Uncovering a scandal

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

The report of the Central Bureau of Investigation uncovers the seamy underside of cricketing in the Indian subcontinent, but doubts remain on whether the agency has gotten to the bottom of the whole affair.

UNION Minister for Sports Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa clearly was disinclined to brood for long over the report of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the cricket match-fixing scandal. Since the first eruptions in April 2000, Dhindsa has displayed a p erfectly appropriate sense of urgency about uncovering the true dimensions of the malaise afflicting cricket. With the concurrence of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, he quickly moved to release the report to the public on November 1, wryly remarking at the media conference called for the purpose, that certain sections of the press evidently knew more about its contents than he himself did. A few days later, Dhindsa held a conclave with A.C. Muthiah, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India ( BCCI). The outcome was a directive from the BCCI that Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Nayan Mongia, Ajay Sharma and Manoj Prabhakar, the five Indian cricketers named for culpability, be omitted from consideration at any level of competition until furth er inquiries were completed.

The reactions of the players who had been booked traversed a wide range. After having worn the badge of honour as national team captain for longer than any other cricketer, Mohammad Azharuddin withdrew into the seclusion of his home in Hyderabad. Ajay Sh arma, who is by mutual admission before the CBI, a close friend of Azharuddin's, was similarly unavailable for comment.

Ajay Jadeja lapsed into a sullen but brief silence. When he emerged from his cocoon, his usual cheery ebullience was replaced by an ashen-faced impassivity. But somehow his effort to rebut all the evidence that had been gathered against him and challenge the CBI to provide more specific information, failed to carry much conviction.

Nayan Mongia pleaded that he was the victim of gross injustice. The nature of the evidence against him was so weak that time would vindicate his honour, he claimed. And Manoj Prabhakar reacted in anger, claiming that he was implicated only in order to pr otect others more influential in the cricketing world. The CBI report, he claimed, reflected little more than a fraction of all the information that he had proffered before the investigation.

This range of reactions was appropriate, since the CBI essentially relied upon the admissions of guilt of Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma to build its case. These two were, by all accounts, induced to throw overboard their early claims of complete innocence, by the testimony provided by a group of bookmakers. The basis for the CBI's conclusions is constituted by the testimony recorded from 19 luminaries of the betting business - variously described as bookmakers and punters. This has in turn been matched wit h the evidence given by 14 cricketers and five officials who were associated with the game through the 1990s. Supplementary information has been provided by telephone records, principally of cellular phone calls made by the principal suspects, which test ify to their close interactions at critical moments in the execution of the match-fixing stratagems.

THE report submitted by the CBI has set off waves of anxiety all over the cricketing world. Apart from the five Indian cricketers named and of course the hapless former South African captain Hansie Cronje, there are unsavoury accounts of the involvement of at least nine high-profile cricketers of the last decade. Players no less illustrious than Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda D'Silva of Sri Lanka, Brian Lara of the West Indies, Martin Crowe of New Zealand, Dean Jones and Mark Waugh of Australia, Salim Ma lik of Pakistan and Alec Stewart of England are now suspected of involvement in a global enterprise directed from India. With the exception of the Australians, all the overseas cricketers named have worn the mantle of national team captain at various poi nts in the 1990s. And of them, Salim Malik alone has so far been brought to book for his role in the scandal. When all the big names of the game are exhausted there are a few of the minnows who feature in auxiliary roles - prominent among them being Ali Irani, for long the physiotherapist of the Indian team, whose role it transpires, extended to being the courier and conduit for Azharuddin's monetary transactions.

Although the overseas players have without exception reacted with stout denials, there is little question that long-festering wounds have been further inflamed by the CBI report. With so much that was once the subject of whispered conversation now confir med, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that the healing process can begin. How durable this repair job would be, naturally hinges on how complete a job the CBI has done. Has it really got to the core of the problem of corruption in sport or is it still operating at the periphery?

Match-fixing as an offence is by its very nature extremely slippery, rendering it difficult for an investigation to make any headway without the cooperation of all the actors. And the experience of the CBI in this respect has not been a happy one. It rec ords how at every stage in its inquiry, it had to face a "conspiracy of silence" in the cricketing fraternity, which includes both players past and present and officials. It took the CBI much labour to assemble various shreds of evidence into a coherent body of information which could be used to confront recalcitrant witnesses. At different stages in this process of attrition, the CBI records, some of the players and bookmakers "broke down and disclosed their involvement in the malpractices in various d egrees".

