Nothing official about it: if it suffers no further hiccups, the Wills World Cup will see big betting. Bucks, big and small, will change hands as punters—part-time and whole—hedgetheir money on who will hold aloft the coveted cup on March 17.
So, what’s new? A lot. More competitors, hotter competition, closer margins, better strategies and, above all, better television coverage will make cricket’s quadrennial showpiece, the second in the subcontinent, a punter’s delight—to the puritan’s disgust.
"Only a fool would try to prophesy which way a one-day match, much less a tournament, will go," says cricket historian Vasant Raiji. But there are ‘fools’ who do. Some plumped for India in the 1983 Cup—and got Rs 10,000 for every Rs 100 they placed.
Cricket’s very nature lends itself to wild guessing. Player form, captaincy, pitch condition, wind direction, heat, moisture, umpires, crowds—anything can swing the fortune of a fixture. Why risk all that? "Because everything in life is a gamble," says Sandeep Khosla, a Bombay punter. "Betting gets your adrenalin going. It gives you a high. It gets you more involved in the game. And probably some money at the end of it all."
And what better place to try a hand than at the World Cup? With the stockmarkets down and the best Derbys having been run, incorrigible speculators like Khosla, who bet Rs 20 lakh on the 1992 World Cup, are looking forward to the googlies Googly will throw up. Starting from the toss, particularly in matches India and Pakistan play, every ball, every fall of wicket, four, six, win and loss will mean just one thing: profit or loss.
For the record, cricket betting is illegal in India and doesn’t take place. The fact is kids bet on Cadburys. Their parents on more. Hundreds of crores are placed on the Sharjah tournaments and one-dayers, and all of it over the telephone. With mobile phones in, bookies say the volumes for the 1996 Cup will only be larger.
And it’s a business run on trust. Big-time bookies do not accept bets below Rs 1,000, and that only if the punter has a reference. The largest bet is over the outcome of the tournament, and the rest in descending order over a wicket falling, a six being hit and a four being scored. Once the bookie is familiar with the punter’s voice, when the match is on, all he does is pick up the phone, bark the odds and note down the bet. The accounts are cleared on Monday, usually a non-racing day. Payments are made immedi-ately, unless the punter has an account with the bookie.
"Why isn’t cricket betting legalised in India?" asks Arun Jacob, an expat Indian who unfailingly plumps for his home country with Ladbrokes in England where betting is legal. "This would be a very rich country if it was. The Government is losing crores." Maybe. But it’s an equilibrium few punters—and fewer bookies—want to disturb. Although horse-race betting is legal, it invites a steep 21 per cent gambling tax (against 10 per cent in the UK). Punters can gamble only up to Rs 5,000. To bet in excess, they have to provide their names and, sometimes, addresses.
Result: heavy punters use codes. A top architect, for instance, uses his fingers. Five up means Rs 50,000 or Rs 5,00,000 depending on the race and the horse. He is taxed 21 per cent only for Rs 5,000. The spoils from the rest of the bet are shared between punter and bookie at a mutually agreed cut, often 8.5 per cent. It’s a system that has bred mafia-style corruption, and cricket bookies, wiser from the racing experience, want to avoid such a situation. "What’s so illegal about cricket betting to legalise it?" asks R.N. Sharma, a bookie. "There’s no manipulation here. And because the Government is not in the picture, even a common man can gamble to his pocket’s content. Forget the Supreme Court verdict; hasn’t legal gambling killed hundreds of families?"
Independent bookies say there is nothing unhealthy in betting on cricket, although betting syndicates in Bombay and Dubai have been blamed for the Salim Malik controversy last year. The Pakistani skipper allegedly offered massive sums to Australian players to throw away a match. Malik has since been cleared, but asks a punter: "Where did Malik get the money from?"
Aficionados too aver that placing money on cricket is safer than placing it on the turf. "Cricket is a two-horse race, a straightforward win-lose situation. If you have the knowledge about the sport, some basic intelligence and a little luck, you stand a fair chance," says one punter. "Quite unlike horse-racing where the horse’s weight, handicap, breeding, rider, jockey, trainer and a whole lot of other factors can (and do) queer the pitch."
In spite of the massive sums involved, the reputation of cricket betting has still not been sullied, unlike horse-racing. "Races are fixed all over the world," says a top bookie. "Cricket, more so the World Cup, is different. It’s a market scenario. Nobody can make it happen; it comes about on its own. A lot more than financial stake is involved—pride, prestige and patriotism."
(Some names have been changed to protect identities.)