The media has gone into intriguing somnolence after the overkill of what happened at Lord’s the other day, when two misguided young Pakistani cricketers, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamer, deliberately bowled three no-balls, as specified by a bookie with whom they had allegedly entered into a pact. It is alleged that their captain, Salman Butt, was privy to this misdemeanour. What exactly the bets were on, one may never know. Possibly, they were being placed on the number of no-balls bowled in a particular inning.
Cricket buffs greeted the news with shock and dismay. However, I wasn’t much affected, for the episode only confirmed what was being suspected right since 2000, when some of our cricketers were caught with their pants down. I had the dubious privilege of heading the investigation at that time, something that gave me valuable insights into how cricketers were being subverted. Two of the men in flannels were banned from the game after a Delhi police operation uncovered the scandal.
However, they bounced back quickly enough. In fact, they have both done rather well for themselves. One of them sits unfazed in Parliament. The other is a suave and articulate anchor with a prominent TV channel, commenting on the nuances of the game. During the former’s election campaign, the fact that he had been found guilty of violating the basic canons of cricket hardly came up. He won hands down. Clearly, our electorate knows its priorities.
What does this mean? Folks, don’t get excited if bowlers overstep the crease by more than two feet to deliver the ball, or if a fielder floors a catch my grandsons Akhil and Nikhil, both six years old, will take nine times out of ten. The two Indian delinquents of 2000 notoriety are the nicest guys ever to have wielded the willow and you can hardly believe they could have done what they were accused of. In the real world, outside our cricket stadiums, this is what is happening all the time. Crime emanates from the most unexpected quarters, with greed and chicanery consuming even professions once considered sacred.
A question often asked of me is: can we plug all loopholes so that the game regains the credibility it commanded decades ago? I am not very sanguine that any strategy will make cricketers completely keep off bookies, who are predatory and often too sophisticated to be caught in normal circumstances. The analogy that comes readily to mind is the corruption in our civil services. The best of vigilance agencies have failed us for a variety of reasons, including the magnitude of the problem and the lack of adequate resources to enforce anti-graft laws. By the same token, the icc’s anti-corruption wing is bound to fail. Talks of beefing it up are well-intentioned but hardly practical. Policing the game has many obstacles, one of which is that cricket administrators are themselves not enthusiastic; a few of them have even got mixed up with the underworld, which now dictates how cricket is played. Despite all the security cameras and other sophisticated equipment, bookies will find a way to reach the cricketers through intermediaries.
Legalising cricket betting might be the only credible option, as in England where there are no complaints about how it is administered. Whether this will succeed in India is anybody’s guess. There is no harm in trying. This is analogous to legalising soft drugs, which countries like the Netherlands have done without facing major problems. The only argument against legalising betting is that, just as when prohibition is lifted easy availability could cause many more people to take to drinking, lots of people who would not otherwise place bets would do so in the hope of making a quick buck.
The growing cynicism about any effort to make cricket cleaner does not however take into account how we have always had, and still have, many cricketers—Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Sehwag and Laxman, to mention just a few—who are hailed for their conduct on and off the field. Could such behaviour be explained by values, or principles, which cut across religion, caste or economic differences, and are inculcated chiefly by the family? Why do our leaders not talk about this, instead of always trying to divide society on caste and religious lines? There is a lot that we, as parents, can do to make our youth play cricket like gentlemen—as it was being played until a few decades ago.