The cbi report on match-fixing and related malpractices talked only of bookies, punters and underworld dons. It named nine international cricketers—six of whom led their countries in the 1999 World Cup—who were either offered or paid money by bookie Mukesh ‘MK’ Gupta. But this is not about betting alone. It’s about making money by converting the game of cricket into a show. This system is run by sponsors, advertisers, TV networks, businessmen, industrialists and all who view cricket as a cash cow. Former players, who form commentary teams for TV networks and write syndicated columns in papers, don’t comment on this system as they are as involved in it as the rest. It is this system that sells cricket and makes great players like Azhar, Lara and Akram vulnerable to fixing matches for money and it is all pervasive. On match-fixing and betting, the cbi report warns: "The crisis facing cricket today is very different and far more sinister than the Bodyline controversy." The cbi is no authority on cricket history and its knowledge of what ails the game is limited. Bodyline was at least about playing cricket but wasn’t the only crisis that this game of glorious uncertainties and gentlemen ever faced.
The Packer crisis (1977-79) affected and changed the game far more deeply and seriously than Bodyline. It commercialised cricket and made it a tool of the market. Wisden tells us that in the 19th century, there were a couple of cricket circuses run by Clarke and ‘Ploughboy’ Dean for profit. We also know that the cricket establishment till half a century ago discriminated between the Gentlemen who played for pleasure and those who played for their livelihood. But unlike all these professional practices of the past, the Packer circus was a great enterprise to commercialise the great game and turn it into a tool of the new emerging markets. Kerry Packer, the Australian media mogul, as you know, was fighting against the Australian Cricket Board and the entire cricket establishment for exclusive
broadcasting rights for his now-famous Channel 9. His fight was neither for cricket nor for better payments to cricketers; he wanted exclusive broadcasting rights to earn profits from cricket. He signed up the best players in the world for fees no cricketer had ever received to play in his circus called World Series.
Except the Indians, all big players played for Packer against their own countries and establishments. They were the willing agents of Packer who introduced night cricket and turned the sedate game into an action-packed TV spectacle. He brought sponsors, introduced ads after every over and made cricket into a great outlet for sales campaigns.
It was the support of the present and former players which helped Packer defeat the establishment and secure the exclusive broadcast rights for his JP Sports and Television Corporation. Players for the first time in cricket history played neither for their countries nor for cricketing pride. Their performances were not going to be included in official records. The players played only for money. The Packer circus inspired the apartheid-practicing South Africa to hire teams to play there and thus flout the icc ban. It also inspired Abdul Rehman Bukhatir, a businessmen, to start a new business of cricket in the desert of Sharjah with the help and active cooperation of former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal. It shouldn’t surprise us that the first player-captain caught in the match-fixing scandal was a South African, and Sharjah is believed to be the biggest centre for betting, match-fixing and open bribery to present and former cricketers via the Cricketers’ Benevolent Fund Series. About the Packer impact, Wisden says: "Perhaps the most important consequence of the whole affair was that it revealed to top players that they were saleable commodities who had a value in the marketplace." Saleable commodities do not have a conscience. Even if they have it, they soon lose it playing a game driven by markets, as the simple, upright and god-fearing Azhar and Hansie Cronje did. Cricketers today know that they have a definite market value which they should encash quickly before they are dropped. They no longer play for their countries and for the game. In a 21st century world dominated by powerful market forces, you cannot blame this system. But if you play only for money you are bound to become an Azhar or a Cronje. Without an amateur spirit, you just cannot play cricket. If you do not see this emerging from the match-fixing scandal and the cbi report, you have missed the point. The lynchpin of the malaise.