Credibility on test

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

Only a comprehensive audit of the administration of cricket can serve to restore public faith in the game.


APRIL 11, when the noise of an icon crumbling reverberated around the globe, was a day of revelation for the growing worldwide constituency for cricket as a spectator sport. Hansie Cronje's admission of complicity in match-fixing, made under the ministra tions of his pastor, did more than smash the reputation of a man who had been considered a symbol of sporting rectitude. It plunged cricket into its worst crisis ever and ruthlessly highlighted the dimensions of the rot that had set into the conduct of t he game.

Cynicism was for many the only possible response that day, since few other options seemed quite equal to the situation. Individuals whose association with the sport should have equipped them with the knowledge to warn of the impending catastrophe affecte d an air of injured innocence. Expressions of deep remorse were issued by those who had celebrated the growing incursion of commercialism into the sport and failed to appreciate that from accessory to appendage is a brief trajectory in the relationship b etween commerce and sport. And from the administrators who were overseeing the transformation of the game from the preserve of a few to a mass cult, there was something closely resembling panicky incoherence.

The stakes for India are especially high. Since Manoj Prabhakar - acting more in resentment and pique than reason - chose to blow the whistle on the possibility that cricket matches could be fixed through the connivance and complicity of a few key player s, there has been a series of further disclosures pointing to an intimate nexus between the lords of the bookmaking industry and the cricket professional. These were discounted in public perception for the simple reason that cricket is a team game where every one of 11 players has a role in the outcome of a match. The history of cricket is replete with instances of single players - perhaps in heroic association with another - influencing the course of a match. But these have only been to turn a match in favour of a team. Aside from the cricket-lover's intuitive sense of faith - that a Tendulkar, or in a different context a Viswanath or Gavaskar or a Bedi or Chandrasekhar - would turn a game around for his country, these heroic individual efforts have a s a rule eluded any manner of rational forecast.

The general perception has been that even if a player should choose to turn a match against his team, his baneful enterprise could quite as easily be undone by the efforts of another. Individual failures are not remarked upon in cricket since they are ea sily subsumed in the team's overall performance. But individual accomplishments that stand out from the ordinary run of a team's collective prowess, win entry into the annals of cricket heroism.

There have been few instances when individual failures have won similar notice and attention. Donald Bradman's duck in his valedictory Test appearance; Gary Sobers' first-ball dismissal in the Oval, as the West Indies' winning streak of 1966 was rudely i nterrupted by an innings defeat at the hands of a mediocre England side - these stand out in memory as notable instances when a player's failure has won entry into the annals of the game. But this is only because the individuals concerned are towering in their stature, indeed, the two greatest cricketers of the century according to a cross-section of expert opinion canvassed by the British cricket monthly, Wisden.

Perhaps then, this is the window for any cricketer of lesser renown and scruple to undertake a losing initiative, content in the belief that his failure would easily be forgotten in the collective assessment of the team's performance. Except in situation s of manifestly disproportionate talent, the outcome of a cricket match is subject to multiple uncertainties, each resistant to the control of a single player. This is especially so since the revolutionary transformation that has been wrought by the one- day variant of the game. Cricket in fact is the only international sport in recent times that has gone through this manner of a metamorphosis - from a leisurely enterprise spread over several days, challenging the commitment of the most dedicated adheren t, to a frenetic, single-day contest that meets the requirements of the most unabashed seeker of thrills.

Evidently, in this process of transition, many of the fundamental axioms of the game too changed. At one time, the notion of one player altering the fortunes of a match to a predetermined course, even if he managed to mobilise a substantial cast of supp orting characters, carried little credibility. At least, that is what every discerning cricket watcher thought.

Today he is not quite so sure.

THE Hansie Cronje affair has brought to public focus the multiplicity of levels at which the bookmaking industry has a stake in cricket. It is not just the outcome of a particular match that is the focus of gambling interest. Large fortunes are staked on the minutiae of a cricket match - such as the players a particular team will field, the opening batsmen it will deploy, the first change bowler the other team will bring into play, the individual score that a particular player will garner, the total sco re that a team will put up - the range of possibilities is literally limitless. Intuitively, it would be evident that an individual player's utility to the gambling industry stands greatly enhanced by the variety of bets that can be placed on a one-day c ricket match. And if he happens to be the captain of a team, then the range of options open to him is enormous.

