Cricket’s Dirty Games

Ostrich Stance
June 18, 1997
“Azhar,Jaddu Used To Call Me”
July 30, 1997

Cricket’s Dirty Games

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is in the visible not in the invisible”
– Oscar Wilde.

The visible, and the audible. The malady afflicting Indian cricket today is a hearsay. Not little spadefuls of coal you chuck in the boiler pit but big mouthfuls of Little Lucy, the biggest earch-mover ever build. It zaps you from all directions-journalists, board officials, players, ex-players, commentators, bookies, punters, police, bell-boys.

The trick is to filer the hearsay. Use it like batteries to focus on the visible. For instance, a senior Mumbai police officer’s assertion that cricketers fix matches: “The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) can plead ignorance. Pleading ignorance is a kind of connivance.”

The circuit is overheated with talk and innuendo. When the Pakistanis whip Sachin Tendulkar’s ten in the Independence Cup in Chennai, Hindi daily Punjab Kesri goes to town on who was on the take. When Ajay Jadeja pottered around in the Sahara Cup in Toronto last September the Bengali daily Aajkal did ditto.

The Indians, if you believed the buzz, don’t lose matches; they simply tank them.

Go by the buzz, and greed, commerce seem to be the main operatives. In last year’s Titan Cup finals between India and South Africa, the police say the turnover of bookies in Mumbai alone was well over Rs 43 crore. Says Kamal Bindra, wife of former BCCI boss I.S. Bindra, on the earnings of today’s cricketers: “Too little money is bad. But so is too much.” Adds Sadanand Vishvanath, former India wicket-keeper: “In my days I didn’t get a sniff of match-fixing but now, with so much commerce, I would not be surprised to find that there is a nexus between some players and bookies.”

All that the circuit talks about these days is money: more than performance and record, it is betting, match-fixing, player involvement that are the cynosure of all discussion. Suddenly, no match seems to be above suspicion. Amazingly, not even some of the best known names in Indian cricket are spared. In the course of its reporting, Outlook kept hearing some names with alarming regularity, including those of Mohammed Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Nayan Mongia and former India manager Ajit Wadekar. And a slew of others, who were being circumstantially indicted in some match or the other.

Pakistan’s Aamir Sohail had spoken to Outlook (April 9), saying “two Indian players” had approached him during the ’94 Singer Cup in Sri Lanka to “fix” a one dayer. “I told them they’d come to the wrong guy,”he had said. The accusation is lent credence by Manoj Prabhakar’s testimonial. Wadekar, then, had dismissed Sohail’s allegation.

Indeed, in the two months that Outlook chased the story, anybody who’s somebody in Indian cricket admitted match-fixing was on, but were unwilling to go on record. Take Kamal Bindra. Admitting she knew much more than she was willing to reveal, she said: “Telling more would be like icon-smashing. People have so many expectations. Talk to me on some other happy story.”

Outlook also encountered people wanting to blow the lid. Like the Mumbai cop. He admits having overheard phone-talk between two Indian players and a bookie during the ’94-95 tour of New Zealand. Two hours before the Indians were to play the first match of the 4-nation Centenary Tournament against the hosts on February 16, ’95, a bookie, says the cop, called one of the players to confirm if the “arrangements” had been made. The bookie, under observation for some time, was willing to cooperate. The police made him call the player from a booth downstairs from his den (“in case the player suspected something and said, ‘ I’ll call you back’ “).

Unknown to the player, the police listened in on a parallel line. “I was aghast when, after the courtesies, the bookie asked:’Sab ho gaya kya?‘ More so, when the player replied, ‘Haan, sab ho gaya‘.” The procedure was repeated with one more player immediately after. The same question. The same reply. India was bundled out for 160 in the 46th over. The Kiwis notched up the required runs comfortably for the loss of six wickets with 17 overs to spare.

The officer, who represented Bombay University, says “every side, with the exceptions of Australia and England, can be purchased. He won’t reveal if he recorded the conversation or just made notes. He won’t even say if the investigation was official. But he says he has the phone receipt of the call, the number of the hotel to which it was made, and the room number of the players called. What’s more, he’s prepared to present the evidence if the BCCI sets up a probe panel. Can he present the bookie as witness? “Yes, why not?”

