March 28, 2020
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Digging For Some Wicket Ways

The CBI will start with bookies and dons but the evidence will be mainly circumstantial

Digging For Some Wicket Ways

Having been assigned the task of investigating match-fixing allegations involving Indian players, the CBI has worked out a precise plan of action. As a first step to unravel the plethora of charges and counter-charges against prominent players and officials of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the investigative agency intends to begin with bookies and the underworld involved in organised betting and match-fixing.

Crack teams of the Special Crimes Unit of the agency will soon fan out to the major betting centres in Ahmedabad, Indore, Kanpur, Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta. "The idea is to work upwards. Based on whatever information we get from them, we get to the players," says a CBI official. Simultaneously, the CBI also hopes to question some key members of the underworld, presently in police custody in Maharashtra and Gujarat, who are believed to be in touch with the betting syndicates in Dubai.

For instance, it is known that underworld don Babloo Srivastava, while in custody in Naini Jail in Allahabad and the capital’s Tihar Jail, ran up huge bills on his cellular phone. "He was a compulsive gambler and was in touch with bookies when cricket matches were on," says one official. During his stint in Naini Jail alone, his phone bill was close to Rs 17 lakh. A couple of bookies Babloo was in contact with during the Titan Cup in 1996-97 were reportedly picked up by the Mumbai police. "We had to finally remove him to Bareilly, which is outside the cellular range," says a police officer. As a first step to ferret out the underworld links to the game of cricket, the CBI will be questioning Srivastava. This, the CBI feels, could take them in the direction of the Dubai-based kingpin, Dawood Ibrahim.

It is believed that it is their connections with the underworld that could be the undoing of many players. While it may be difficult to fix precise charges on match-fixing and the invoking of clear sections of the law to nail them, the CBI is confident that this link will certainly surface.

While exploring this connection, the CBI will also be seeking the help of state intelligence units who have information on bookies and their links with the underworld. Though the CBI has accorded importance to this approach, it will also begin examining in depth the charges made by former BCCI president I.S. Bindra, who has agreed to present a detailed dossier on the misconduct of players. "This may prove to be interesting and could yield vital clues," says a CBI officer. Also linked to Bindra’s proposed dossier is the charge made by former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, the first Indian cricketer to come out openly on the nefarious deals in the game. He had alleged in 1997 that he was offered Rs 25 lakh for a below-par performance in a one-dayer in Sri Lanka in 1994. Prabhakar is yet to name the player who offered him this sum but Bindra has jumped the gun and said it was Kapil Dev, who has in turn threatened to sue him.

One difficulty which the CBI faces is that there is no starting point and time-frame to their probe. The terms of reference have been pithy: investigate allegations of match-fixing. Therefore, any one-dayer or Test match or cricketer it feels is ‘suspect’ after interrogating various persons will form the basis of their investigations. "It is a huge task but we are excited about it," says CBI director R.K. Raghavan.

At the same time the CBI is aware that a bookmaker’s or an official’s accusation against a player will not stand up to legal scrutiny or be sufficient grounds for framing charges. Nevertheless, the agency maintains it wants to first and foremost establish circumstantial evidence. "Once we get to know that a bookie paid a cricketer huge sums for a particular game and the levels of spread-betting he indulged in, we will look into it," say sources. If established that the charges tally with the bookie’s allegations, then the CBI, as the next step, hopes to chase the money trail.

This may be difficult, considering that some players may have covered their tracks, also due to the nature of hawala transfers, but we have our own methods to probe this," says an official of the agency. For this, the CBI hopes to rope in the help of other investigative agencies and may even call on the services of Interpol.

While doubts have been cast on the efficacy of a CBI probe to examine the entire gamut of charges and whether it can unearth anything tangible, the agency is gung-ho about the inquiry it is soon to embark on. "It is for the first time that such an investigation has been handed to us and we will do full justice," says Raghavan.

In a couple of days, the CBI will ask interested parties to come forward and volunteer information on match-fixing charges. "If that is not forthcoming, we will go to them," says an official. On their all-encompassing agenda, the CBI also plans to question players currently in the cricket team, who are part of huge advertisement promos. The CBI will be naturally questioning corporate honchos on the monies paid to cricketers for ad campaigns and the tenure of their contracts.

In several cases, it is suspected that only a certain portion of the contract is shown as being "white money". Bank accounts, immovable properties and money earned by cricketers while playing for the country will also be ascertained by the investigating agency. "Here, we will get to know if their assets are disproportionate to their known sources of income," says an official.

In this connection, the CBI is aware that it might be difficult to invoke sections of the Indian Penal Code to establish charges. Therefore, help from the income-tax authorities and the Directorate of Enforcement will be sought, if any of the players have not fully declared their incomes or violated foreign exchange laws by siphoning funds overseas.

But the CBI will find itself caught in a bind while investigating allegations that a former captain of the Indian team had declared Rs 16 crore under the Voluntary Disclosure Income Scheme in 1997. The former captain had reportedly filed his returns from Bhopal. "It was an amnesty scheme which was in operation for six months and we doubt if this declaration will see the light of day," says one official.

However, considering the seriousness of charges which have been levelled against Indian players and suspicions shrouding the game itself, the government might make a one-time exemption and provide the CBI the identity of the player. "That will help in clearing the air and the disrepute the game has been brought to," says a senior bureaucrat.

A major lead, so far ignored, are the recorded conversations of bookies and players by Mumbai police during the 1996-96 Titan Cup series. Vital portions of the tapes recorded by the police showed that bookies were in touch with former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, former wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia and Ajay Jadeja before crucial matches. "That will be an important source of information and we will need to take that ahead," says an official. Till date, no investigative agency has bothered to follow up these vital clues to uncover players’ involvement. The tapes and their respective transcripts has been in the custody of the Mumbai police for the last four years.

Similarly, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) also has in its possession taped conversations of bookies talking about cricketers, recorded in 1992. The then revenue secretary, M.R. Sivaraman, had spoken of these conversations to the former BCCI chief, Madhavrao Scindia, but like in the case of the Mumbai tapes, precious little was done.

Armed with a mandate to get to the bottom of match-fixing allegations, the CBI will be homing in on both the Mumbai police and the DRI. "We will be giving all the necessary assistance on those clues which we stumbled on in 1992," says a DRI officer. Likewise, the Mumbai police has also made informal contact with the CBI and a team will shortly be despatched to Delhi.

The novel nature of the match-fixing probe has not made the CBI uncomfortable. On the contrary, it is determined that it will come out with some hard-hitting incidents which may alter the nature of the game when its report comes out. "The work is stupendous and it will take a long time, but it is something everyone will be eager to know," says an official. Except, perhaps, those involved.

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