Media matters: The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode

Of the many noteworthy events that occurred while I was away following the cricket, the one that sticks to my mind like a burr is the case of Quint and its story on Kulbushan Jadhav.

Briefly, Quint under the byline of one Chandan Nandy published a story citing two former heads of the Research and Analysis Wing to the effect that they were opposed to the recruitment of Jadhav, a former Naval officer, as a spy for the RAW. The story led to an outcry following which Quint took down the story. “The Quint is rechecking the Kulbhushan Jadhav story”, ran the headline over the website’s statement.

Since then, the story remains down. The statement has also vanished. And it is like nothing happened, nothing to see here, folks, move on.

But something did happen, and it should leave a sorry aftertaste in the mouths of anyone who is invested in ensuring that we get the media we deserve. The Quint-Jadhav story is one of editorial failure at multiple levels, with potentially dangerous consequences. And the subsequent silence of the website only compounds its initial complicity.

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Dotting the ‘i’

#1. The censor board, after consulting with its specially constituted panel, has decided to clear Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film — after the makers carry out 26 cuts. Oh, and change the name of the film from Padmavati to Padmavat.

Does it occur to you that as a nation, our collective “sensibility” is extremely fragile, and also extremely malleable? That these “sensibilities” are easily offended and as easily appeased? What is an ‘i’, more or less, among friends anyway?

Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that this is the last you are going to hear of a tiresome movie by a tiresomely pretentious film-maker — once the release date is set, now-dormant sensibilities in Rajasthan and elsewhere will be duly aroused again, and much ruckus will duly follow.

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WTFJH: The October 14 weekend edition

#1. It takes just one news story to meet, and exceed, the weekend’s whatthefuckery quotient:

Over two years after Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death on suspicion of consuming beef, the accused in the case, all of whom are out on bail, may soon secure jobs.

Moreover, the family of Ravin Sisodia, one of the murder accused who had died in jail of multiple organ failure, is soon likely to get Rs 8 lakh compensation.

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The News in Briefs: October 2

#1. In Agra, members of the VHP and the RSS, armed with guns, pistols and swords fired in the air near a temple in the Agra Fort region to “celebrate Dussehra”. The police have registered a case. The weapons, the firing, the communal slogans, all add up to calculated intimidation. And all the while, the RSS claims that it is the victim, not the perpetrator, of violence against its members.

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ATM thieves aka “terrorists”

The story received breathless play in the media: Pakistan’s NSA tipped off his Indian counterpart about 10 terrorists who had infiltrated into India. Manhunt launched. TV channels quote top officials to say three of the terrorists killed. Manhunt continues for the other seven. And so on. Turns out they were ATM thieves.

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Falling out of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wellspring of corruption

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

Why do I play this game?

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

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

It is our choices that tell us who we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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