The Australian megastars Shane Warne and Mark Waugh admitted as far back as 1995 that while on a tour of Sri Lanka the previous year, they had accepted $5,000 and $4,000 respectively from an Indian bookmaker, in exchange for information about the state o f the pitch and the weather. The errant players were fined by the Australian Cricket Board - the amounts not being very much greater than the illicit rewards they had received. And though the International Cricket Council was subsequently informed, there was no public announcement of the proceedings or the penalties imposed. It was only in 1998 that the media got wind of the story, compelling the players concerned and the ACB to own up rather shamefacedly.

Stung by the resultant criticism, the ACB appointed a senior lawyer ("Queens' Counsel") Rob O'Regan, to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into allegations of betting, match-fixing and other forms of collusion with bookmaking syndicates. The inquiry did not have the power to compel witnesses to testify, to demand the production of documents, or to take evidence on oath. But after interviewing all the players then contracted to the ACB and a number of former cricketers, the O'Regan inquiry pronounced itself satisfied with the level of cooperation. It concluded that apart from the two cases already known, no other Australian cricketer "had accepted payments from a bookmaker", though "a number" of them had been "approached with offers that they rejected".

INDIA'S own effort to clean up the growing rot has been considerably less distinguished. The first reports of unseemly bookmaker interest in matches involving India came during the tour of the West Indies in early 1997. Sensing a story of great public in terest, a senior cricket writer, Pradeep Magazine, cultivated the attention of a bookmaker. His story appeared in February that year, detailing the overtures made by this bookmaker to use the relatively easy access that a journalist enjoyed, to connect w ith key players and secure their cooperation. Magazine later wrote a book, Not Quite Cricket (Penguin India, 1999) which sought to uncover certain details of the sordid underworld nexus that threatened the integrity of the sport.

Again in 1997, the magazine Outlook announced to the world through a cover story that rampant doctoring of cricket performance and match-fixing constituted the seamy underside of the worldwide boom in the sport.

The cricket-loving public reacted with a sense of incredulity, though with an undertone of worry. The administration of the sport, embodied in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was sufficiently disturbed to make a concession towards public disqu iet. No less a figure than a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, Y.V. Chandrachud, was brought in to establish the veracity or otherwise of the various accusations that had been made.

Submitted in November 1997, the Chandrachud report was kept under wraps by the BCCI for close to two-and-a-half years. However, extensive excerpts from it were published in The Hindu (on December 4, 5, and 7, 1997). When the Cronje scandal broke, the BCCI made an effort to rebuff the public clamour for the publication of the report by claiming that it had been misplaced. Finally, this report of rather uncertain provenance was invested with the status of an official inquiry by the Government's de cision to table it in Parliament.

To say that the Chandrachud report is an elaborate effort to evade reality would be a rather charitable description, since most media commentators have used the less polite term "whitewash". To say that the report does no credit to the judicial professio n that Chandrachud headed for all of seven years would be perhaps rather severe. But everybody who has read the judicial craftsmanship of the former Chief Justice of India seems to believe that this would be an eminently well-deserved indictment.

Virtually the entire first half of the Chandrachud report is devoted to reproducing the testimony that was recorded before him by various players, administrators and journalists. Following this, he devotes a few pages to the specific allegations of match -fixing that had been levelled by Manoj Prabhakar. And in rebutting these - which was clearly the predetermined agenda - Chandrachud devotes almost the entire latter half of his report to reproducing the first half. In short, the first half of the Chandr achud report is an uncritical reproduction of testimony received from a carefully selected group of witnesses. The second half is an encore.

Few judges of the higher judiciary could have acquitted themselves with less credit in inquiring into a matter of serious public concern. Among other things, Chandrachud had before him the evidence of Sandeep Patil, the Indian team manager during the 199 6 tour of England, that "one of the leading players" was constantly "talking on the mobile phone right through the tour for long periods like 20 minutes". But to all appearances, he neither chose to fix the identity of the player, nor ascertain the conte nt and nature of his conversations over mobile phone.

