We who love our stories clean and unambiguous have over time created an archetype: the super-fixer.
Per legend and lore, as crafted in the media and given further heft by Bollywood (think Emraan Hashmi in Jannat), this mythical figure is an end-to-end gambling solution.
He scripts every detail of cricket matches, beginning with the toss, incorporating the ebbs and flows of the game and ‘taking it right down to the wire’.
He bribes, coaxes, cajoles and threatens cricketers, agnostic of nationality, into following his script.
With his granular knowledge of what is going to happen, he then fixes the odds to favor the book and to suck the gullible punter into betting on what he has already ensured will not happen.
In doing all this, he manages to pull off two mutually contradictory requirements: On the one hand, he rubs shoulders with the top cricket stars who by definition live their lives in the harsh glare of the spotlight and on the other hand, he remains a will-o-the-wisp, invisible to authority.
That combination of fixer and bookie died a little over ten years ago. Literally. He died on the evening of January 19, 2003, when gunshots rang out in the billiards room of the exclusive India Club, in the Oud Mehta residential locality in Dubai.
When the smoke cleared Sharad Shetty, one-time Jogeshwari slumlord turned key aide to Dawood Ibrahim, was found sprawled on the snooker table, bleeding to death of numerous gunshot wounds.
The 2003 World Cup began 20 days later.
Prima facie, those gunshots signaled the transfer of the organized match-fixing racket from the hands of Ibrahim into those of his erstwhile lieutenant, Chhota Rajan. (Four members of Rajan’s gang were later arrested, tried and executed in the UAE for the crime).
Effectively, though, the death of Shetty signaled the end of the combination bookie/fixer, and launched the era of the super-punter as fulcrum in the world of illicit gambling on cricket.
Typically, he is drawn from the worlds of business, finance or Bollywood. He has access to large sums of money, and is a habitué of the party circuit, where movies and cricket collide. And he has easy, unquestioned entrée into the hotels and dressing rooms of cricketers.
His presence at dinner with a cricketer or three is unremarkable and goes unremarked. And the cricketer – young, mostly naïve, drawn from the backwaters and with his eyes blinded by glitz – revels in the friendship he has struck with this very important person who can get him into big parties, and put him next to Bollywood starlets and models who show a willingness, an eagerness even, to ignore the cricketer’s gaucherie and join him for public fun and private pleasure.
So when his new-found friend asks him in course of casual dinner-table conversation what the team composition for the big game is, what the team makes of the pitch and atmospherics, what changes if any there will be in the batting order or who will open the bowling, which batsman is fit and which one is struggling with physical and/or mental niggles – innocent questions of the kind fans pose to cricketers everywhere – the player thinks nothing of sharing these details with his obliging, influential friend.
In gambling, as in any area of business, knowledge is money – and the punter, armed with his insider knowledge, places his bets on certain outcomes he is able to predict with a fair degree of certainty.
He wins, and shares a slice of his winnings with his friend the cricketer. It is all very jolly, all done with a nudge, a wink, a chuckle. ‘Hey, because of what you told me, I bet big on XYZ happening – so here’s a Rolex for you, just a token of my gratitude and thank you so much for helping, you are a true friend.’
The cycle repeats a couple of times, until it is taken for granted by both parties. From then on, it is not even necessary for the punter to meet the cricketer in person – a late phone call before a big game, to ask pertinent questions and gain actionable information, becomes routine, as does the post-game ‘gift’ – in specie and in sensual gratification.
Almost without knowing it, the cricketer goes beyond merely answering questions, and begins to volunteer information – anything he thinks will give his friend an edge in the betting market. After all, if a nice fellow, a good friend, makes some money off of the underworld, where’s the harm?
Insiders call this process ‘grooming’.
And then comes the day the ‘routine’ phone call comes with an unexpected twist. ‘Can you bowl a shoddy over in your first spell, manage to give away say 15 runs?’ ‘Can you contrive to get out before crossing the 20s?’
By now, ‘what the hell, where’s the harm?’ works like an anesthetic on the cricketer’s conscience. Implied, too, is the threat – he has, albeit inadvertently, helped a gambler and profited therefrom; to say no now might result in his outing and resultant disgrace.
And so he bowls that short one outside off. “That was asking to be hit,” says the commentator sententiously, without realizing (or sometimes even knowing) how literally that is true. Or he backs away from his stumps to cut, misses the line, and is bowled. “Something just had to give,” says the commentator. “The pressure was getting to him; good captaincy to open up that gap square on the off to tempt him into an indiscreet shot.”
What does a bad over, an indiscreet shot, matter if there is a party, a willing starlet, an SUV or a foreign holiday waiting on the other side of it?
