Betting and abetting

THE simmering controversy over `match fixing' allegations against the conduct on and off the field, of cricketers from India, Pakistan and Australia and now South Africa, has boiled over and spilled from the realm of speculators, to the sphere of criminal investigation. With the Delhi police tapping and recording conversations between the South African captain, Hansie Cronje, and some bookies and offering the transcript as evidence of the rather disturbing shadow world transactions, the cricket control establishments have something more than rotten eggs thrown on their faces.

How has cricket, a game of the gentlemen, come to the sorry pass? The cancer of cricket for cash is a rather recent phenomenon. I have watched Test cricket for well over five decades and had, in the Fifties, helped the Madras Cricket Association officials put five rupee notes to the value of Rs. 25 in envelopes, to be handed over to Test cricketers as ``smoke money'' each day. Two decades later, I helped the BCCI officials secure Government clearance for foreign exchange to pay for the passage of the touring English team.

The financial dimensions of organising cricket matches has been a familiar enough territory. One learnt to know the financial numbers involved in gate collections and advertisement hoardings. One also saw cricketer friends move from third class train travel to air travel and receive better payments. And the State Cricket Association and Board officials take to high flying and high living.

In the past, Cricket Control Board officials knew the value of money and also had a fair sense of propriety and geography to plan the movement of the players from one venue to another in an economical manner for the Board and a less-strenuous manner for the players. Today the tour itinerary benefits only the travel agent directly and possibly some officials in an indirect manner.

In the past, officials rarely showed a sense of their own importance and if there was an odd exception here and there, it was confined to issuing complimentary passes. People moving on the ground wearing official badges were mostly local cricketers and League officials known for their ability to hold a bat or trundle the ball at various speeds. Today, the officials, more than the players, strut before the TV cameras, with unbecoming arrogance, even raising a controversy over the players invited to bowl at the nets.

Accounts of the BCCI reveal that the expenditure on travel and meetings, are far higher than the expenditure on conducting coaching camps. Profits from conduct of matches and commercial sponsorship is today a veritable honey pot!

All of us recognise that Kerry Packer, one-day matches, commercial sponsorships of tournaments and even Test series and the sale of television rights have changed the ambience on the cricket fields. The white or cream flannels which had a certain dignity about them, have yielded to colourful costumes with printed designs that are neither symbolic nor even concerned with conveying a value or a national trait. In a sense it is gross commercialisation of cricket, game which gentlemen and players had once played with a spirit of sportsmanship and a sense of fair play. It is to this commercialisation of sports that we have to attribute the decline in the ethical standards of behaviour of players and officials and the emergence of the spooky world of betters off the field, and their abettors on the field. While cricket as a sport and a contest of talent, has long enshrined itself as a game of glorious uncertainties, it had, in recent times, become a packaged show organised by event management experts with a discernible affection for Mammon, and a well- disguised disdain for the spirit on the game.

The construction of stadia, with massive costs of concretes structures covered by donations from commercial and industrial houses have led to hospitality boxes and a host of other facilities that hoist a premium over comfort of seats and entertainment value of the game on the green. Political leaders, bureaucrats from Ministries with ``power'' scantily clad starlets and stylishly dressed society women, noisy children and wives of VIPs, police officials and cricket officials - you can see all of them - there. They are there not in view of their interest or knowledge of the game, but to mark a social event, and if possible, get shown on the T.V. relay... It is almost like the Ascot race course appearances in England but with far greater diversity and larger numbers involved.

With such diversification of interest in the game, it is not a surprise that the speculators and the idle rich have invaded the stands, the galleries and the hospitality boxes. The culture of intervenue betting of the race clubs has descended on the cricket stadium with a far greater ferocity bringing in its wake, bookies and their slimy infiltration into the inner circles of cricket establishment.

While English cricket has the Ladbrokes and other organisations quoting odds on results of the game, the newer version of cricket matches between India and Pakistan at venues like Sharjah has triggered a stream of speculative activity. This has spread to Pakistan, India, Australia and now South Africa. The shadow world of speculation had certainly crept into the cricket stadia at least a decade ago and the bookies have not found it difficult to bring into their fold, a few players some of them captains of sides, by catering to their needs for cash to indulge in shopping or other whims. It is only the uninformed who think that invasion of the bookies results in matches being won or lost. Not necessarily. Well there could be bets on how many runs will be scored by a batsman, 25, 50 or 100 or how many wickets will be taken by a bowler, or whether a batsman's wicket will be taken by a particular bowler or not or which way the toss will go and some such aspects of the game.

One needs to be clear about two or three basic issues. First there is need to get over the regional and racist undercurrents, as the involvement of bookies from South Asian countries, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been mentioned by English, New Zealand, Australian and now South African players. This could make one suspect that `match fixing' is endemic in South Asian countries. It is rather that these countries do not have organised or legal betting as in England where firms like Ladbrokes operate in the open quoting odds and taking bets.

