The big-money game

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST


FOR all those people who invest much of their time, attention and hope following the fortunes of the Indian cricket team, the past fortnight must have been most bewildering. As Hansiegate exploded, merciless details of tapped phone conversations and alle gations of match-fixing have tumbled out, as have reports that astronomical sums of money were involved.

Betting on cricket and the kind of manipulation that Hansie Cronje and several international cricketers were (and are) allegedly involved in is a big-money enterprise. Cronje is said to have received from a bookie $15,000, or about Rs.6.5 lakhs. During a one-day international, the turnover from betting across India is said to be close to Rs.1,000 crores; a Test match is believed to involve wagers up to Rs.100 crores. Paying Cronje Rs.6.5 lakhs in order to ensure that the bookies retain a good bit of tha t money floating around is by any yardstick a good investment.

The return on investment for those who wager may range from 5-6 per cent to 250 per cent. No legitimate business can match such attractive returns: it is this that draws gamblers/punters like moths to open fires and keeps the bookies in business.

But who are these punters? The strange truth is that it could be anyone. A tourist in Nainital, waiting at a phone booth to call home, overheard a fellow-vacationer instructing his bookie in New Delhi to put Rs.5,000 on Pakistan. Elsewhere, a grandmother watched as her college-going granddaughter shifted her bets from India to Pakistan over the telephone, in the process losing Rs.6,000 in an instant. An executive waiting to conduct a meeting with a businessman was dumb-founded as his client used up thei r appointment time on following a live telecast of a cricket match and changing his bets virtually every couple of minutes with his bookie.

One of the richest ironies about this sordid business is that it works only in an environment of complete trust and silence. A first-timer can place a bet only if he is introduced to a bookie by a regular punter. It is the regular punter who handles the newcomer's money for a 'probation' period and only after that can the newcomer open his own ledger with the bookie.

The minimum amount betted over the phone is Rs.1,000. To refer to bigger sums, the bookies have their own jargon: a 'peti' is Rs.1 lakh, a 'drum' is Rs.10 lakhs and a 'khoka' is Rs.1 crore. Bets are taken not just on victory or defeat, but on just about any eventuality - the composition of the final eleven, who will win the toss, who will bat first, who will open the batting, when will a bowling change be made, what the team totals can be. Hardcore gamblers are known to place ball-by-ball bets on open phone lines.

Where the cricketers step in with their useful nuggets of "information" is to ensure that the only party that makes the real profits in this business are the bookies themselves. The punters place their bets based on gut instinct or, heaven help them, eve n cricketing logic.

If the bookie can, with the help of a player on the field, alter the course of events, and in doing so defy logic and instinct, he gets to keep the punters' money. The amateur punter then wonders soulfully about the "glorious uncertainties" that have led him to part company with his money. Professional gamblers no doubt know they have been had.

No money changes hands until the end of a match. If the punter stands to gain he is given an address and told to collect his money from there. If the bookie has to collect, men land up at the punter's door. If the punter does not cough up the cash immedi ately, other means of extracting it come into play: payment in instalments against financial assets seized, or arm-twisting and violence. Once the dues are cleared the records of bets placed are destroyed.

Mumbai is believed to be the betting/bookie capital of India and police estimate that there are about 500 bookies in the city. From all accounts, these are the small players in the field, not the ones who pull the strings. The bulk of the Mumbai bookies hold legitimate day jobs, as traders, brokers, grain merchants, jewellers, and are separated by many levels from the people who control the worldwide operation.

The shadowy 'top men' in India are in most cases said to be Delhi-based, and the real power centre of the industry is believed to be divided between Dubai, London and Hong Kong. Among the other illegal betting centres in India are Chennai, Bangalore, Cal cutta, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad and smaller metros like Indore.

What is clear is that Hansie Cronje is not the only perpetrator of a great fraud against the game of cricket. Strangely this is not about cricket at all, but the basic urge to gamble. A senior inspector in the Mumbai Police said, "Gambling is a tendency. Cricket is the pretext." The instinct that leads the average punter to pick up the phone is the same instinct that corroded Hansie Cronje's conscience. That instinct is about making money rather than earning it. That instinct has a name, and the name is greed.

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