When it comes to taking on board the opinions of the game’s stakeholders — the players’ associations, the captains, broadcasters, the media — the ICC has routinely paid lip service to the concept, and as routinely ignored the suggestions that have been put forward. But, as the FICA chief points out, the ostrich policy may have outlived its time: earlier, the ICC could go its own way regardless, because what alternative was there? With the IPL establishing itself, and the Champions League emerging onto the stage, that is no longer true.

While the ICC admits that FICA is a key stakeholder in the game and has given the federation a seat on its cricket committee, it is not bound by law to accept any of its proposals. In fact, May admits that he would not be surprised if the ICC board rejects these proposals, but he also warns that in such a scenario “the natural forces will take effect.”

“More and more players will follow Andrew Flintoff by retiring prematurely from one or all forms of international cricket,” May said. “The grind of the present international calendar just can’t exist with the attraction of shorter-duration, less physical, better-remunerated T20 leagues. International cricket will no longer be the best versus the best. Crowds will diminish, commercial rights will reduce, and international cricket will be very much an inferior product.”

If this happens, May said, the ICC will have to accept the blame. “They will have no one to blame but themselves. It won’t be the first business to be destroyed by failing to recognise a changing landscape.”

Meanwhile, a paper to produce under the added pressure of an absent colleague. Will be back, as and when [oh, and will find time to respond to some of the comments you guys left on earlier posts].