On returning from the New Zealand tour, administrative manager A. Venkat Rao named four players as being involved in a betting racket. But taken to task for his foot-in-the-mouth-itis, Rao beat a hasty retreat. Contacted by Outlook, he now sings the familiar tune: “I have nothing to say; I was misquoted by reporters.”

. TILL the third one-dayer in St Vincent in the recent West Indies series, Azhar was up there among the greatest. Matchturning batsman, maha-successful captain and one of the last gentlemen, At 201 for 3 in the 42nd over, needing 250 to win and go one-up the four-match series, India, it seemed, was safe in Azhar’s hands. There was Jadeja with him, and Robin Singh and Saba Karim after. Just singles would do the trick. “Match finish?” Brian Lara asked an Indian journalist sitting near the pavilion.

But out there, it was harakiri. Jadeja, Singh, Karim perished to bad shots. So did Azhar. When the visitors choked 18 runs short, India’s worst-kept secret went legit: something was amiss. “The way Azhar batted,” wrote R. Mohan in The Sportstar, “was not so much careless as needlessly leading to suspicion…. (Even) if all the rumours about that match have as much credibility as so many straws in the wind. I don’t believe he sold out to the forces of the gray world beyond the boundary.” As Azhar was subsequently dropped, rumours raged like wildfire. Had he been axed for non-cricketing reasons? That is, other than retaining Sangeeta Bijlani, after the other players’ wives had left?

“How do you know this?” asks manager Madan Lal on talk that Azhar had paid the price for asking one of his three partners at the crease—Saurav Ganguly, Jadeia, Singh—to hit out instead of seeking safety in singles as Sachin had instructed them. After 244 one-dayers, one little incident may prove the killer blemish. All those oohing and aahing at his plush Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills, Bandra flats, Mercedes Benzes, Rolex platinum watches and Armani suits, have now pulled out their knives. Says Prabhakar: “There are players who spend 5,000 dirhams on a suit. Some have fancy cars. Nobody gifts those kind of things for nothing”. At cocktail parties, clubhouses and coffeehouses, St Vincent emerged as the shining but only the latest example of the rot. In spite of being paid Rs 1.2 lakh per Test match and Rs 90,000 for a one-dayer, Indian cricketers seem to have arrived as the new symbol of greed.

As former opening batsman and BJP MP Chetan Chauhan says: “An average Indian cricketer in the playing XI earns up to Rs 40 lakh a year. What more could he want?” There is betting in cricket. And India loses matches. Disconsolate fans and fanatics are beginning to believe there’s a connection. And they’re not alone. Says Sunil Dev, team manager in South Africa: “I believe the performance of some players is definitely influenced by outside forces. Some former players are also involved in this racket. I think the board should conduct an inquiry.”

In SA, alleges Dev, there was only one player who was unhappy at Benoni where India beat Zimbabwe to reach the finals of the Standard Bank Tri-Series. “Everybody knows who that player is. I was sitting next to Ganguly who kept calculating how much was required. That player was next to him, he too kept making enquiries but for a different purpose.” Little wonder then that Dev wrote in his report to the seer: “I would like to mention that once a player retires as a captain he should also retire from the team as a player. No army can be commanded by two generals, no company can be run by two managing directors.”

From Madhav Mantri to Naren Tamhane, from Erapalli Prasanna to Roger Binny, cricketers assert they play to win. Asks Nari Contractor: “What if Azhar’s turn hadn’t come in St Vincent?” But rumour-mills are on such an overdrive following the Indians’ poor run abroad that nothing-nobody-passes scrutiny. If Sidhu opted out of St Vincent at the last minute, bookies’ odds on team composition must be heavy. If Venkatesh Prasad gets a call from Dubai in his hotel-room before spraying the ball all over, then it must have been from you-know-who. If Jadeja holes out in Chennai after being dropped in the previous over, and walks away smiling, then it must be you-know-why. It’s innuendo without end. The BCCI even took cue from a newsreport on a reporter being approached in the West Indies and asked Sachin to respond (see Dalmiya interview).

Admits Mohan: “Match-fixing definitely goes on but it is not as widespread as people believe it to be. I would put the figure at about 5 per cent of the matches played.” Adds Partab Ramchand of The Indian Express: “But bookies like to think it’s 40 per cent.”

