Questionable links

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

A corrupt economic system fuels the illegal betting syndicates, which are central to the corruption of the game.

CRICKET'S worst-ever scandal unravelled for reasons that had nothing to do with the game, or anyone who plays it.

Early last summer, the Karachi-based mafia of Dawood Ibrahim made a major push to make its presence felt in New Delhi. Two of its major targets were the owners of Apollo Tyres and an upmarket jewellery concern, Khanna Jewellers. Both sets of people recei ved a succession of calls from the Dawood Ibrahim hitman Salim Hatheli (whose nickname derives from his reputed ability to slap his victims hard) demanding crores of rupees as protection money. Most Mumbai businesses would have quietly caved in to such a demand, but Delhi's capitalists proved a tougher, more resourceful lot. Being at the heart of the Delhi durbar, the city's businessmen could command resources that are unavailable to their Mumbai counterparts. One of the families, related to a se nior Indian Police Service officer, sought protection officially.

By June, on the advice of Delhi Police, the owners of Apollo Tyres and Khanna Jewellers had drawn Salim Hatheli into protracted bargaining. At one point, sources say, the Dawood Ibrahim group even tried to cut a payment-in-kind deal involving new tyres. What they did not know was that the Delhi Police were listening in. At the Delhi Police's communications interception centre, housed in a run-down building in R.K. Puram, Inspector Ishwar Singh spent months tracing the calls. He discovered that the numbe rs Hatheli was calling from those which were earlier used to threaten T-Series (the music audio cassette company) owner Kishan Kumar, whose brother had been the victim of a Mumbai contract killing. The monitoring of Kishan Kumar's phone, in turn, led to the bookmaker Rajesh Kalra, and his London-based businessman associate Sanjeev Chawla. On March 14, an incredulous Ishwar Singh listened in as Chawla began his fateful conversation with South African cricket team captain Hansie Cronje.

WEEKS after the Hansie Cronje scandal broke, it is clear that match-fixing has become an entrenched component of global cricket. At once it is clear that the whole truth about the subversion of the sport is not about to render itself transparent. South A frican cricket boss Ali Bacher's allegation on April 20 that at least two 1999 World Cup matches were fixed ran up against angry denials from International Cricket Council chief Jagmohan Dalmiya. Bacher reportedly pointed to Bangladesh's startling defeat of Pakistan by 62 runs, after five Pakistan batsmen failed to reach double figures. South Africa, for its part, is investigating a 1996 team meeting that took place after players were allegedly offered $250,000 to lose a match against India.

Former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin, along with Ajay Jadeja, has emerged as leitmotif in the new match-fixing allegations. Outlook magazine has claimed that in November 1997 the Mumbai Police's Crime Branch had tapped telephone conversations which showed that the three had accepted Rs.20 lakhs each for passing on match-related information and performing poorly. Azharuddin has denied the charges, and threatened to sue for libel. Separate charges have, however, fuelled the controversy. Former Income Tax czar Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, for one, has claimed that a former Indian cricket captain made known assets of Rs.16 crores during the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (VDIS) in 1998. Gupta did not name the captain, and the charge may never be proved because of VDIS confidentiality clauses.

Mumbai Police officials, for their part, are maintaining a stoic silence on the affair. Officials who succeeded the then-Deputy Commissioner of Police in charge of the Crime Branch told Frontline that they had heard of the Azharuddin tapes, but th at no file existed in the department on the matter. Commissioner of Police Ronnie Mendonca, who Outlook said possessed the tapes, has remained silent too. It is not clear whether legal authorisation was obtained for this wiretap operation, or for similar operations which sources say had taken place in 1994. It is possible that the Calcutta High Court, which has admitted litigation on match-fixing, could call for the tapes, but whether the Mumbai Police will admit to their existence is another mat ter.

Media reports have alleged that Azharuddin, along with Ajay Jadeja and Nayan Mongia, figure in the Mumbai Police tapes, but they are not the only cricketers charged with being regular collaborators with match-fixing syndicates. The growing circles of con troversy have enveloped Ajay Sharma, a regular Ranji Trophy-level player, a close friend of Azharuddin. Sharma, Delhi Police investigators have found, called up Azhar regularly during matches. During the March 21 India-Pakistan match at Sharjah, he made eight calls even as play was in progress, and seven calles during another match five days later.

