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?

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51 thoughts on “Out, damned spot

  1. Pingback: Ghosts of 2000 still loom « Twenty20 Cricket

  2. Prem, there is one thing that I fail to understand with all those who stand for “legalized betting” as a cure for fixing. Does it actually remove the possibility of fixing (or spot-fixing whatever you may call)???? The answer is indeed a big NO. The fixing now proved to have occurred in a country that legalizes betting and by a national of its country. It’s immaterial that the players who colluded to fix were not citizens of this country. “Betting” is necessarily an evil – be it legal or illegal.

  3. Pingback: Pawar: Boards Will Never Encourage Protecting Anybody Who Has Done A Wrong Thing « Short Of A Length

  4. prempanicker :Simply put? Sachin will never do that. I’ve asked him this on one occasion — he just shrugged and went, no use.

    Prem, there is another angle to it- May be Sachin is not aware of many things- at least in a way he can *substantiate* it. He simply cannot make some statements without giving any proofs or clues or directions, right? Look at the statements made by Ganguly yesterday (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/cricket/top-stories/I-was-not-approached-by-any-bookie-Ganguly/articleshow/6481918.cms)…what he says makes sense..which bookie with something inside his brain would venture out to give offers to players like Sachin, Kumble etc? Its always better for them to go after the players who are little “edgy”…And I am not sure that such players would open up everything to guys like SRT, fearing some consequences…so, may be Sachin is just like us, hearing roumers, but not able to substantiate….how about it?

    • I have to side with Sachin on this one. Look at the furore raised by Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena nutjobs when Sachin said something as simple as “I’m an Indian first and then a Maharashtran”. Unfortunately in India whistle-blowers are persecuted rather than praised. Sachin will be criticised by many for ‘letting out dressing-room secrets’ etc. by former players and media. He is a sportsman first- unfair to load all our political burdens and causes on him.

    • Just to clarify, wasn’t blaming SRT for not speaking out. He has the same problem everyone else does — no proof. The occasion I asked him the question was during an extended, off record conversation following the Australian tour he led the team on, when according to him there was intense pressure with ref the reinstatement of Azhar. His argument at the time was, what is the point of saying anything? It will be denied, there is no proof, so I’ll simply end up looking like a liar. I agree with his views, though I do wish at times that he would use his equity and just speak out, strongly.

  5. Why dont we Indians all together take a bold step ?
    Let us all boycott this beautiful game..hereafter…
    let us stop watching live cricket in Tv…let us stop hearing the commenteries…
    Let us stop wrshipping these cricketers..
    This will lead to our country prospering too..

    • Nope. I can still watch video of his full innings, for the pure joy of such sublime skills. Then again, have you seen Ben Johnson run? Marion Jones? Equally delightful, except…

      • Same here. Can’t get that 103 he made at the Basin Reserve in 1998 out of my head… the only way I’ve managed to deal with Azhar is to separate Azhar the batsman from Azhar the captain. A poor separation, but one that reminds me of his shameful deeds while at the same time not tarnishing his memorable ones.

  6. Brilliant article , though I now regret following the links. I had forgotten all about the Azhar/Tendulkar captaincy episodes. More regret now, that I actually remember watching Azhar’s first 3 centuries on the trot.

  7. Bang on Prem….like u always do. In my opinion, only one person is there who can force open the closet which carry all the skeletons. Heck..he must be knowing all the skeletons since he is there since last 2 decades.I just wish that one day sachin would decide to come out with all he knows…then only we might see any real change in ‘systems’ and administrators…till then it will always be a hogwash with guys like us, just trying to watch as if nothing has happened…
    Whats your take on this?

    • Simply put? Sachin will never do that. I’ve asked him this on one occasion — he just shrugged and went, no use.

      • As if on cue, SRT has spoken for the first time(i think) regarding the player-bookie nexus…and he has flatly denied anything happening since he is there…he has done exactly opposite to what we are discussing here 🙂
        what about the 2000 fixing episode…as per SRT it never happened..
        Being a huge SRT fan, i am sad…i watch cricket only to see him and veeru bat.

  8. The last few days have been very difficult – When the “original” fixing news happened I was young – though it was in the back of the mind I did not doubt anything I was seeing on the TV. I thought everything was clean. But now after reading your posts and others’ I feel betrayed to say the least. My relationship with cricket has changed. I question the endless hours I have spent following it. I have a question though – is there no way to fix this thing – I mean are we doomed as a collective cricket fan. Is it just like WWF?

    • Not really. Think of football, especially the Italian version. Makes what is happening in cricket seem like a picnic, but once the administration realized it was clean up or lose fans, there was movement in the right direction. To be fair, even Majeed in his confessional pointed out that fixing has become considerably harder once the ACSU got into the act. What the administration needs to do now is plug remaining gaps: for instance, no tournament involving internationals can go uncovered by the ACSU; a serious look at the role of administrators, and even umpires, into possible involvement and the weeding out of anyone deemed less than kosher; a one size fits all crimes, zero tolerance, automatic policy on how to deal with fresh instances [if there is prima facie evidence, as happened with the Pak players, you don’t go, okay, we will investigate, then hear the case, then review, then decide — instead you go, there is prima facie a case being made here, without prejudging it we will remove the concerned player from the ranks; if at the end of the process he is deemed innocent he will be reinstated, and compensated for time lost, but no player on whom suspicion hangs will take the field till he is cleared. Basically what I am saying is, if you have the will, you can do this.

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