By all accounts, a key breakthrough was the interrogation of Mukesh Gupta, alias "M.K.", alias "John"- a truly Protean character whose deposition constitutes close to a fifth of the CBI's published testimonies. Since being named in Hansie Cronje's testim ony before the Edwin King Commission of Inquiry in South Africa, Mukesh Gupta had slipped out of sight (Frontline, July 7, 2000). Some pressure from the CBI on his family did the trick. A contrite Mukesh Gupta turned up at the doorstep of the agen cy late in June to make a full disclosure.

Mukesh Gupta's entry into the world of cricket was facilitated by an effusive gesture of goodwill towards Ajay Sharma. Seemingly overwhelmed by a sterling display by the player in a 1988 club match in Delhi, Mukesh Gupta tucked a gift of Rs.2,000 into hi s hands, assuring Ajay Sharma that he would be available in case he faced "any problem in life". Just over a fortnight later, Ajay Sharma re-established contact and the nexus was cemented. Manoj Prabhakar was brought into the charmed circle during an Ind ian tour of New Zealand in 1990, providing Mukesh Gupta with the means to expand his horizons in a manner that Ajay Sharma could not afford.

Through Prabhakar's intercession, Mukesh Gupta established connections with Ranatunga, D'Silva, Malik and Crowe in quick time. Lara and Stewart and the two Australians were brought on board a couple of years later. Some of these players were willing to p rovide "information" on match conditions, team selection and morale, but demurred at the prospect of actually manipulating match outcomes. Other players, if Mukesh Gupta's testimony is to be believed, such as Lara, Ranatunga, D'Silva and Malik actually d elivered results of convenience for the Delhi-based bookmaker.

By the mid-1990s according to Mukesh Gupta, his entanglement with Prabhakar had begun to sour because of the latter's continuing friendship with an estranged associate. At this point, Ajay Sharma renewed his contact, with a request for a trifling loan of Rs.15,000 to meet the black market premium on a car. In a reciprocal gesture, Ajay Sharma introduced Mukesh Gupta (or "M.K.") to Azharuddin. The payoffs involved for the two players were, according to Mukesh Gupta, proportionate to their relative statur e in the national cricketing scene. Ajay Sharma was given Rs.5 lakhs, while Azharuddin pocketed Rs.50 lakhs for his promise that he would endeavour to "do" a few matches for Mukesh Gupta's benefit. The introduction to Cronje then followed under Azharuddi n's auspices, during the Kanpur Test between India and South Africa in 1996.

If Cronje's testimony before the King Commission 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 t rophy in Capetown. Capitalising 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 "J ohn" - incidentally the same 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.

If "M.K." and "John" are different identities used by Mukesh Gupta, as the CBI report clearly implies, then Cronje probably had been contacted by him even before Azharuddin effected his introduction. But perhaps Azharuddin's later sponsorship of Mukesh G upta's overtures was important, since that is what finally persuaded Cronje that he could with impunity partake of the forbidden fruit. And from then on, if Cronje's testimony before the King Commission is any indication, he just could not have enough of it.

Ajay Sharma was instrumental in bringing Ajay Jadeja into the match-fixing circuit, according to the CBI's inquiries. But Jadeja clearly had a multiplicity of options in purveying his trade. One of his key contacts was a bookmaker from Chennai, Uttam Cha nd Jain alias "Topi". At key moments in India's international cricketing encounters in 1999 and 2000, the CBI has discovered, Jain was prone to contact Jadeja repeatedly over cellular telephone. Jain's explanation was that he was merely seeking informati on that would be of use in placing his substantial bets. Jadeja's rather disingenuous plea is that he was a victim of cricketing superstition and believed that speaking to Jain would bring him good luck. The CBI's own conclusion is that Jadeja provided i nformation for a monetary consideration - some of it received through hawala channels. And the provision of information, the investigation has concluded, is a practice that could quite as easily slip into an effort to rig the outcome of a match.