Indications from the betting traffic are heavy. In the third Test at Barbados, where India were chasing 120 to win in the fourth innings, they started the day as favourites at 20p. Says a punter: “I had bet Rs 5 lakh on India winning. I was confident even after the second wicket fell but then I received a tipoff from a bookie friend that India was to lose. By the time I could get through to my bookie, the odds were in favour of the Windies. They were at 10p. I had to bet Rs 55 lakh to recover my Rs 5 lakh.” A journalist even rang up Madan Lal before the chase, that a bookie had called him saying that India would lose. A senior player also said it was going to be tough. The official relayed it to Madan Lal, who blew up. Hut, says Jadeja, “thankfully, nobody got out to airy-fairy shots. Or people would have lynched them.

During last year’s Sahara Cup in Toronto, bookies in Indore knew the exact pattern the series would take. Amongst other things, a builder-punter told STAR TV commentator Sushil Doshi much before the third match that India would win because Akram would pull out. Says Doshi: “It happened exactly as predicted. The media got the news much later.” Then there’s Bombay bookie Anil Steele. He is said to have lost Rs 17 crore in a single match and turned insolvent. Why? “Counter-fixing,” explains bookie Nasanna. “He’d paid to fix a match but somebody didn’t follow instructions. Steele went bust.” Says another STAR TV commentator: “There’s a distinction between bribing a player and paying him for counselling. If he takes money for giving advice on the pitch, team morale etc I think it’s kind of legit. Taking money doesn’t mean he won’t fight like a lion for his country.” But asks Prabhakar: “Why approach a player on the team when you can get an ex-player? You approach players only when you want to influence the game, and it’s best influenced when you’re chasing.”

The conduits are many—ex-players, journalists. Says Qamar Ahmed, London-based Pakistani journalist: “When Pakistan toured SA there were 7-8 applications by Indian journalists for accreditation. SA Board chief Ali Bacher asked me about them but there was not one genuine person so I cut out the names. This when India wasn’t even playing. On many tours, bookies always hang around the dressing room and the pressbox. During the Indian tour of the West Indies there were bookies from Pakistan too.”

Says a bookie: “If a former Indian manager can sell his pavilion passes for Rs 3,000 each, what stops us from approaching such a man for fixing a match?” But BCCI secretary Jagmohan Dalmiya counters: “Selling your country is a much bigger offence than selling tickets although it’s a cognisable offence.” The Indian team gets 75 passes for every match and reports are that most of the time they are on sale. So effectively, there’s no control over who’s sitting in the pavilion and what they transact on their cellphones.

Of course, there are also genuine Indian journalists who punt from the press box; and receive calls from bookies and punters who, besides wanting inputs on local conditions, also want certain privileged information. Two of these journalists are Mohan of The Hindu and Debashis Dutta of Aajkal. Also, most bookies are cricket-illiterate and depend on the experts’ advice. Usually, the same bookies call the same journalists, and mostly during away series.

Sabyasachi Sarkar of Ananda Bazar Patrika, who’s been on many India tours, admits “calls from Dubai and Mumbai come to certain journalists on a regular basis during the toss. The same journalists interact with the players in the dressing room. It happens all the time.” At the Sahara Cup in Canada, he says, two journos had a telling grin when India couldn’t cross 125 in 25 overs. Says Sarkar: “India fell short by 8 runs. It was as if they knew what was happening and the bet was we wouldn’t cross 125 after 25 overs.

THE reward? A fixed amount per match, airline tickets, or a sanctioned amount the journos can use for a “free bet”. The cricket correspondent of a leading southern daily told another who invested in shares: “I make more in one match than you do in 10 years.” The same correspondent is believed to have told colleagues in the pressbox on the final morning at Barbados: “India’s going to lose, make your money. ” Other scribes are surprised the journalist has been allowed to carry on his activities by his conservative employers. In the Sri Lanka-New Zealand match at Hyderabad, according to Calcutta bookie Jabroo, a certain Indian journalist got a free bet of Rs 50,000, meaning the bookie would cough up if the journo won but the journo didn’t have to if he lost. He lost. The same scribe, say sources, was Rs 4 lakh up after the India tour of SA but Rs 2 lakh down after the Windies tour. He’s also said to be close to senior players, including Sachin, and four years ago approached an Indian bowler to get help in getting fixed up with a bookie. The bowler ticked him off, saying he better approach another senior player who was more likely to have connections.

