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Dial ‘M’ for Match-Fixing

Innocence, like virginity, can be lost only once.

Cricket – the players, the administration, the fans, the game itself – lost its innocence on April 7, 2000, when New Delhi police officials accused then South African captain Hansie Cronje of colluding with bookmaker Sanjay Chawla to fix the one day games with India played in March of that year.

Any hymenal vestiges were swept aside in the months that followed, thanks to the revelations from a Central Bureau of Investigation probe in India; the report of the Justice Qayyum commission in Pakistan; the serial naming of players from around the world and their almost ritual ‘clearing’ by the respective boards, and finally by the spot-fixing expose of last year that resulted in bans of varying durations imposed on three Pakistani players.

All of which is why the latest media story on match-fixing – Dirt in Cricket, a Heena Zuni Pandit-authored cover story for the latest issue of Sports Illustrated India – comes without the sort of shock value earlier exposes such as the one in Outlook over a decade ago or the subsequent one in Tehelka engendered.

It is not that the Sports Illustrated India story is not shocking in and of itself – it is merely that we have lost the capacity to be shocked; in fact, watching cricket with half an eye on possibly “fixed” moments has become a parlor game for the fan.
And yet this latest story, in the Sports Illustrated India issue that will be on stands countrywide May 7, is important both for what it contains, and for what remains as yet unrevealed.

The Rs 400 Billion World Cup

Voice: Arre, us match ka patha chala aapko?

Sports Illustrated India: Kis match ka?

Voice: India-Pakistan ka. Humein ek message aaya tha, Bihar ke ek politician ka. Kaha, ‘Sir, yehi sahi time hai paisa lagane ka. Ab nahin lagayenge to kab lagayenge? Rs 200 crore pahuncha diya hai.’

SI India: Achcha, kaun sa politician tha?

Voice: Ek hai, Bihar mein.

The above conversation was, SI says, recorded on March 31, a day after the India-Pakistan semifinal at Mohali; the unnamed ‘Voice’ belongs to a politician from a national party who has a residence in Delhi and a scrapyard business in Bombay.

It was a casual meeting of politician-punters who had made a few lakh apiece betting on the game – spare change in comparison with the vast sums that routinely change hands during cricket matches, but at another level an indication of just how pervasive betting – a supposedly illegal activity in this country – has become. A subsequent conversation, the transcript of which is not provided in the story, revolves around how Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi consistently refuses to play ball with bookies, but also of how four Pakistan players had been paid to underperform.

What we had learnt back in 2000, in exchange for our rudely ruptured innocence, is that “match-fixing” is not what we naively imagined it was: a case of a bookie buying up entire teams to under-perform. That was a scenario that strains credibility; hence our violent rejection of the notion when it first surfaced.

Rather, we learnt, bookies buy the “services” of individual players to perform specific tasks: bowl a bad over or a bad spell; “struggle” with the bat and get out at or below a specified score, etc. Cricket is a game of moments, each seemingly mundane yet holding within its occurrence the possibility of changing the course of the game at a later point. And it is those moments bookies seek to fix.

For those in the book-making business, it is a double whammy: punters bet more on moments, on small possibilities, than on outcomes, and therefore knowing what a particular player will do helps bookies shade the odds and make a killing.

At a larger level, knowing that two or three or four players of one side will, at critical moments, under-perform gives the bookie a near-certainty that the side in question will lose the game. It is not a dead cert – one of the “unfixed” players could well turn in a game-changing performance. But the odds are certainly in favor of the possibility that if four key players in a team of 11 perform at below par, a defeat is likely. And that is good enough for the bookie.

The India-versus-Pakistan game did not, therefore, have to be fixed in its entirety. All it would have taken was for a few players of one side to have been bought – and that is the scenario the SI India cover story surfaces.

Another vignette relating to the World Cup – and we quote verbatim from the story:
“According to the version of a group of journalists who met several hours before the India-West Indies World Cup match in Chennai (a day-nighter), they hadn’t even finished breakfast when they were told that bookies had already declared that Chris Gayle would not be playing in the game.

“Until that moment, there had been no indication to the mediapersons – cricket reporters all – accompanying the team that there was anything wrong with Gayle, or that he would be skipping the match. A few hours later, the news was confirmed. Gayle did not play. Someone in the know had already passed on that information.”

The India Connection

SI India: OK. And you are sure about these two, **** and ****? [Two players whose names have been removed.]

Bookie: Haan. Inse meri khud baat hui hai. (Yes, I spoke with these two myself)

SI India: Okay. Kya baat hui thi? Ek baar bataaiye. (Okay. What was the conversation about? Tell us please)

Bookie: Jo tape mere paas thi, usme toh ek argument tha. (On the tape I had, there was an argument)

SI India: Jab woh shuru hota hai tape, toh usme first voice kiski hai? (When the tape began, who's was the first voice on it?)

