The Delhi police have once again found credible evidence that cheating in cricket — a subject of surmise and suspicion for years — is a reality. The best-known and least-acknowledged scandal in the subcontinent has seen its cover blown off for more than once; and yet this is the first time players involved are arrested and sought to be prosecuted.

The earlier findings were confirmed by Hansie Cronje, who took the courageous step to unburden himself of the truth before the King Commission in South Africa, but those involved in the country got away with mere disciplinary action or outright exoneration.

In this backdrop, is the ongoing Delhi police probe likely to result in conviction? The players and bookies have been charged with penal provisions relating to conspiracy and cheating. But the question that arises, as it did over a decade ago, is: does fixing a match or one aspect of a match amount to “cheating”?

Perhaps, the spectators feel cheated, and the sponsors, too. One may add other victims: team managements, the organisers of tournaments and the cricket board. But what exactly was the promise to them that wasn’t delivered after they were forced to part with their money? Is there a promise of performance or integrity behind every ticket sold?

CBI report

The CBI held an inquiry and came out with a lengthy report in 2000. A look at how the CBI dealt with the legal aspects of match-fixing (the term, if not the phenomenon, ‘spot-fixing’, was not in vogue then) is significant. It concluded that there was no prosecutable case against the offenders, as ‘match-fixing’ did not fall under the legal definition of ‘cheating’ given in Section 415 of the Indian Penal Code.

Nor was it possible to bring the action of bookies, players and officials suspected to be involved under the definition of a criminal conspiracy under Section 120B of the IPC.

It was Justice M.K. Mukherjee, a former judge of the Supreme Court, who gave the legal opinion for this conclusion. Based on the definition of “cheating” given in Section 415 (Sec.420 is the punishment clause for cheating), he concluded that ‘deceiving’ is the quintessence of the offence; when a person deceives another person to induce him to act in a particular manner, the offence is complete.

“To put it differently, the inducement must be by deceit.” According to Mr. Mukherjee, there was no material to conclude that the delinquent players induced the BCCI to select them by practicing deceit. He concluded: “However reprehensible the conduct of the players concerned may be, it cannot be brought within the parameters of ‘cheating’, as defined in the Code.”

The premise

This may not be the final, or the most acceptable view. Its premise is that there was never any commitment, agreement or obligation on the part of the players that they would play to win or play to their full potential always.

After all, the money involved in the game — ranging from sponsorships, match fees, television and marketing rights to gate revenue — are not linked to performance, or even to a promise of a certain level of performance.

Does one take this merely legalistic view, or should one appeal to a grander value system — one in which words like conscience, ethics and honour, possibly even national pride matter?

The English judge who convicted three Pakistani players — Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir — and their agent Mazhar Majeed for a conspiracy to bowl no-balls for money was very clear about his approach: “Your motive was greed, despite the high legitimate rewards available in earnings and prize money,” said Justice Cooke.

“These offences … are so serious that only a sentence of imprisonment will suffice to mark the nature of the crimes and to deter any other cricketer, agent or anyone else who considers corrupt activity of this kind,” he went on. In legal terms, there was one more criminal aspect he considered, and which will be relevant in the IPL context too: the players helped bookies to cheat at gambling.

The question before the judiciary in the IPL spot fixing case is whether it will view the fan’s expectation of honesty as a mere universal human assumption that need not be met by the players always, or will the adopt Justice Cooke’s reasoning: that by their actions, they had damaged in the eyes of all the image and integrity of “what was once a game, but is now a business.”