The absence of a legal framework has meant the entry of booking operators something of a spooky affair. It perhaps need not be so. And that's perhaps what the Minister for Sport, Mr. Dhindsa, meant when he initially spoke of legalising betting. But he had to backtrack, what with the Prime Minister declaring that Government of India was against it. This leaves the question wide open - whether international cricket can have two sets of participating countries one where betting is legal and another where it is not.

The second issue relates to the need to make a distinction between betting on some aspects of the game and ``match fixing''. Betting caters to what is believed to be universal, - gambling instinct of man. Cricket, as a recognised game of glorious uncertainties, is a natural arena with bookies accepting bets on who will win toss and such issues. With chance playing a role, `match fixing' is in a different league altogether providing scope for contrived final results. This should not be countenanced at all.

A third set of issue, relates to the role of the players, as distinct from the transaction between the bookies and the spectators or betters. While there could be more than one opinion on whether such transactions between the bookies and the betters should be legalised or not, there should be no two opinons on keeping the players totally out of the ambit of such transaction. Under no circumstances, should the players be allowed to be abettors. Governments and the cricket control boards should step in and ensure that that the system is managed in such a manner that the violator loses his status as a player along with the ill-gotten gains of the fixed match.

It is difficult to curb the betting done by inveterate gamblers on some aspects of the game - like tosses. While the ICC may not be able to do anything about betters, it can do something about their abettors on the field - by coming down heavily on some new features of the game.

While captains of the past cricket sides, held their assessment of the pitch and their game plan close to the chest, it has now become a ritual for a Ravi Shastri, Tony Greig, Geoff Boycott or Ian Chappel to give a report of the pitch and for a commentator to hold a mike to the winner of the toss and ask him to outline his game plan.. Why allow this if Mark Waugh, Shane Warne and now Hansie Cronje are to be faulted or fined or fired on giving information on the pitch to the bookies? While these interviews are purported to be helpful to the lay spectator, one cannot easily put away the thought that these ``innovations'' permitted by the ICC, provide the aperitifs and the starters for the speculative spectator of the game.

Whether the regulators of the game were wise in allowing the broadcasters and commentators to make the pre-match invasions of the pitch to read its texture and pace and to seek out the captains' views is a matter for debate. There should however be no doubt that these provide fuel for speculators. One feels that cricket, as a game will gain enormously if the ``innovations'' are proscribed immediately.

The second area of reform should concern the baneful influence of the commercial sponsors and advertising agencies and their lobbying for the players in the selection of the team. The clumsy cola war fought by the American multinationals and its impact on the cricket matches is an area that should be marked for cleansing. The rather ungainly logo patches worn on the chest, shirt lapels of players' dresses could be done away with, and advertising restricted to bill boards and banners on the playground and newspapers. The appearances of the players on the advertisement strips promoting a product could be left to the discretion of the players.

What is needed to clean the atmosphere is not judicial enquiry or criminal investigation, which given the present frameworks of laws of evidence and protracted trial procedures may lead the game nowhere. The inquiry reports of former Chief Justice Y. V. Chandrachud in India and the more prolonged enquiry by Justice Quayyum in Pakistan, have neither clearly established the culpability of the players alleged to be involved nor enhanced the credibility of the Cricket Control Boards. Judges are trained to seek evidence that establish wrong doing ``beyond reasonable doubt.'' And the matter they were required to examine is such that there will be hardly any documentary or eyewitness evidence. Even corroborative evidence may be difficult to secure. This does not necessarily imply that there has been no betting or that some players have not been guilty of abetting.

A police investigation, using such exceptional techniques as tapping of telephones (this could be contested as invasion of privacy and violation of individual rights!) may unravel the links, if any between players and bookies. But the evidence gathered may still fall below the standards of proof required for conviction in a criminal case.

It is a different question whether under local laws of the various countries, provisions of information to a bookie or throwing one's wicket away, or dropping a catch would at all constitute a criminal offence, even if some conversational link is established between a bookie and players.

What the prosecutors can best argue, is that ``some cheating'' has taken place or that the paying spectators have been misled, for gaining pecuniary advantage by the offending players and the bookie. Provisions of law corresponding to Sec. 420 of the Indian Penal Code may need to be invoked. The standards of proof required to establish the ``intent to cheat'' and to establish the actual commission of offence, do not appear to be easily met. The `scam' is thus still in a legal grey area and the scamsters to that extent, relatively better placed than their pursuers.

What is, in these circumstances, needed is an immediate and drastic rehaul of the rules of the game and formulation of a code of conduct not just for players and officials but also for broadcasters and their sponsors. Needless to say, there should be strict enforcement of the code with stringent punishment for the offenders.

Thus, the first stage of action will be the removal by ICC of the recently accorded privileges of access to players, and the pitch for the sponsors and broadcasters, to be followed, immediately by prescription of more rigid standards for acceptance of commercial sponsorship of Test matches. The decision on the question of legalising betting may take a longer time, as the political philosophies of the ruling elites in different nations may be different from one another. But all the Governments should be persuaded by the ICC to move in the same direction for cleansing the cricket establishments of their commercial odour and of the unethical conduct of players.