Defensive strokes

Print edition : July 08, 2000

In the face of the strategy of stout denial adopted by cricket players and administrators, the CBI investigation into match-fixing allegations so far has been greeted with scepticism.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

AS the inquiry in South Africa established new norms in transparency, India's own investigations into the cricket match-fixing scandal seemed to meander into a slough of opacity. After the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had completed a round of in terviews with several of the key dramatis personae of Indian cricket, Union Sports Minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa ruefully admitted that few revelations of any value had been forthcoming. Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani, meanwhile, added his own note of scepticism - that very little could be expected to emerge from the CBI inquiry. He stated this with the seeming authority of several decades in legal practice. The best recourse in the circumstances was to ask for full and credible disclosures f rom all the cricketers who had succumbed to human temptation, and then "forgive and forget".

Former captain of the Indian cricket team Mohammad Azharuddin leaves the CBI office in New Delhi on June 22.-REUTERS

The nation's highest sports awards were meanwhile announced and it did not escape comment that cricketers were conspicuous by their absence from the honours list. Officials denied that this had anything to do with the burgeoning scandal, but the dent in the reputation of the sport had clearly got a bit deeper.

Among the cricketers - past and present - who were queried by the CBI were former national team captain Mohammad Azharuddin, wicket-keeper Nayan Mongia, former captain and team coach Ajit Wadekar, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Prashant Vaidya. This phase of the inquiry is clearly focussed on the allegation by Manoj Prabhakar that he was made an offer by his former fast-bowling mate Kapil Dev to perform below par in a match against Pakistan in 1994. All those summoned by the CBI so far were supposed, in Prabhak ar's narration, to have had knowledge of this offer. As expected, every witness summoned flatly denied any knowledge of the incident.

In the case of Azharuddin, the investigators had two leads to follow: the clandestine video recordings that had been assembled by Prabhakar and the testimony under oath by the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje. In a prepared text read out bef ore the King Commission, Cronje had identified Azharuddin as the person who had introduced him to the businessman and bookmaker, Mukesh "M.K." Gupta, in 1996, beginning his sordid descent into the world of match-fixing.

According to the CBI spokesperson, Azharuddin was "very cooperative" though he denied all. Kapil Dev is yet to be summoned by the CBI, which seems a bit flummoxed by the strategy of stout denial that has been deployed by both players and administrators.

After a prolonged spell of silence, Punjab Cricket Association chief Inderjit Singh Bindra - a former President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) - seemed impelled by the CBI's continuing befuddlement, to sally forth on another expediti on into the unknown. At the current rate of progress, said Bindra, the CBI would not uncover anything of worth even if it were to continue its inquiries for a decade. What it needed to do instead, was emulate the King Commission in holding its hearings i n public. Bindra concluded with a swipe at the system of cricket administration itself: "The reason why the Indian Cricket Board (is) not taking action against the players on the pattern of the South African board (is) because the players would also name the officials of the board who had got the matches fixed."

It has been argued earlier by persons in the know of both the game and the law that the format of an inquiry commission - rather than a criminal investigation - would have been more appropriate to the dimensions of the cricket scandal. Though Bindra's cr edibility is not quite sky-high, his intervention, coupled with the Union Law Minister's public expression of scepticism, raises this entire question once again in the public domain.

Sports Minister Dhindsa reflected an awareness of this conundrum when he stated that if the CBI inquiries were to be found wanting, he would not hesitate to bring in the services of some other agency. He did not specify any further on the nature of this agency. But an inquiry commission with terms of reference that run concurrent with a criminal investigation would pose certain problems of both law and procedure.

Meanwhile, the International Cricket Council, meeting in London, was initiating its own sequence of action. Jagmohan Dalmiya's tenure as chairman of the ICC is at an end, and Australia's Malcolm Gray has assumed charge. Concurrently, the Code of Conduct Commission of the ICC - till now the solitary charge of Lord Griffiths of Australia - has been strengthened with the induction of Denys Williams from the West Indies and Oliver Popplewell from England. A special Anti-Corruption Unit has also been set up, which would, according to the media release of the ICC, work in close coordination with the Code of Conduct Commission.

Evidence of a certain seriousness of intent comes from the ICC's decision to appoint Britain's Paul Condon, recently retired as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, as Director of the Anti-Corruption unit. Claiming to be honoured by his appointment, Condon said: "I am looking forward to getting involved in this very important project for cricket. However, before taking on this assignment, I required assurance on three important issues. One, I wanted to make sure there was a resolve in world cricket and in the Boards to face up to this challenge. Two, there should be independent reporting lines on any findings. And three, sufficient resources should be made available. Having met the President and senior officers of the ICC, I am satisfied on all thr ee counts. To use a sporting analogy, the task will not be a sprint but a marathon and I am determined that the outcome will restore public faith in world cricket."

Although the ICC has been assiduously seeking to maintain an appearance of concord, it is learnt that there was serious disharmony over the action taken so far on corruption. The Justice Malik Abdul Qayyum inquiry in Pakistan, for instance, came in for s ome criticism, for not recommending anything more severe than a fine against leading players like Wasim Akram and Moin Khan. Eager to paper over the fissures, Malcolm Gray would only indicate that the Qayyum report had been referred to the Code of Conduc t Commission for its opinion, though no immediate action was being contemplated against specific players.

India's presence at the top tiers of the ICC is maintained by the nomination of Sunil Gavaskar as chairman of the Cricket Committee, which is entrusted with promoting and developing the game worldwide. Gavaskar himself is now the subject of whispers and rumours - and the odd media report - about the supposed discovery of a stash of cash in his locker in Bombay's Cricket Club of India (CCI). Little of authenticity is known about these reports, but the CCI management is supposedly deeply divided between t hose loyal to the former opening batsman and those seeking to bring him down a few notches in public esteem.

Perhaps the most baneful effect of the faltering official inquiry in India so far has been the spreading miasma of distrust and ill-will between cricketers past and present. Azharuddin has already indicated that he intends dragging a number of his former teammates to the courtrooms for libel and character assassination. With touching naivete, he also named Ram Jethmalani as the lawyer who would represent him in these proceedings. Jethmalani himself was indulgent about this claim, gently rebuking Azharud din for his presumption and delegating the job to his son Mahesh.

The ICC also decided at its last meeting to award the telecast rights to the next two editions of the World Cup, to the Australian-American magnate Rupert Murdoch's World Sports Group. Zee Telefilms, which had put in a competing bid - supposedly with Dal miya's patronage - claims that the ICC decision is financially unsound. This seemingly opens up another front in the brewing confrontation in world cricket. As Bindra has stated in a characterically unfocussed style of locution which occasionally hits cl ose to the target, corruption connected to telecast rights and offshore matches, rather than match-fixing, constitutes the core of the problem facing world cricket. He said: "This amount could go to a mind-boggling $250 million and there are enough docum ents which the CBI could lay its hands on, if it so desires."

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