Arun Venugopal

“After all of it, I will never watch a cricket match in the same way again.” The author’s teaser at the end of the first chapter creates just about the right kind of twitchy intrigue for what lies ahead. The book, whose title is strikingly similar to that of the famed spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , turns out to be a gripping medley of the morbid and the mundane. Exploring subjects such as illegal bookmaking, punting, and organised crime that are forever embedded with much salacious speculation and less genuine information, it could have been easy to go down the pulp fiction route.

Creditably, Ed Hawkins, an award-winning sports betting writer, founds his work on good research and wholesome journalistic curiosity. Right at the beginning, some of the myths and suppositions on these issues that come with the lack of credible material are swiftly dismissed. Hawkins writes how cricket was considered to have lost its virtue in the wake of the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal.

He points out it didn’t have a lot of it in the first place, noting how betting and cricket have been ‘snug bedfellows since 1646.’ Referring to ‘the first account of corruption in cricket’, in 1851, Hawkins quotes from The Cricketer’s Fields , written by Reverend Pycroft. In an interview with Pycroft, Billy Beldham, the former Surrey batsman, admits to fixing a match. “Matches were bought and matches were sold and gentlemen, who meant honestly, lost large sums of money, till the rogues beat themselves at last. Of this roguery, nobody ever suspected me.”

It’s Hawkins’ reputation as a tipster on Twitter that brings him in contact with two Indian bookies, Vinay and Parthiv, from Bhopal and Mumbai respectively. Seeking access to the modus operandi of the illegal Indian booking market, he befriends them and earns their trust. It’s during the ICC 50-overs World Cup in 2011 and, specifically, during the India-Pakistan semi-final battle royale that he receives the first crucial piece of information from Parthiv — a ‘script’ of the fixed contest. Much to his shock, the match is played out almost entirely in accordance to the ‘script’. It is enough to prompt Hawkins to leave for India in search of the bigger picture. There’s much to like in this segment as he navigates one labyrinthine situation after another.

As part of the exercise, Hawkins learns the finer aspects of the Indian system of bookmaking, which, according to Vinay, is driven chiefly by communal considerations as also by the underworld. He encounters friendly bookies, unsuspecting cricketers, notorious punters, and quirky fixers while endeavouring to better understand the culture. It is, in that sense, a blow-by-blow narrative of an inconspicuous parallel universe. The human side of things also comes through most effortlessly as he is puzzled by Parthiv’s dichotomous existence. On seeing him cheer with gusto for India in a one-day game against England, Hawkins wonders: “His patriotism, pride and participation in the spectacle are at odds with his daily reality and his work. Has he flicked a switch in his head?” He reconciles to the thought that cricket, despite being tainted by corruption, is an escape for the people of India. Hawkins is also surprised at how Vinay and his associate are obsessed with their families learning English. When Vinay lampoons the corrupt Indian society, he finds the hypocrisy amusing. Hawkins takes frequent swipes against the ‘favour culture’ or the ‘you-scratch-my-back-and-I-will-scratch-yours’ approach in India.

There is an element of stereotyping, though, when he criticises India’s obsession with money. Through his meetings with CBI officers, who investigated the Mohammad Azharuddin match-fixing scandal, ICC’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit personnel, his research gains a sense of completeness. There’s a rendezvous with a Pakistani spy as well that opens up hope for investigation into the World Cup semi-final game. Hawkins’ knowledge of the Indian market comes in handy as he dissects the News of The World sting operation on Mazhar Majeed that led to the arrests of Pakistan cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, and Mohammad Amir. He laments the inadequate understanding of betting nitty-gritty in the conduct of the case.

At the end of it all, a disillusioned Hawkins feels ‘he would never truly believe the game is pure’. With its attention to detail and feel for character, the book offers much in terms of novelty and knowledge — stuff that may push the naïve cricket fan out of his comfort zone.

( Arun Venugopal is a sports journalist with The Hindu )