Says a player in the team: “You can’t say a particular journalist is close to Sachin because he sits in his room all the time. Has Sachin told you he’s close to him? I remember that same journalist sitting with Azhar all the time when he was captain. Suppose you come and sit in my room I’m not going to throw you out.” Cricket writer Rajan Bala says it’s unethical for journalists to have contacts with bookies or indulge in punting from the pressbox. “If they do, they are making a mockery of their cricket writing.” Adds L.P. Sahi of The Telegraph: “One journalist bets in thousands. We know how much he earns. Where does he get the money from? Another journalist keeps following the Indian team around even though the paper he works for can hardly support the travel. Who funds him?”

But there’s enough money around. Bookie estimates peg the turnover in a single one-dayer in betting centres across India at Rs 100 crore. Last year, bookies in Mumbai debated initiating a move to legalise the cricket-betting scene but desisted, fearing it would go the horseracing way. There’s a 26 per cent tax on horseracing wagers in India, plus a 40 per cent tax on winnings above Rs 2,500. In Ladbrokes, London, where accepting odds on anything under the sun is legal, there’s just a pre-paid tax of 6 per cent and if a person doesn’t pay there’s a 12 per cent tax on winning. In India at horseraces, to save on tax, punters bet Rs 100 with an understanding with the bookie that the amount is really Rs 10,000. So they pay tax on just Rs 100.

Says a STAR TV commentator: “With such big money involved, don’t you think bookies will try to manipulate where it goes?” Adds Kheemji, a Bombay-based bookie: “India has become a gambler’s den. Nobody wants to work hard to earn money any longer.” In Delhi, the crime branch has a list of 52 brokers. The biggest is said to be Mukesh, two others are Pole and Hans, sheltered by mafia don Y. Kumar. Kumar’s son Deepak, once Pole’s partner, was arrested 18 months ago. In Delhi’s Kailash colony there’s even a woman broker going by the name of ‘Nirmal’. She is supposedly related to the famous Bagdi, behind the alleged rigging of the Asif Iqbal-G. Vishwanath toss in Calcutta in the ’79 series. Other brokers go by the name of Tony and Chhabra.

Operating through mobiles, they accept calls only from known numbers. They tape talks with punters so there’s proof of the odds when the bet was placed. Working through sub-brokers, each of them with their own clientele of punters, the bookie’s operating credo is trust. Debts are mostly written off. The illegal business is still benign, there are no violent debt collectors like, say, the kind that operate in Thailand and Hong Kong. If you go bust, your life isn’t under threat. In Calcutta, the main bookies are Jabroo, Atman Ram, Ashok Ladia and Mahendroo. Jabroo is said to have raked in Rs 40 lakh during the Wanderers Test in SA after betting massively on a draw. He lost Rs 15 lakh on the India-Pakistan match at Chennai. Jyantibhai Mallad, a Mumbai bookie, went bust.

“In our trade, outstandings are at time so huge many of us turn insolvent or commit suicide,” says a bookie. In Mumbai, five bookies have committed suicide in the last two years.

They can be unscrupulous too. In the World Cup final between Sri Lanka and Australia, the bookies closed shop for two hours. Says Kishore Bhimani, TV commentator and self-acknowledged punter: “I’d put money on Australia but when they started losing wickets, I wanted to hedge my bets but couldn’t. I tried every bookie I knew in Calcutta, Mumbai, Dubai but they had switched off their phones. They were backing Sri Lanka. They ‘ate’ a lot of bets on Australia winning and then switched off.

The trade is controlled by a Dubai cartel. The Mumbai police feel the Dawood gang takes a keen interest in match-fixing. Sharad Shetty alias Anna, Dawood’s brother Anees and Sunil Sawant alias “Sawtya” (shot dead in Dubai in ’95) were principal players. Says a senior photographer, who has followed the Indian team around for years: “Everybody from top to bottom is involved. I’ve seen a bookie’s diary with names of players. Some officials once asked me to testify against them but why should I? It’s not in my interest.”

Which brings us to the question: why do cricketers do it, especially when the fear of being caught is always there? According Dr Mohan, “in these corrupt times, it’s silly to expect a cricketer to be a paragon of virtue.” Says Bala: “The reason why some players could be doing it, if they do it, is because they fear life after stardom is going to be very solitary.

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