The league of ordinary gentlemen

So as I write this, New Zealand is saying it will not host Pakistan later this year if the spot fixing charges haven’t been probed, and guilt or innocence established, in the interim.

And that’s not a bad thing: it is not in the interests of the game for this thing to drag on endlessly, with the usual posturing on all sides and no resolution in sight. Ian Chappell might, prima facie, seem to be advocating too hard a line here, but I agree with him on this one.

Fixing is not a Pakistan problem; it has the power to bring the game to its knees.

Cricket has already missed a golden opportunity to send a strong message to crooks, players and administrators. Pakistan should’ve been suspended from competition the moment the Lord’s Test was completed.

“Can’t do it,” you say, “it’ll ruin the game.”

Well, if fixing isn’t eradicated then there’ll be no game of any consequence to ruin.

Apropos, some four days into the Champions’ League, I am yet to catch a single game [The US Open has been feeding my need for a sports fix and last evening, I even found myself watching a replay of a Serie A game between Inter and Udinese while the CL was on, on another channel].

The likes of Harsha Bhogle and Peter Roebuck have waxed optimistic about the CL; for once, though, I am unable to share that sense of optimism. Harsha makes the point about CL/IPL confronting us with new choices, new loyalties, a whole new mindset. In my case, I suspect that is not the problem, though — the real problem lies with the format itself.

T20 is fun — but there is just so much of popcorn, no matter how well flavored, that you can ingest before you tire of it. And my problem with the T20 tournaments is just that: there’s too much of it, and I’m tired. We had the IPL. We had a T20 WC. Now we have the CL. In between, we have had absolutely no meaningful cricket at all [that nonsensical tour in Sri Lanka doesn’t count; Pakistan versus England was compelling until NOTW came along and shattered our few remaining illusions].

It’s context that I miss; that and a sense of history, a back story that frames a cricket contest. Which is why I am waiting for the Aussies to land here later this month — the schedule may not be the most optimal, with a couple of Tests being shoe-horned into what was originally a 7-ODI affair, but what the hell: it is India versus Australia in Tests. Can’t wait for it to begin — and in the meantime, I’ll pass on this latest T20 tamasha.

How about you guys? How many of you are watching? And how involved are you in these games? I’d really like to know.

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.

Ouch!

Not all crusades are what they appear to be on the surface, apparently.

From the blog Churumuri, a compelling, even scary, read.

‘Interviewing’ Sehwag

Hey, had you guys read this piece in the New Yorker’s blog?

It came apropos, in a way. I had just finished re-reading two books on tennis that take a match-eye view of the sport: L Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius [sample here for those new to this book; and here’s a treasure trove of Wertheim’s classic writing for Sports Illustrated] on the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, aka ‘the greatest tennis match ever played‘ [another excerpt], and Peter Bodo’s The Clay Ran Red.

One thing about books is how reading one inevitably prompts you to read, or in my case re-read, another, related book — thus, those two books and a brief conversation about Genius with a friend on Twitter led me back to my fairly shopworn copy of Marshall Jon Fisher’s A Terrible Splendorwhich then prompted a re-visit to John McPhee’s Levels of the Game [sample chapter], which had first appeared as a two-part essay in the New Yorker [You’ll see links in the blog post linked to at the start here].

Besides being among the finest examples of sports journalism imaginable, those books share another commonality: they look at a sport through the prism of a singular rivalry: Rafa/Fedex, Ashe/Graebner, Don Budge/Gottfriend von Cramm… [In this, the construct differs from Johnette Howard’s The Rivals, where the focus is on the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, with the sport forming a broader canvas against which this story plays out [Sample Chapter].

Tennis with its gladiatorial, one on one action uniquely lends itself to rivalries unlike say cricket — and yet, I sometimes wish a quality journalist had attempted to interpret the sport through the prism of the clash of individual practitioners [Shane Warne versus Sachin Tendulkar down the years, anyone?].

Actually, I’d argue that in comparison with the great books on tennis and even team games like soccer, cricket just has not produced any outstanding literature down the years. You are left either with (auto)biographies of varying quality, or ‘tour diaries’ and such. Wonder why. [And while on that, two of the finest writers on cricket/sports are in the final stages of publishing their books this year. I don’t know what their books are going to be about, yet — but, can’t wait.]