Bookie: First voice humaari hai. Jab tak hum kuch bolte nahin, woh saamne se kuch nahin bolta. (We spoke first. As long as I didn't speak, no one spoke from their end either)

SI India: Aap mein se kiski hai? Sunilji ki? (And who from your end? Sunil?)

Bookie: Nahin, Tinku ki. Do tapes hain. Tinku ne kaha ki... [pauses] (No, Tinku. There were two tapes. Tinku said...)

SI-India: 1st tape mein Tinku ne kaha ki... (What did Tinku say on the first tape?)

Bookie: Theek hai sab kuch. Hum paise bhijwa dete hain. Baaki saari baat pehle decide

ho chuki thi, phir jab usne commitment poora nahin kiya, toh doosri baar unhone mujhe kaha ki phone laga aur pooch.

Maine kaha, “Sir kya hua? Ye gadbad kaise ho gayi? Hum toh mar gaye!’ (Everything is fine. We'll send the money. Everything else had been decided in advance, but when he didn't fulfill the commitment, then he (Tinku) told me the second time, you call and ask what happened. I said, "Sir, what happened? How did this get messed up? You've ruined us".

SI India: Direct **** [Player’s name] ko phone kiya? (You called **** [Player's name removed] directly?

Bookie: Haan. Toh woh bola, ‘Behen ke... phone rakh.’ (Yes. And he said, "Sister@3@#@#, hang up..."

SI India: Phir? (And then?)

Bookie: Phir agle din uske kisi acquaintance ka phone aaya ki aise-aise ho gaya tha. ‘***’ [Reference to a BCCI official removed] gadbad kar diya. Usse pata chal gaya tha toh usne dressing room mein kaha ki aisa kuch karne ki koshish nahin karein or isiliye hum paise wapas kar rahe hain’. (Then the next day, an acquaintance of his called. He said, **** [reference to a BCCI official removed] messed it up. He found out that something was on, so he came to the dressing room and said, don't try anything, which is why we are returning the money'.)

The SI India cover story is based, they say, on 400 minutes-worth of taped conversations. The above is one of them; what is said is scary, what has been redacted (the names of the players) is incendiary, since rather than two named players now being viewed with suspicion, we are now forced to view the entire team with a measure of distrust. ‘Is he the one?’, we will go in a corner of our minds every time a set batsman gets out to a silly shot, or a bowler operates below par, or a fielder muffs a sitter.

Some of the conversations whose transcripts do not appear in the story refer to team information being available to a middleman via a top player agent.

Again, this merely confirms what is widely known within the cricketing fraternity: that privileged information, in the world of cricket, is worth cold hard cash.

The world scoffed when it was first revealed that Shane Warne and Mark Waugh had received monetary considerations from bookies, during Australia’s 1994 tour of Sri Lanka, in return for passing on innocuous information about the weather and the pitch. ‘Why would anyone pay for information they can get just by looking out the window?’, was the amused reaction.

It seemed improbable – until you realized that the initial payment for innocuous information was merely the bait. Once a player accepts money in exchange for information, the pattern is set; from that point on, the demands for information increase exponentially, and the cricketer who has compromised himself once finds it impossible to resist. Innocence resembles virginity in this as well – it is all or nothing; there is no such thing as a little big innocent.

The business of information has increasingly become organized, with kingpins (controllers of the bookmaking business, to whom individual bookies pay tithe) at one end and players at the other, and cut outs built into the process to shield the identities of the players concerned.

Typically (and this moved from guesswork to fact when, last year, the spot fixing story involving three Pakistani players broke in London), it is the increasingly powerful player agent who serves as the cut out. He has access to the player at all times, and thus is in a position to routinely gather information and, away from the scrutiny of the ICC’s anti-corruption sleuths, pass that information on to the bookies and their kingpins.

And that brings up the India connection in the Sports Illustrated India story. Quote:

“What is worse, in many ways, is that local bookies and middlemen either claim to know players personally, or know their agents very well. In one conversation, a top Delhi bookie’s sidekick informed us that he had called up a senior player during a T20 international because of a Rs 5 crore spot-fixing deal that had fallen through.

“While we were not privy to him calling up the player in question, the player’s personal numbers he had were correct and some of the details and team information he had were startling.”

SI India goes on to connect the dots, adding fact to supposition to make its case. Quote:

“Separately, a top BCCI official told SI that the same player (who the bookie claimed to have spoken to) was also warned that he was being “watched carefully” during the Indian Premier League’s second season in Africa.