Even cricket legends have not been left untouched. Sachin Tendulkar, despite his squeaky clean-image, has been alleged to have invited a top bookmaker, Sobhan, to his wedding. And serious allegations have been published against Kapil Dev, which he has de nied flatly.

Just how much of this mass of allegations will sustain an actual criminal investigation is far from clear. Although Sharma seems to have disappeared abroad under somewhat suspicious circumstances as the allegations against him broke, making phone calls i n itself is not by any stretch of imagination an offence. Nor is Tendulkar's relationship with Sobhan of legal relevance, since the alleged bookmaker has not actually been found to have committed any criminal act. In some cases, players have responded w ith plausible responses to allegations against them. Azharuddin, for example, admits to having received a Mercedes Benz car from fans in Dubai, not bookmakers, which he imported legally. Indeed, it is possible that while some allegations may be found to be correct, libel suits might soon be flying around thicker than cricket balls at Mumbai's Azad Maidan cricket ground.

Indeed, hard evidence has not been a strong point of some recent verbiage on the match-fixing scandal. Former Board of Control for Cricket in India chief I.S. Bindra has charged Dalmiya, his one-time mentor, with being a "prisoner of the mafia". At a pre ss conference on April 19, Bindra claimed that Dalmiya was a "prisoner of the mafia" responsible for match- fixing. He had earlier claimed to have been informed in advance about the outcome of a 1998 India-New Zealand match, notably that four Indian bats men would run themselves out. Dalmiya retaliated by expressing "pity" for the "disturbed" Bindra. Former Union Minister and one-time BCCI president Madhavrao Scindia, in turn, denied allegations made by then-Revenue Secretary M.R. Sivaraman that he had i n 1995 received tapes of conversations on match-fixing. Scindia pointed out that he was not the BCCI president at the time Sivaraman claimed to have given him the tapes.

What is truly surprising, in some senses, is how little the current controversy has added to public knowledge on just how prevalent match-fixing is. The Justice Y.V. Chandrachud inquiry, conducted after press broke news of widespread match-fixing in 1997 , arrived at a predictable conclusion. Given Chandrachud's superficial approach, the fact that he had no independent investigative apparatus at his disposal, and that former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar's refusal to name names unless he was given legal pr otection, a vapid report was generated. For all the talk of an ICC inquiry into cricket's ongoing crisis, it is unlikely that such an exercise will achieve any real results. That will need a proper criminal investigation, with police forces cooperating a cross borders, for the real players in match-fixing operations are unlikely to be intimidated by any number of in-house inquiries.

It is going to take much hard work to break the mafia-run betting, for the business is underground only in the sense it is not legal. In all other respects it runs just as a regular business would. Mumbai Police officials say that the business is control led by some two dozen major operators, running businesses from rooms equipped with multiple television screens, fax machines and telephone lines. Large clients phone in bets directly, while smaller punters call agents responsible for neighbourhood operat ions. These bets are passed on to Dubai and Karachi-based syndicates, responsible for maintaining a uniform system of odds. Bets are taken on everything from elections to football matches, but cricket offers unique opportunities. Odds are offered on the outcome of individual performances or even overs, and change through the course of a match.

Syndicates are central to the system. Dawood Ibrahim, for example, placed one of his most trusted lieutenants, Sharad 'Anna' Shetty, a one-time resident of Mumbai's Jogeshwari suburb, in charge of these hugely-profitable operations. Rajendra Nikhalje's g roup runs similar operations, although smaller in scale. Such patronage is vital to ensuring that punters feel compelled to meet their debts, and ensuring a uniform system of odds. More important, the syndicates provide individual bookmakers a cushion ag ainst reverses, underwriting losses that they cannot meet. And that is where the ability to fix matches becomes crucial. The syndicates can reverse a series of losses in, say, six matches, by fixing a seventh one. Or, where it appears that heavy losses a re imminent because of the pattern of bets laid, a fixed match could turn the prospects of a financial disaster into a windfall.

