A cloud over cricket

Print edition : June 10, 2000

The subcontinent's most popular sport has been sullied by allegations of match-fixing, which have dragged the names of many esteemed cricketers into the mire.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

THERE are occasions, wrote C.L.R. James, political activist, historian and cricket enthusiast, that bring the most jaded of cliches vividly to life. To say that "the ball went like a shot" might seem a rather anaemic description of a cover drive by the peerless Gary Sobers -- a pale depiction of his unerring footwork, precise timing and supple power. But the cliche, said James, was suffused with new life by the magnificence of the shot.

Manoj Prabhakar with the video tape at a special screening in New Delhi on May 27.-AP

Events since April have imparted a new resonance to another of the most hackneyed cliches of cricket writers. The growing worldwide constituency for cricket as a spectator sport, is now uncertain whether "glorious uncertainties" is quite acceptable as a description of a keenly contested match in which fortunes fluctuate wildly. Underlying these, it suspects, could be pecuniary motivations of a decidedly inglorious kind.

India has been the arena where some of the most bitter battles in the saga of cricket match-fixing have been unfolding. Over the last week of May, the country witnessed an outburst by former cricket captain Kapil Dev, whose onfield demeanour during a superlative career was never less than impeccable. Just days before he was to leave for Dhaka as coach of the Indian team for the Asia Cup, Kapil Dev summoned a press conference to denounce his former teammate Manoj Prabhakar and deny allegations that he had ever made him a financial offer to play below par in a match against Pakistan.

Of a handful of witnesses cited by Prabhakar, only Ravi Shastri had corroborated his account of an incident that allegedly occurred in 1994, during the Singer Cup tournament in Sri Lanka. Others, such as Navjot Singh Sidhu and Prashant Vaidya, who supposedly had seen the unsavoury offer being made, disavowed any knowledge of it. And Ajit Wadekar, then the team manager, was likewise categorical in denying that Prabhakar had ever brought any such incident to his notice.

Indian coach and former captain Kapil Dev addresses the media on May 25 in New Delhi regarding Prabhakar's allegations against him.-K. PICHUNMANI

Two days after suffering the lash of Kapil Dev's anger, Prabhakar imparted an entirely new twist to the story. Since he first announced that match-fixing was not merely a possibility but a common practice, the former Indian opening bowler had projected the persona of a man who was willing to suffer in silence rather than provoke a drastic shakeout in the system of cricket administration. On that hot afternoon in May, he laid bare a new identity -- that of the vigilante who would put at risk all social relationships in the quest for personal vindication.

It transpired that when all the efforts at containing the damage were under way, Prabhakar had, in collaboration with an Internet-based magazine that was alive to its inherent marketing potentialities, embarked upon a covert operation of recording a sequence of meetings with the dramatis personae of the cricket scandal. Rashid Latif in Pakistan had made clandestine audio recordings that were used to good effect by the Malik Abdul Qayyum commission of inquiry. Prabhakar went a quantum leap beyond, making video recordings of his encounters with top cricketers, administrators and policemen.

The results were spectacular. Prabhakar had J.Y. Lele, Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), casually unburdening himself to Prabhakar with the observation that Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and Kapil Dev were pivotal figures in the match-fixing racket, and that Jadeja in turn owed all that he was to Kapil Dev. He of course, had no proof, but was willing to "swear upon his wife" that he had warned Jagmohan Dalmiya, President of the International Cricket Council, that appointing Kapil Dev as national team coach was a monumental mistake.

Lele offers concrete illustrations of results that have been rigged and then mentions two instances when efforts made by Jadeja and Azharuddin to contrive an outcome of convenience were thwarted by heroic interventions from Sachin Tendulkar. In both cases, Lele seems to suggest, Tendulkar was warned in advance through anonymous calls made to team manager Anshuman Gaekwad, of his two teammates' concealed agenda. Jadeja and Azharuddin played in both instances according to the bookmakers' script. But Tendulkar willed things otherwise.

Former BCCI president Inderjit Singh Bindra leaves the CBI office in New Delhi after submitting documents on May 15.-KAMAL KISHORE/REUTERS

Then there was Wadekar acknowledging implicitly that he had been apprised of Kapil's offer to Prabhakar shortly after it supposedly took place. But this was followed by a transparent effort at self-exculpation: he had recorded the accusation in his report to the BCCI at the end of the tour, but then, nobody in the hierarchy of cricket administration had seemed inclined to even read it.

Most colourful of all are the revelations provided by Rakesh Maria, a senior official in the Mumbai Police. Since the scandal of match-fixing first broke out, several reports have credited Maria with the possession of a wire-tap revealing the connections of four cricketing stars with the Mumbai underworld's betting rings. The video recording made by Prabhakar and his accomplice ends all such speculation with Maria's definitive confirmation that the evidence did at one stage exist in the possession of Mumbai police. The underworld stalwarts mentioned include all the usual suspects -- Anees, Chota Shakeel and others. And the police official's characterisation of a former Indian captain as a man with a "criminal bent of mind", even in a private conversation that was being recorded without his consent, seems a rather biting description.

Ironically, Prabhakar finds himself named along with Azharuddin, Jadeja and Nayan Mongia as a player having intimate links with the Mumbai underworld. And to the credit of the former medium pacer, he made no effort to efface this incriminating assertion from his video presentation.

