Warning signals

Print edition : June 24, 2000

In the face of allegations of match-fixing emanating from South Africa, the Indian cricket administration continues to be in denial mode - an attitude that might prove disastrous.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

WEEKS before the Edwin King Commission of Inquiry in South Africa began its hearings on the cricket match-fixing scandal, commentators in India were calling upon administrators of the sport in their country at least to attempt a reasonably credible publi c disclosure. Evidence had been mounting that the illicit bookmaking industry in India was a pivotal player in the unfolding scandal. And the recriminations that had broken out between cricketers past and present clearly showed that all the protestations of innocence proffered on behalf of the Indian cricket administration were inherently flawed and that they could all prove to be of little worth ultimately.

The opportunity was missed. Indian cricket administrators remained in their cocoon of denial. As a direct consequence, the image and reputation of some of India's most prominent cricketers, as also the credibility of the Board of Control for Cricket in I ndia (BCCI), are now hostage to disclosures emanating from a distant country.

As teammates of the deposed South African captain Hansie Cronje made their narratives before the King Commission, an arresting picture began to emerge. Cronje came across as an individual so obsessed with the opportunities of easy money afforded by his v antage point as national team captain that he was willing to put at risk his public image and seriously imperil the solidarity of a team that it was his foremost task to preserve. His various teammates came through as casual and loose in their ethical at titudes, most of them willing to tolerate a gross abuse of public trust under their very noses, some eager to participate in the unsavoury enterprise.

Pat Symcox, once the mainstay of the South African spin bowling department, confessed, for instance, to having seriously considered an offer made in 1996 by an Indian bookmaking syndicate to throw a match in Mumbai in return for $200,000. Another of his teammates, whose identity will undoubtedly emerge in the course of the King hearings, demanded a higher fee for the services expected of him. Cronje then admitted that he had contacted the bookie for an enhancement of the offer but was able to win only a n additional commitment of $50,000 from bookmaker Mukesh Gupta, better known under the enigmatic initials "MK". Former wicketkeeper Dave Richardson recalled, under oath before the King inquiry, that his response to the Mumbai offer - now firmly establish ed in the annals of cricket infamy - was one of amused tolerance. He had heard from various sources of rampant matchfixing practices in other countries and the offer made to his team was an index of its arrival on the stage as a major player in the crick et world.

The Mumbai offer was not taken, in part because the price was not right, but primarily because in guileless fashion Cronje sought to draw the entire team into the exercise. While some members of the team were inclined to take up the offer and a few laugh ed it off, a moral minority within the team - notably, opening batsman Andrew Hudson and middle-order pivot and fielding star Jonty Rhodes - held firm in their opposition. Since then, Cronje has confessed, he has maintained a nexus with both Mukesh Gupta and Sanjiv Chawla, another Indian bookmaker who arrives on stage around 1997. These have yielded him money running into tens of thousands of dollars, which he has shared, sporadically and in recognition of the specific contingencies of each match, with various members of his team.

Cronje's testimony before the King Commission marks a watershed in the unravelling of the match-fixing scandal. It is now evident that since his first admission of guilt in April, Cronje worked hard on a damage-limitation strategy. He instructed other pl ayers who faced the prospect of taint to continue dissembling in public and not reveal any of what had transpired between them. And from his initial admission of wrongdoing - receiving monies in the range of $10,000 to $15,000 from one bookie - to his mo st recent confessions of a long running series of illicit liaisons with the betting industry, Cronje has made a gigantic leap. The awakening Christian courage that has driven him to these disclosures could undoubtedly impel him to further revelations whe n the King Commission resumes its hearings and he is put through the rigour of cross-examination. Apart from the interrogation by the counsel for the Commission, Cronje would be subjected to minute interrogation by the legal representatives of all those who have been implicated in his rush to repentance. Further disclosures of a damaging nature may be in prospect, with the Indian cricket authorities being directly in the firing line.

INDIAN cricket has responded in a dual fashion to the allegations emanating from South Africa. Cricket administrators have steadfastly clung to the claim of innocence. And former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, named explicitly by Cronje as the man who intr oduced him to Mukesh Gupta, has taken up the theme of minority victimhood.

Top officials of the BCCI have plainly stated that they will pay no heed to the disclosures made before the King Commission, since India's own investigations are under way. Action, if at all, would only be initiated after the Central Bureau of Investigat ion (CBI) completes its inquiries, said BCCI president A.C.Muthiah.

Jaywant Lele, Secretary of the BCCI, was more explicit. "Cronje's confession should be treated with caution," he said, since he has been "saying so many things", which have later been denied. Asked directly about the prospect of action being initiated ag ainst Azharuddin, Lele was evasive: "How can we take action only on the basis of his testimony? He has said that Azhar took some bookie to him. He has just stood before the Commission and said something. But where is the evidence? How can we do anything until the evidence is available to us? The BCCI will wait for the full details before initiating any action."

