Not for king and country alone, any more

I was living with one of my aunts in Bombay when the betting scam first broke round the country. Some months later, I found myself in the thick of the investigation when South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was implicated in another such scam.

I discovered a cop, posted in an innocuous department at the time, who was sitting on a mine of information about cricketers and their alleged deals – he had tapes, transcripts and diaries that detailed names of cricketers as well as those from the underworld who called them to fix matches, the amounts that changed hands and the games that were fixed.

I was both excited (by the story) and disgusted (by the magnitude of the scam involving so many Indian cricketers at the time). At dinner one night, I began to discuss it with my aunt. “Thank God, I have never cared for the game,” I told her. “Or else I would have been quite a shattered person today.”

“Well, I loved the game. And I was shattered long before these racketeers came upon the scene,” she said. “That’s why we don’t watch cricket in my home.”

When I probed further, I was startled by what she told me. My aunt had been a neighbour of yester-years film star I S Johar for years. And the story she told me sent a chill through my bones. As she told it, she was invited to a dinner party hosted by him at his home in Churchgate one day for the West Indies cricket team of the Seventies.

“Betting on cricket actually began that evening,” my aunt said. “They were all drunk and Johar, jut for a lark, decided to place bets on whether India or the West Indies would win the test match the next day.”

She gave me the details of names, captains of the team, etc as well as who was considered the favourite for that match. The betting happened and, according to my aunt, the favourites lost and the team that had seemed so weak won by the skin of their teeth. Of course, Johar and his friends raked in handsome returns. “You know now why I did not cheer that day. I have not bothered about any cricket after that.”

The names of the cricketers involved in that betting were iconic and I was very shocked, disbelieving even. I returned to that cop the next day and related my aunt’s story to him.

“Well, I am not surprised,” he said. “You do today’s cricketers the injustice of thinking they started the match-fixing. Actually fixing cannot happen from the bottom of the chain. It is the people at the top who fix these things and cricketers often go along with it.”

Asked to explain, he said, “No match can be fixed without the coach, the manager, the captain and the physio of the team getting wind of it. So if the match has been fixed, it is often these people who are to blame – either for being silent or for being in on it right from the start.”

Having studied his transcripts, he said he had realised that the cricketers went with the attitude: the guys at the top are making their deals, so why should we not get something out of it, too!

But, said the cop, there were some sterling examples in the Indian team (like Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid) who absolutely refused to be part of any match-fixing. He had them down on tape telling off a bookie. “We play for the country. Not for you.”

When the scam broke in the mid-to-late Nineties, these boys were not quite at the top of the team and, as the cop pointed out to me, they were all the time being harassed by their own top cricketing officials. “What you see of that has nothing to do with their cricket. They are troubled because they refuse to fall in line.”

Eventually, their honesty paid off and both became captains and pulled Indian cricket out of the doldrums.

But as I was told by the Bombay police then, “Indian bookies are afraid of just two teams: England and Australia. These teams immediately report the bookies to their managers and if they don’t the managers are honest enough to catch them out. But every other cricketing team of this world has been corrupted by the bookies.”

Three days later Hansie Cronje admitted to accepting money from bookies for fixing matches and my police source said with great relish, “I told you so!”

He also believed my aunt, for his own investigations had led him to conclude that betting and some mild fixing of matches began in an informal fashion long before the Nineties’ teams were caught up in the act. ” It was mostly friends and relatives of the cricketing team who took and placed bets among their own friends and colleagues. The underworld got into the act much later but probably after they caught on to the fact that cricketers could be corrupted. They just institutionalised what had been happening for some years on a smaller scale.”

I couldn’t but help recall all of that as the latest match-fixing scam that has plagued Pakistan spreads its wings to other countries with allegations surfacing against other reputed players who could be iconic for their own teams.

Those West Indies and Indian cricketers present at I S Johar’s dinner party all those years ago were iconic, too. Yet, they seemed to have got into a betting racket of their own making. Those were idealistic times when one played for king (or president in the Indian context) and country or not at all. In these materialistic times, in a globalised world, do modern-day cricketers, then, stand any chance against temptation?

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