Prashant Vaidya, who briefly figured in the Indian team as a medium pace change bowler, features in the Prabhakar tapes, as does Sidhu and Shastri. Among all those who have won unwanted publicity with their private conversations, Lele has indicated that the tapes could be doctored, while Vaidya has complained bitterly about breach of faith. While declining to comment till he has had an opportunity to study the contents of the tape, Kapil Dev has served a legal notice on Prabhakar seeking "mitigation of reputation".

Former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram. He has been fined the heaviest amount by the Qayyum Commission for bringing the game into disrepute and failing to cooperate with its inquiry.-N. SRIDHARAN

This is one among a number of legal processes that have been initiated in the two months since the cricket scandal broke out. Kapil Dev has himself spoken publicly of his intention to sue Inderjit Singh Bindra, a former President of the BCCI, who was among Prabhakar's first confidants. And ICC President Dalmiya, if he backs up his intentions with action, could soon lose count of the number of cases he will have to pursue, having targeted a host of individuals, publications and institutions for libel.

Since coming into the picture in late April, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has interrogated a number of players and officials who have been in the centre of the match-fixing row. After the Prabhakar tapes became public, the agency has announced its intention to seek a second round of interviews with all these individuals. Meanwhile, unnamed sources in the CBI have spoken of the fabulous assets that certain former and current cricketers have built up. The income tax returns filed by these individuals are being examined afresh. And Income Tax Commissioner Vishwa Bandhu Gupta's revelation of the identity of the former Indian captain who had made a declaration of Rs.16 crores under the one-time tax amnesty granted in 1997, will surely excite further speculation and distasteful gossip.

The uncomfortable truth about all these events is the quiescent attitude of the BCCI, which verges on the denial of reality. Just days before Prabhakar came up with his damaging revelations, BCCI President A.C. Muthiah for instance, went on record with the assertion that the game in India was squeaky clean and that no Indian cricketer had the least suggestion of a taint about him. He has since chosen a discreet silence, rather than risk further loss of credibility.

Former star batsman of Pakistan, Salim Malik, who has been banned for life and fined Rs. 10 lakhs, denies charges of match-fixing at a press conference in Lahore on May 26.-KHALID CHAUDARY/AP

One administrator who will find it impossible to evade the attentions of the investigators is Jagmohan Dalmiya, who propelled himself to the apex of the world cricket body partly on the basis of his record in organising the 1996 World Cup. He faces allegations that he caused grave pecuniary harm to Doordarshan in the award of telecast rights for the 1998 mini-World Cup in Dhaka. The latest reports indicate that the ICC has now put on hold the tendering process for telecast of the next two editions of the World Cup, partly in order to see Dalmiya out of the way.

MEANWHILE, the report of the Malik Abdul Qayyum commission of inquiry in Pakistan has been made public and a number of sanctions decreed against players whose involvement in match-fixing has been proven to various degrees of judicial satisfaction. Heading the list is the former captain and batsman Salim Malik, who has been banned for life and fined Rs.10 lakh. Also banned for life is the fast bowler Ata-ur-Rahman who gave an affidavit indicting one-time captain Wasim Akram, perjured himself by filing an affidavit stating the precise opposite and then made a mess of his whole testimony by owning up to his first deposition.

Other stars who figure on the honours list of the Qayyum Commission include some of Pakistan's greatest performers on the cricket field -- fast bowlers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmad, opening batsman Saeed Anwar and middle-order pivot Inzamam-ul-Haq. All these players have been penalised with various quanta of fines, with the Qayyum Commission indicting them for the lesser misdemeanour of bringing the game into disrepute and failing to cooperate with its inquiries.

Of those held culpable for these offences of the second order, Wasim Akram has been fined the heaviest amount. This is because the commission held that the principal deposition against him, that of Ata-ur-Rahman, could not be accepted on account of the evident fact that he had perjured himself. Other evidence available in their totality, did not constitute an adequate standard of judicial proof. But other vignettes gathered by the commission, including Akram's own admission that he had once received a call from a certain "Dawood Ibrahim" in Sharjah, constituted sufficient grounds for imposing a reasonably heavy fine on him.

Fast bowler Ata-ur-Rahman, who has been banned for life.-K.M. CHOUDARY/AP

The Qayyum Commission's inquiry is Pakistan's third effort to get a measure of the match-fixing menace. And in the global situation, it is so far perhaps the only reasonably fruitful effort. India's own Chandrachud inquiry has long since been dismissed as a sorry attempt to evade an unpleasant reality. And there continue to be serious misgivings about bringing the CBI into the investigations at this stage, since the format of a judicial inquiry would still seem the most appropriate to the dimensions of the problem.

THE King Commission of Inquiry in South Africa has meanwhile commenced recording of evidence. Writing in The Cricketer, former Australian offspinner Ashley Mallett has given expression to a deep sense of unease over all the sordid details that a serious inquiry could unearth. As a consultant to the United Cricket Board of South Africa in the mid-1990s, Mallett was witness to many of the greatest triumphs and defeats of South African cricket. And with former captain Hansie Cronje having made a public admission of receiving illicit payoffs from an Indian bookmaker, many of the mysteries of the South African team's performance over the period of his involvement with it, seem to acquire more ominous overtones for Mallett. The King Commission could bring unpleasant facts to light and these could implicate not only the South African team, but many of the opponents it faced over the last decade. Before their more unsavoury secrets are exposed by others, it may well be prudent for Indian cricket administrators to at least attempt a reasonably credible public disclosure. At stake are little less than the most deeply held beliefs of the vast audience for cricket in this country.

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