Azharuddin himself reacted with considerably more anger. In words disturbingly reminiscent of those used by the disgraced South African captain just prior to his admission of guilt in April, the former Indian captain dismissed as "rubbish" those sections of Cronje's testimony which had implicated him. Cronje's case is that his initial contact with Mukesh Gupta came through Azharuddin's initiative. He was introduced to Mukesh Gupta by Azharuddin during the Kanpur Test between India and South Africa in 19 96, claimed Cronje, in testimony rendered under oath before the King Commission. He was offered $30,000 to contrive a defeat. But he claimed that he did not share this offer with his teammates. And since South Africa lost in what seemed the natural cours e of the game, no real conflict arose between his illegal aggrandisement and the obligations he was expected in requital to fulfil.

Mohammed Azharuddin. He has rejected Cronje's testimony implicating him.-N. SRIDHARAN

If Cronje's testimony is to be believed, his first encounter with the seamy underside of cricket match-fixing came in 1995, when he was going out with Pakistan captain Salim Malik, to take the toss for the final of the Mandela trophy in Cape Town. Capita lising on the privacy of the moment, Malik asked Cronje whether he had been contacted by "John" the previous day to arrive at a mutually acceptable deal on the outcome of the match. Cronje admitted to having been approached by "John" - incidentally the s ame sobriquet used by the Indian bookie who paid off the Australians Mark Waugh and Shane Warne in 1994, supposedly for providing information about pitch conditions - but he refused to go any further in the match-fixing venture.

It was only with Azharuddin's sponsorship of the overtures from Mukesh Gupta that Cronje finally partook of the forbidden fruit. And from then on, if his testimony is any indication, he just could not have enough of it.

Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, the Union Minister of State for Sport, has sought to put as constructive a gloss on the situation as possible, by calling for a rapid cleanup from the BCCI. In the interim, he proposes, all cricketers with the suggestion of taint a bout them should be omitted from the national team. Translating this statement of principle into practical detail has been more difficult. Dhindsa, for instance, began by asking for Azharuddin's exclusion from the national cricket team till his name is c leared by duly constituted inquiries. And then under media interrogation he went on to demand that national team coach Kapil Dev also be kept out of active cricketing duty till appropriate clearance is received from the investigating authorities.

The indefatigable Lele was not about to have any of this. Speaking to the media shortly afterwards, he termed the Sports Minister's statements "unfortunate". His principal grievance, of course, was that the Minister's suggestions amounted to an abridgmen t of the autonomy of the BCCI. But then, the fine print seemed to indicate that Lele's difficulty was that he could not initiate action against any individual cricketer on the basis of another cricketer's say-so.

This displays a curious asymmetry in perception. Kapil Dev's culpability in match-fixing is a supposed possibility that his former fast-bowling mate Manoj Prabhakar had darkly hinted at on numerous occasions, without ever substantiating the charge. And w hen he finally named Kapil Dev as the man who had made him a monetary offer to perform below capacity in a match against Sri Lanka, Prabhakar proved unable to provide any evidence. In his subsequent video recordings of private conversations, Prabhakar ne ver quite managed to get incriminating declarations against Kapil Dev. From his clandestine recordings, the chit-chat testimony of cricketers, administrators and law enforcement officials, other names emerge without any kind of evidence - Azharuddin, Aja y Jadeja, Nayan Mongia - and ironically enough, Prabhakar himself.

Indeed, in all the testimony gathered by Prabhakar, the only imputations against Kapil Dev come from BCCI Secretary Lele, who has been known in the last year to have repeatedly provoked confrontational situations with the national team coach over seeming ly trivial issues. After the Indian team returned from a disastrous tour of Australia early this year, the media were full of reports on Lele's intention to bring Azharuddin back from his temporary banishment and reinstate him in the team, even at the ri sk of inviting the ire of team captain Sachin Tendulkar and coach Kapil Dev. Azharuddin returned, but only at the cost of India's finest cricketer quitting the captaincy of the national team in evident pique. The team has since performed with conspicuous mutual indifference and evident lack of bonding. And the results, if the tainted outcome of the one-day series against South Africa early this year were to be overlooked, have been disastrous.

Cronje's deposition before the King Commission - in contrast to all of Prabhakar's clandestine and conspiratorial activity - has been made under oath before a body that is statutorily empowered to initiate, and alternatively grant immunity from, criminal prosecution. The BCCI Secretary cannot get away with equating Cronje's self-incriminating testimony with Prabhakar's effort at self-exculpation. And Azharuddin's disingenuousness, his effort to tar all those raising questions about his conduct with the brush of religious bigotry, is surely the last resort of a desperately besieged man. And unless Lele can be persuaded by wiser counsel to abandon his advocacy of a lost cause, the entire system of cricket administration in the country - inclusive of Jagm ohan Dalmiya's recent effort to float an Asian Cricket Forum of rather unclear intents and motivations - could soon be reduced to a shambles.

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