Pakistan, where match-fixing accusations go back a long way, has perhaps mounted the most serious inquiry into the phenomenon. The Malik Abdul Qayyum commission was vested with all the statutory powers of inquiry to ascertain the veracity of the allegati ons that have periodically surfaced in Pakistan since its tour of India in 1979-80. Justice Qayyum reportedly has inferred that the practice is prevalent and he has also by some accounts identified certain key players in the enterprise. But on the verge of publishing the report that could conceivably have served as a model for other countries facing a similar menace, the Pakistan Government seemed to falter and suffer a serious loss of moral conviction. The findings of the Qayyum commission of inquiry r emain an official secret, although the substance has been leaked to the press.

FINALLY, it was a discovery by accident by the Delhi Police - who were engaged in a wire-tapping effort to uncover an extortion ring - that blew the lid off the brewing scandal. The taped conversations that the Delhi Police have in their possession were recorded during the South African team's series of one-day matches in India in March. They involve Cronje and Sanjeev Chawla, an Indian businessman normally resident in London. Many of the transcripts that have been released are graphic in their descript ion of the calculations that go into a rigged match.

The known position in law is that telephone intercepts cannot be used as evidence in a judicial matter. Their only utility is in opening up possible new avenues for the investigative process. There are some apprehensions today that in revealing their dis coveries the Delhi Police may well have undermined any further investigative options they may have had. If there were motives behind their early disclosures, other than stripping the mask of rectitude that Cronje has successfully worn all these years and forcing a confession that may well have ended his playing career, then these are yet to be comprehended.

Key suspects have meanwhile escaped the jurisdiction of the Delhi Police, even as information about their involvement in the betting racket was being gathered. Bookie Sanjeev Chawla left the country in mid-March. And now it is being alleged through media reports that are obviously premised upon the authority of the police that former international cricketer Ajay Sharma - for long a captain of the Delhi Ranji Trophy team - was also deeply involved in betting and match-fixing. Details of the telephone cal ls made by Sharma to various bookmaking syndicates - as also to former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin - during the last one-day series against South Africa, are now trickling into the media. But Sharma is believed to have quietly left the country on April 19 after having obtained leave of absence for 133 days from his public sector employers.

The stated position of the Delhi Police is that their investigation is focussed on the few cases they already have under scrutiny. They cannot possibly use their ongoing inquiries to clean up the system of cricket administration, they plead. That would b e entirely the province of the BCCI.

Yet, even as these questions multiply, an unsavoury battle has broken out between two former intimates in the administration of Indian cricket. Inder Singh Bindra and Jagmohan Dalmiya, president and secretary respectively of the BCCI during the 1996 Worl d Cup, have made their rift a matter of public knowledge, trading accusations of complicity in the match-fixing scandal. The situation is not rendered any less murky by the fact that Dalmiya used his 1996 experience to vault to the pinnacle of the intern ational cricket hierarchy, and continues to be chairman of the International Cricket Council. Bindra, meanwhile, has fallen into obscurity.

Mohinder Amarnath - a cricketer whose longevity and track record in both variants of the game make him a model of dedication to cricket - has meanwhile revealed how not merely one-day internationals, but even the circus of "veterans cricket" has become t he arena for rampant betting excesses. And it is worth noting in this context that a 1998 veterans' cricket tournament, which drew no spectators aside from close relatives of the players, was broadcast live over the national television channel and attrac ted a healthy level of sponsorship. It will do little good to public confidence in the probity of cricket administration to be told that the organiser of these veterans' tournaments was specifically named for making unsolicited commercial overtures to th e England team during the 1999 World Cup.

Cynicism is an overpowering disease. And given the current level of public confidence in the state of cricket administration, it is not a miasma that is easily dispelled. What is indubitable is that the organisations that have presided over the creeping rot in Indian cricket have little credibility in addressing its underlying causes. Nothing less than full disclosure - through a comprehensive audit of the administration of cricket in this country - will serve to restore public faith in the game that wa s until recently virtually a second religion for this country.

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