The IPL Connection

On April 17, in course of an ICC meeting in Dubai, the BCCI agreed to the offer of having the global body’s anti-corruption wing provide cover for the IPL. And thereby hangs a tale.

When the IPL – with its mega-buck auctions, its dugouts where players and owners sat together while games were in progress, its after-hours parties open to anyone who could pay the price of admission, and where players had their pick of girls rendering “hostess” and “escort” services and whose tabs were picked up by anonymous others – was first launched, the likes of ICC president Haroon Lorgat and ACSU chief Paul Congdon had warned that the freewheeling nature of the tournament could result in the sort of corruption that, in an earlier era, had given Sharjah a bad name.

Those warnings were dismissed off hand, as coming from outsiders “jealous of India’s success”. And in this context, it is pertinent to mention that there were, still are, sections of the establishment around the world that wants nothing more badly than for the IPL to fail, as such a failure would open up opportunities for the boards of other nations.

The essential logic behind the warnings of Lorgat and Congdon were however indisputable – and unlike the case with Sharjah, there was now a solution handy: ensure that the IPL was brought under ACSU cover, as happens with all ICC-sanctioned tournaments.

In public, the subject was not discussed. In private, the BCCI dragged its feet – until the story finally broke that the BCCI had refused the ACSU’s services. At this point, the BCCI put on its characteristic air of injured innocence, and said the ICC’s charge of $1.2 million to provide ACSU cover was too steep a price to afford.

To put that “steep price” into perspective, it is pertinent to mention that the BCCI had for the financial year 2007-2008 declared an overall income of around $210 million.

Finally, when the subject was raised during the Dubai meeting, the BCCI finally okayed the ACSU cover – just two days before the start of the league, and thus too late for the ACSU to effectively deploy. It was no secret that various state-level officials of the Indian board were perplexed, to put it mildly, at how the BCCI had handled the whole affair.

Here is a quote from the SI India story:

“Some BCCI officials were very concerned by the free access to players, national and international, during that second season (in South Africa). Several known shady characters based in the Middle East, but not seen in India, flew into South Africa and booked rooms in the players’ hotels, both during last year’s Champions’ League and the IPL’s second season,” an official told SI India.

“Another said he had ticked off a top India player’s agent, telling him to “stay away” from him when the agent came to invite him for an event in South Africa.”

So now what?

Prima facie, the SI India story, a copy of which was provided to Yahoo prior to publication, does not appear to amount for much:

  • The possibility that the World Cup semifinal between India and Pakistan, or portions thereof, was fixed;

  • The information that vast sums of illicit money changed hands during the World Cup;

  • The suggestion that politicians of varying degrees of prominence were part of the loose confederation of those who make illegal profits out of cricket;

  • A question mark about the sudden exit of Chris Gayle from the playing eleven in a World Cup game against India;

  • A question surrounding an India player and his agent who had apparently done enough to cause even the BCCI – notorious for its Three Monkeys-style inability to see, hear, or speak to any wrongdoing – to issue a warning;

  • A reference in course of a conversation (whose transcript is not part of the story) to a national selector who received unspecified favors in return for bringing a particular player into the national team.

Neither individually nor collectively does any of this amount to much, in the eyes of cricket fans who, having been serially shocked by revelations of far greater voltage over the course of the previous decade, have built up immunity to such revelations. And yet, there is – in a dog that did not bark sort of way – a hidden significance to this SI India cover story, and that significance lurks in the mention that the magazine is in possession of 400 minutes of taped conversations relating to illicit activities on the fringes of the cricket field.

Here’s the money quote, edited for size:

“Over the last six months, SI India has met, individually and collectively, with over half a dozen known bookies, players, agents and officials, and watched from the sidelines as investigative officers across agencies conducted undercover operations into organized betting syndicates and worked on tip-offs with regard to spot-fixing before and during the World Cup.

“…SI India has taped many of these conversations with bookies and police officers, and while the tapes are authentic, some of these tapes are yet to be verified – it is still an ongoing operation – which is why names have not been printed. We have informally offered officials of both the International Cricket Council and the Board of Control for Cricket in India access to these recordings to take this further as they please.”

When this issue of SI India hits the stands (at the moment of writing this, that is still some 12 hours away), we can expect a flurry of denials accompanied by ‘explanatory’ conspiracy theories.

The Rs 400 billion question is, what action will the ICC/BCCI take? Will the two governing bodies, national and global, take up the SI offer, examine the contents of the tape, and use that to spark their own investigations?

And – tantalizing prospect – what fresh revelations will come from the SI India stable, once the “ongoing operation” is completed, and the tapes are thoroughly mined for information and insight?

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