Nayan Mongia has been booked for his suspicious conduct during a one-day cricketing encounter with the West Indies. Although India was in with a positive chance to force a win when he went into bat, Mongia, in league with Prabhakar, seemed more intereste d in parading his defensive batting abilities. Mongia has pleaded that he was only following instructions from his team management, though his subsequent omission from the side proves that he was perhaps acting with hidden motives of his own.

In his partial disclosures, Azharuddin has conceded that he did "do" a few matches for Mukesh Gupta in association with Jadeja and Mongia. But as in all such associations, his links with "M.K." were fraught with frequent eruptions of discord. A key incid ent was the final of the 1996 Titan Cup in Mumbai, which India won reversing a string of six consecutive defeats against South Africa. "M.K." reportedly suffered a massive loss on this outcome and insisted on appropriate redress from Azharuddin. Accordin g to the concurring depositions of "M.K." and Ajay Sharma, an assurance of appropriate redress was given by Azharuddin and in fact delivered in a Test series against South Africa that followed.

The CBI report indicates that "M.K." was not Azharuddin's only recourse. By the late-1990s, he had established a mutually rewarding association with another network of bookmakers in Delhi - Ajay Gupta, Gyan Chand Gupta and Nishit Goel. Azharuddin admitte d to having "done" a match for this troika in 1999, and to having received funds from Ajay Gupta for a shopping expedition in London during the 1999 World Cup. Ajay Sharma, in turn, appears to have been a key intermediary in establishing this nexus.

FOR all its efforts, it is probable that the CBI has only partially uncovered the dimensions of the cricket racket. Since it has had to rely almost exclusively on the confessions of the guilty, the strategy of obdurate denial could have obscured much wro ngdoing. This approach stands in marked contrast to that adopted by Justice Mallik Abdul Qayyum in Pakistan. Confronted with the same conundrum, Justice Qayyum had adopted an analytical approach of his own, studying the course of various matches and thei r outcomes, and correlating these with the performance of key players who were under suspicion.

Certain other locutions in the CBI report indicate that the agency's effort is as yet incomplete. On page six, for instance, it observes that, "Bombay took the lead in this racket since the 'odds' on which bets were placed in any match throughout India w as determined by the bookies based in Bombay". Further, it observes that "currently also Bombay remains the base around which all betting operations in India revolve".

In relation to this fairly categorical assertion, the list of suspects examined is revealing: five of the eight bookmakers interrogated are from Delhi, two from Mumbai and one from Chennai. Of the "punters" who have come under scrutiny, all nine are from Delhi. In this sense, the report fails to bear out the CBI's own assessment that Mumbai was the nerve-centre of the match-fixing operations. There are, however, ominous warnings that the Mumbai underworld, with all its global connections, could be invol ved in the cricket racket. The report says: "The underworld mafia has started taking interest in the betting racket and can be expected to take overall control of this activity, if not checked immediately with a firm hand."

Some of the CBI's most severe strictures are reserved for the BCCI, attracting murmurs of dissent from cricket officials. As of now, however, public sympathies seem loaded against the BCCI. Its actions since the scandal erupted have failed to carry the f aintest hint of sincerity or seriousness. Apart from certain questionable decisions on the award of telecast rights to major cricket tournaments, the BCCI will also have to account for its active advocacy of Azharuddin's cause, despite evidence over the years that his presence in the team - whether as player or captain - was becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Two individuals in particular would seem to have much to explain - Raj Singh Dungarpur, who held the pivotal positions of chairman of the nation al selection board and BCCI president at various times in the 1990s, and Jaywant Lele, who continues to be BCCI secretary.

The dubious role of the BCCI effectively limits its power to impose sanctions against the players who have been in breach of public trust. Measures being contemplated by the government include the revocation of all national awards that have been conferre d on the cricketers - ironically enough, four of the five offenders are recipients of the highest sporting honour, the Arjuna award. The BCCI in turn, has made it known that it could consider lifetime bans and even the effacement of the career records of all the offending players. These may seem rather more severe penalties than even a term in jail. But the provisions of the law, determined in turn by an act on gambling that is over a century old, seems totally inadequate to cover the offences involved in the cricket scandal. Effectively and in some observers' view, regrettably this leaves the BCCI as the only body that can possibly initiate corrective measures to check the rot in cricket. How credible it will be in the bargain though, is quite another question.

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