December 11, 2019
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Out For A Lame Duck

Has the BCCI preempted a government inquiry into Prabhakar's match-fixing allegations?

Out For A Lame Duck
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THE God of Indian Cricket sure moves in mysterious ways. For over a fortnight after Outlook's expose of the betting and bribery scandal, Jagmohan Dalmiya insisted that the onus of providing proof lay on the accuser, Manoj Prabhakar, and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) could do nothing about it.

Even on his return to Calcutta on June 18 as newly-crowned chief of the International Cricket Council (ICC), he sang the same raga: "Unless Prabhakar tells us who offered him the Rs 25 lakh...." Twenty-four hours later, the same man was announcing a one-man team to investigate the allegations.

The announcement was made in the name of the BCCI president, which added to the mystery. Raj Singh Dungarpur was away when the scandal broke. But he had attended the ICC meeting in London. So if the BCCI bosses had agreed on an inquiry there, why hadn't Dalmiya made the announcement on landing?

The BCCI action was possibly prompted by three factors. Former Supreme Court chief justice Y.V. Chandrachud's consent to sit on the panel had arrived only on the morning of June 20. Prabhakar's response to a BCCI letter had arrived in the interim. And CPI(M) MP Ashoke Mitra had placed a notice in Parliament seeking a government probe into the scandal.

It was a combination of the last two that probably hastened the announcement. In his letter, Prabhakar insisted that "no useful purpose would be served by my stating any more facts, especially as it would be virtually impossible for me to prove that the incident had occurred". If he took this stand before Chandrachud, the Board could find an escape route.

On the other hand, if the government, acting on Mitra's notice, set up an official inquiry under the Comission of Inquiries Act, because none had acted to clear the air, the Board would have had egg all over its face. It would be a statutory body. It would function as a court of law. It could summon anybody. There could be hell.

An in-house committee with only recommendatory not judgemental powers would be good PR. It would appear as if the BCCI had done its bit and it would preempt the Gujral government's plans, if any. If nothing concrete emerged, so much the better. It would spell finis to all future muck-rakers.

Everybody agrees that the inquiry will not change the atmosphere of suspicion that has suddenly enveloped Indian cricket. For one, the malaise runs deeper; its tentacles spread all the way from the betting syndicates of Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta to Dubai and Karachi. It will take a really long arm of the law to reach that far and wide.

And for another, Chandrachud doesn't have the powers to do anything earth-shattering about Prabhakar's allegations. It's his word against his teammate's; the other guy is certain to deny it. The judge cannot force either Prabhakar or his teammates on that 1994 tour of Sri Lanka to appear before him.

Says noted Supreme Court lawyer Ram Jethmalani: "It's an informal inquiry somewhat like a club committee. Anybody can refuse to go. The only authority it will have is moral. People will draw their own inferences if certain persons called don'' appear before it." But Chandrachud, who claims that he hasn't met dungarpur, says those who refuse to oblige his summons won't be guilty by default.

Although it's over a week since his appointment was announced, Chandrachud is still awaiting the terms of reference. But the former judge and practising lawyer is clear in his mind that he will probe both the betting and the bribery angles. As he told The Indian Express: "The very institution of the inquiry should serve as a deterrent. Assuming that we get to know the name of the player, just imagine his plight afterwards. There would be no benefit matches, his employers will dump him and no monetary help would be forthcoming."

Chandrachud says Prabhakar will not be open to libel if he reveals the name of the player who cted as the go-between in offering the cash: "Only if he takes the name through the media can he be open for libel. Not if he informs the authorities." As for any recommendations, Chandrachud is clear that legalising betting would "ruin the sport" for "then it will be difficult to keep the players out of it."

But cricketers and administrators - past and present - say Chandrachud should not lose heart if he fails to place a finger on who offered Prabhakar the cash if the cricketer refuses to name his teammate. And even if he does, if nothing comes out of it, or BCCI sits on it.

As a commentator points out: "The Outlook article raised a whole gamut of issues. If the inquiry can take up some of them and show the way to the cricket board, its purpose will have been served. There is a public interest involved which has so far been ignored. The common man is losing millions because of the nexus." The issues are:

  • The enormous assets of certain top cricketers past and present disproportionate to their known source of income, notwithstanding the huge paypackets they get from BCCI, gifts and endorsements.
  • The role played by some TV commentators, former cricketers and cricket correspondents as conduits to bookies and punters.
  • The inability of government-owned VSNL and private cellphone companies to keep tabs on the misuse of lines during matches.
  • The inability of BCCI of payment or transaction, immoveable assets, agree legal experts, are the surest way of pinning down cricketers on the take; and Justice Chandrachud, they say, would do well to get the Income Tax Department cracking on it.

David Hopps wrote in the 1996 Wisden that illegal betting scams through Asia have burgeoned since the introduction of satellite TV coverage. But ESPN and Star Sports are reluctant to divulge if their commentators are barred from betting on cricket matches they are covering or form providing information to bookies/punters. Or even if they intend to henceforth. All Anna Lee of ESPN-Star Sports would say was: "We contacted the BCCI upon hearing the allegations in Outlook and told them that we are prepared to fully cooperate in their investigation."

Ditto the Sports Journalists Federation of India (SJFI). Although press boxes at cricket stadia have been misused by some journalists and TV commentators for a while now, the SJFI, which usually handles accreditations, has still not debated it. But now that the issue is out in print, SJFI secretary R Eswar says the matter will be discussed 'threadbare' at the federation's annual general body meeting on July 6. A veteran journalist who has covered four Olympics says he has seen "nothing like this".

Chandrachud could get the TV channels and journalist's body to take a stand on the issue, and get the BCCI to instruct host associations to ban the use of cellphones from the press box and pavillion. The learned judge could also take up the board's own inability to clear some of the mystery.

Ashok Mankad's report of that Sharjah match played under streetlights in which Prabhakar played clearly explains what happened. But it has not been made public, leading to insinuations about Mankad's role and denying the country of the services of one of its finest cricketing brains.

Says Mankad: "India had already gone through the finals. Pakistan need to win to do so. But the start had been delayed by rain. The two captains had agreed in the presence of Asif Iqbal before the start of the match to continue as long as possible. What was my fault?"

On New Zealand's last our of India, the last Test match at Cuttack was rained out. There was a heavy downpour midway from the first day. The outfield dried up by the third day, but no play was possible for the next two days because only the playing area was wet. The suspicion: someone wanted to organise a couple of one-dayers but wasn't able to.

Ditto the allegations surrounding the made-for-television 1996 Sahar Cup, when India won the first two matches, lost the next two, and brought it all down the wire.

Clearly, there is much work for Justice Chandrachud. And there is much good that can emerge from a lameluck probe. He has played the game and knows what it takes. Plus, he has one added qualification to understand the intricacies of what he will have to plough through: he is a punter himself.

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