So anyway, to continue this ramble, here’s the money quote from the blog post cited above:

Williams plays with a certain stern aloofness, a level of evenness that has no doubt helped her as she has won seven major championships. This is also how she talks to reporters, and as I sat listening to her and to other players answer questions one after the other, I thought about the theory that their individual styles of parrying with the media matched closely with their individual styles of play. John McPhee made a similar point when he wrote in this magazine,

A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.

Is that true? Can we, based on how a player behaves and how he talks, gain pointers to how he will likely play his game? Here’s a little thought experiment, in the form of an “interview” with Viru Sehwag. [Note that this interview never happened — I’m merely reversing the process, looking at what he has said at various times on Twitter, and framing probable questions that could have elicited those responses.]:

So — you don’t really like giving long interviews, do you?

Successful people always have 2 things on their lips…smile and silence..!

Right. Anyway. Of late, your career seems to be cyclical: you get into awesome form, then injury intervenes, you are off the map for a bit, then you come back and have to build up to that form all over again. After a point, doesn’t this get hard? Wouldn’t you far rather have an uninterrupted run at the top of your game?

Hard times r like washing machine,they twist,turn n knock us around,but in the end we come out cleaner,brighter n better than before

Smooth roads nvr make u gud drivers. Problem free life nve makes u strong person. So nvr ask life, WHY ME?Instead challenge it & say TRY ME!

Your mates say you are not a good one for taking advice — you’ll listen, but do your own thing anyway. Surely there is someone you listen to?

Listen2our elders advice nt bcoz thy r always right but bcoz thy’ve more xperiences of being wrong.how true but v still dn’t want2understand

So what is the best advice you ever got?

“If we play with energy poise and unselfishness, we will be playing the game the right way.”

Cricket right now is in turmoil, with corruption allegations surfacing all over again just when we thought that was a thing of the past. Your thoughts?

sea is common to all,some take pearls,some take fisheset n some out with wet legs. World is common to us.We take what we look for.

People say,”Find good people & leave bad ones.”But it should be,”Find the good in people & ignore the bad in them.”No one is perfect.

But surely all these controversies are unwanted obstacles at a time when cricket — especially traditional cricket — is struggling for survival?

Obstacles r those frightful things u see when u take ur eye off frm ur goal.

To change the topic: you missed what would have been a great century thanks to Suraj Randiv’s no-ball. Reactions?

Right effort has to do with unselfishness and working to benefit the team.

Yeah, well, with the benefit of time and distance you can be philosophical, but at the time you must have been desperately unhappy?

If u wait for happy moments,u will wait forever. But if u start believing that u r happy,u will be happy forever.

Oh come on — you’ve always been scrupulously fair in your on-field dealings so when someone cheats you out of a landmark for sheer cussedness you must have felt pissed off big time? You are human, no?

expecting from the world to be good to u coz u r good to them..is just like expecting from the lion not to eat u coz u r a vegetarian..!!

The depth of ur Personality will b revealed by the way u respond to situations u dislike…

Okay, but still — do you think such needless gamesmanship is justified?

In our real life,v know very well,what is right,true n justified. Problem is,v can’t follow it from our side,but v expect it from others.

So you never got angry at the time?

Remember, even iron becomes weak when its hot. Stay cool & u will always be strong.

Time and again, you play sublime cricket — and then your mates stuff up, give their wickets away. It is almost as if there is one set of bowlers bowling to you, and another, far better, set to them. It’s almost supernatural, the way you make it all look easy.

champions r not supernatural,they just fight one more second whn everyone else quits,sometimes one second of effort gives u the victory.

Every time we see you bat, we are left with one thought: if only you had batted longer! Have you ever thought of curbing, or at least tempering, your natural game so you can maximize the time you spend at the crease?

fight with ur strength,not with others weakness bcoz true success lies in ur efforts not in others defeat.

And so on. Here — go make up your own interviews [the media does it anyway, vide this PTI story at the height of the Suraj Randiv fracas, so why not you?]; there’s tons of good material on Viru’s Twitter stream.

By way of bonus, here’s another way of doing this — an ‘interview’ with Kanye West. Brilliant! And, tangentially related, here’s a favorite writer, Susan Orlean, on why a crowded city is just one big Twitter stream.

And just for fun — there is a weekend coming up, and I don’t intend to log on and give you guys company — here’s some related reading matter: A Chandrahas Choudhary classic, where he sat with Viru and had him talk through a seminal knock; and here’s Hash on watching Viru bat.

Enjoy your weekend; see you Monday.

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?