While towns from Delhi to Darjeeling have illegal gambling operations, history ensured the centrality of Mumbai's mafia organisations to the business. The syndicates perhaps had their origins in the gambling and bootleg liquor dens set up by Pathan Karim Lala in the 1940s. The profits even enabled Karim Lala to acquire some legitimacy by floating the Jirga-e-Hind Pathan Party, which he claimed had the blessings of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Varadaraja Mudaliar, a swarthy Tamil migrant to Mumbai who herald ed the rise of a new generation in the underworld in the 1960s, started where Karim Lala had left off. Mudaliar pioneered the art of cultivating official patronage for the underworld. His colleague in jail during the Emergency, Mastan Mirza, also played a key role in structuring illegal gambling as an organised business.

The networks of the 1970s were inherited a decade later by Dawood Ibrahim. Police officials attribute several reasons for their success. It has little to do, per se, with the fact that gambling is illegal. In March, the Mumbai Police arrested illegal bo okmakers from inside the Mahalaxmi horse racing complex, where betting is legal. They had survived by offering better odds than the legal ones, and securing low-level official connivance. Then, the bookmakers' clients include persons from the wealthy and influential business communities in Mumbai and Delhi. One Mumbai Police officer who broke an operation in 1996 recalls being deluged by calls from the bookmaker's well-connected clients. Finally, the only legal sanction against illegal gambling is the a ntiquated Bombay Gambling Act, which sanctions fines of a laughable order as punishment.

WHERE, then, does cricket go from here? It has been curiously little commented on the fact that national cricket boards and the corporate entities that have brought wealth to the game have a vested interest in ensuring that the whole truth about match-fi xing never comes out. Should real evidence of widespread match-fixing emerge, that could mean that star players, perhaps entire teams, would have to be banned from playing. The fate of judicial inquiry report of the Lahore High Court's Justice Abdul Qayy um is illustrative. Submitted to the Pakistan Government last year, Justice Qayyum's report indicted several top players, including Wasim Akram, Saleem Malik, Mushtaq Ahmed and Ijaz Ahmed, for match-fixing charges. Qayyum was reported to have said he had found evidence against other players too, evidence that was evidently suppressed. No real action was taken against any of the players named, and none seems imminent.

A similar fate has met the not-insignificant number of past controversies on match-fixing. Former Pakistan wicket-keeper Rashid Latif's allegations against his team-mates Malik and Akram in 1997, the genesis of the Justice Qayyum inquiry, could not even prevent the two from continuing to play. Australian stars Mark Waugh and Shane Warne admitted in December 1998 to receiving cash from a Chennai-based bookmaker, but the Australian authorities there chose to believe that the payments were made only to se cure information on playing conditions. No investigation was provoked by charges made by Dean Jones, Greg Matthews and Danny Morrison that they were offered cash to fix matches. Even Sunil Gavaskar was charged in March 1999 by former Pakistan fast bowler Sarfaraz Nawaz of being involved in fixing matches. Gavaskar responded by describing Nawaz as "the scum of the earth": but no institutional probe was ever conducted.

In the final analysis, the match-fixing scandal might just tell us more about the post-liberalisation economic malaise in South Asia than about cricket. Hansi, a small town some 25 km from Hissar in Haryana, illustrates just how widespread small-time gam bling is in India. Dedicated punters here commit cash on cricket matches, but that is not their only passion. Bets are even placed on whether a lota (brass pot) placed near the public library will fill up on a rainy day. In the course of an India- Pakistan match, the turnover at the local gambling dens may run to Rs. 1 crore. That is less than what a single businessman in Mumbai, flush with spare, unaccounted-for cash, could bet on the outcome of an over in Sharjah. A corrupt economic system fuels the betting syndicates, which in turn fuel match-fixing.

It is unlikely that legalising gambling will solve the problem, for the stakes will remain high. Vigorous law enforcement would help not a little. The cellphones of the punters in Delhi and Mumbai have been silent since news of the Delhi Police's communi cations intelligence operations broke, and those in the know say many operations have simply shut down to weather this hot summer out. It is improbable, however, that the Delhi Police will arrest the people who spent the money that led Sanjeev Chawla or Rajesh Kalra to make payments to Hansi Cronje, for the very good reason that they are, most probably, the best-off of Delhi and Mumbai. And for that reason, if none other, the cellphones will, in time, start ringing again. No amount of platitudes about c leaning up cricket will be enough to check the corruption of the game.

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