And who would ever suspect? The bookie, operating deep within the underworld, is a ‘person of interest’ to law enforcement agencies. His movements are watched, his phones are tapped, he has no easy access to team hotels and dressing rooms. And the cricketer is aware of the risk he runs if he takes a call from a bookie, or meets him for a drink, or cozies up at a party, or even allows one to be part of his entourage when he is ostensibly on a private jaunt (Remember Suresh Raina’s trip to Shirdi immediately after IPL 4?)
The punter, however, is not as readily identifiable as such (We know for instance of Justice Chandrachud the intrepid inquirer into match-fixing; do we know though that the jurist’s idea of time-pass, while idling on the balcony of his home, is betting on whether the next car to cross that signal will have a license plate ending in an odd or even number?).
The punter, too, is a celebrity himself of whatever wattage, and is perfectly at home in the restaurants and lobbies of the star hotels that house the cricketer on tour. (One of the most frenetic gamblers during the 70s and 80s was a music-composer duo whose initials correspond to a format for phonograph records).
And thus the risk of association is nullified. (Vindoo Dara Singh with cricketers? Ah yes, wasn’t he the bloke who won Big Boss and made a pot-load of money simply for being less obnoxious than say Sherlyn Chopra?).
With the arrival of the super-punter, the bookie realized he no longer needs to run the risk of fixing matches – all he has to do is follow the money. Cannily, he took a leaf out of the law enforcement playbook.
Today, the world of the bookie is structured like a classic pyramid. At the top sits the kingpin (not so much an individual but a controlling cartel that funds the lower tier, keeps score, and takes a rake-off). At the next level are a string of ‘Tier A’ bookies – no more than 10, 12 tops in a country as large as India – who form a loose confederation , each however building up his own select clientele.
And below them again are the ‘Tier B’ bookies – literally thousands of them affiliated to each Tier A bookie, and operating on small to medium scale in the cities and towns across the country, working with small time gamblers.
The bookies went computerized, with each Tier A bookie having a central repository of all information (including, in the case of big-time punters, details of all previous bets, winnings, and such). And they instituted an internal law – any bet of over 1 lakh, taken at whatever level, had to be immediately flagged (a tactic modified from the RBI guidelines regulating the depositing of large amounts into an individual bank account).
When a flag about a major bet goes up, the Tier A bookie is automatically alerted; in turn, he shares the information with his fellows. By assessing the bet and the identity of the punter, the bookie is able to make an educated guess about the quality of insider information underlying the bet itself.
With this knowledge – provided inadvertently by the big-time punter – the bookies then figure out how to shade the odds so as to benefit from the pre-determined event. And thus derives all the benefits of the ‘fix’, without most of the attendant risk of exposure.
So when an Abad Ponda, advocate to Gurunath Meyyappan, says his client is at best guilty of a minor peccadillo that can attract a fine of Rs 200 at the maximum, this is the big picture he is missing. Or obfuscating.
The Meyyappans and Dara Singhs of this world are super-punters; their position in the worlds of celebrity and/or team management allow them to acquire information on events, even to manipulate said events; this in turn allows them to do what in financial circles would be insider trading; and this in its turn feeds into the activities of the bookmaking syndicate.
It is not an offense with a corresponding number in the IPC attached to it — but it is criminal, all the same.
PostScript: Wheels have a habit of coming full circle. Thus, N Srinivasan along with Lalit Modi was Sharad Pawar’s hatchet-man-in-chief back in the period around 2005, when the NCP strongman was looking to topple Jagmohan Dalmiya.
Mission accomplished, a vindictive board turned on Dalmiya and vowed to put him behind bars (and even had him arrested). More, they slapped a case of misappropriation of funds, dating back to the 1996 World Cup and amounting to the tune of Rs 40.6 crore.
Shashank Manohar was president, and N Srinivasan the secretary, in 2010 when the board got wind of a coup being planned by a seemingly unlikely coming together of IS Bindra, Lalit Modi and Dalmiya himself. Bindra was quickly marginalized; it was easy enough with all the political clout the BCCI commands to pile on a string of offences ranging from foreign exchange violations to passport irregularities against Modi and ensure that he couldn’t return.
Dalmiya, the marked card in the cold deck, was meanwhile subdued by the use of the traditional stick (Rs 40.6 crore) and carrot (play ball with us and we will write it off). And so, in the 2010 AGM, the board formally decided to ‘write off’ the money Dalmiya had, according to the BCCI itself, ‘misappropriated’.
Every quid comes with a post-dated quo, and the date on this one was June 2, 2013: Dalmiya, in an extended meeting with Srinivasan ahead of the crucial AGM, agrees to be the compromise candidate to hold the fort while Srinivasan spends time on paid-leave; during this tenure he promises not to rock the boat and to keep an eye on the inquiry committee to ensure that nothing too damaging to Srinivasan or to his franchise inadvertently pops out, and to step aside gracefully when his benefactor has been “officially cleared”.
It is a wonderful world to belong to. Powerful, lucrative and, above all, safe, politically insulated as it is from all possible repercussions.