Eighteen years ago, when mobile phones were the size of bricks, when ‘match-fixing’ was still not a word tripping off the tongues of those who didn’t know which side of the ball to lick for reverse swing, yours truly was visiting an Indian table tennis great in what was then Madras. Every few minutes, he would get up and go and take a phone call on the landline in another room. What was going on? The cryptic answer: “Why, I thought you hacks knew everything?” Turns out the pingpong ace was talking to his his bookie in Triplicane on what bets he wanted to ‘spread’ at various points in a match between—hold your breath—Somerset and Lancashire in the English county championship.
Point is, unlike most sports vulnerable to the deadly charms of gambling, cricket provides enough opportunities for the punter to try his luck—and then some more. In horse racing, for instance, punters can only put money on the outcome; they cannot bet on which horse will be ahead at the end of 400 metres or which will crash out. In cricket, however, the game’s complex nature, where anything can affect the outcome—the breeze, the umpire’s mood, the dew, a ball change, the captain’s whim, a quickie’s short fuse, the flood lights, shoes that skid—almost everything can become a game within a game of probability. It is truly a game of glorious uncertainties, although the rogues have taken the glorious out of it.
Which is why, match-fixing is suited mostly to Test cricket; spot-fixing to Twenty20. Wagering on who will lose or win an ODI or five-day match takes too much time, involves too much risk. It also takes too many players and it almost always requires the services of the captain (think Salim Malik, Mohammed Azharuddin, Hansie Cronje). In the momentary gratification offered by IPL featuring unknowns, you can bet on whether the next ball will be a ‘Yes Bank Maximum’ or a free hit, and have the answer instantly. In fact, the 6UP phone game launched by Steve Waugh during IPL-2 asked punters to predict, via SMS, the sequence of dots and runs in an upcoming over.
In the mid-1990s, crime reporters in Bombay often got late-night calls from anonymous underworld types with a strange request: “Could you please ask the sports desk to change the bowling order in the printed scorecard? Just show bowler Y as opening the attack rather than bowler X.” It seemed all so innocent back then, but as Sreesanth gyrates privately in some dark, dank room the next few days, you wonder if it was all so innocent really. Or, were the bookies trying to rip off somebody who had spread a bet on bowler X opening the attack followed by bowler Y?