After six months of painstaking investigations, the CBI is tightening the noose on four cricketers involved in match-fixing. Senior officials involved in the probe told Outlook that former captain Mohammed Azharuddin, all-rounder Ajay Jadeja, off-spinner Nikhil Chopra and former Test player Ajay Sharma would figure in the CBI's interim report to be submitted shortly to the sports ministry.
To a great extent, the CBI's evidence has been culled from statements and confessions of bookies. "From them (bookies), a wealth of information was obtained and we had to corroborate that with our own findings," says a senior official.
In a parallel investigation conducted by the Income-Tax (I-T) Department, notices will be issued by the assessing officers in a fortnight's time to former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, ex-coach Kapil Dev, the four mentioned in the CBI report, prominent bookies who were raided and board officials. "We have been able to unearth a lot of disproportionate wealth and assets from the raids and the subsequent appraisal," says S.C. Parija, DG (investigations), I-T Department.
After questioning over 200 persons in the probe, sending out special teams to all betting centres in the country and a trip to England by a delegation led by CBI joint director R.. Sawani, the investigating agency has arrived at some other disturbing conclusions. A sampling:
CBI director R.K. Raghavan, while refusing to comment on the names of the cricketers mentioned by others in the agency, told Outlook: "It is a comprehensive report and a lot of hard work has gone into it." He added that once the report was presented, the ball would no longer be in his court. "Our job was to look at the welter of charges which we have done creditably. The rest is up to the concerned ministry," he says, referring to the ministry of sports.
Sources in the CBI point out that Delhi jeweller-cum-bookie Mukesh Kumar Gupta's deposition provided the impetus to the match-fixing probe. Having launched a countrywide manhunt for 'MK', as he was popularly known, soon after the CBI probe began, it is ironic that he turned out to be an important source. "He actually prised open the lid on match-fixing and its modus operandi and from there we worked backwards," says an official. MK gave the CBI valuable information on players and officials and the 'happenings' both off and on the field. Similarly, from the statements and confessions of other bookies, the CBI was able to establish the connection between Azharuddin, Sharma and MK.
Inputs were also provided by Shamila Batohi, the South African public prosecutor for the Edwin King Commission of inquiry into match-fixing. During her visit to the capital last month, when she hoped to get the taped conversations between former Proteas skipper Hansie Cronje and absconding bookie Sanjeev Chawla, she made a stopover at the CBI headquarters. Her meeting with Sawani, the joint director heading the probe, was revealing. "They exchanged information on the links between MK, Azharuddin and Cronje," says an official.
As for Manoj Prabhakar's explosive spy-camera revelations, the CBI, it is reliably learnt, has not been able to corroborate the allegation against Kapil Dev. Early this year, Prabhakar dropped a bombshell alleging that Kapil had offered him Rs 25 lakh to play below par in the Singer Cup tournament in 1994. "We checked out from various sources, including the players present during the time of the incident, but we have no concrete evidence," says a CBI official. In all probability, the investigative agency will close the case against Kapil.
Since criminal charges cannot be invoked against players, especially since match-fixing charges do not stand up to judicial scrutiny, the CBI report, at best, will impact upon a few cricketing careers. "The players, if their names appear in the CBI report, have already been dropped from the national squad," says a BCCI official. It remains to be seen if the sports ministry instructs the BCCI to take further action in terms of imposing life bans or obliterating their records from cricketing annals. The BCCI president, A.C. Muthaiah, has already promised stringent action in the event of Indian players involved in match-fixing.
Moreover, considering that the CBI's interim report is only recommendatory in nature, cricketers have no option of appealing against the agency's findings or defending themselves. They can, however, contest the I-T assessments.
After the nationwide raids on cricketers and officials by I-T sleuths in July, the appraisal reports are on the verge of completion. "We want to complete it by the end of the month," says Parija. These reports will in turn be passed on to assessing officers who will issue notices to all those raided for a block period of 10 years. Even while preparing the appraisal reports, the I-T officials stumbled on some interesting details.
Delhi cricketer Sharma, for instance, had only filed his tax returns for two years. Sidhu, who reportedly declared a huge sum under the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme in 1997, was proving to be a slippery customer by not making himself available for further questioning. "He gave us a medical certificate saying he was unwell and suddenly we find him in Singapore giving expert comments," says an I-T official. Credit card downloads on Azharuddin and Jadeja were huge and many other cricketers had a lot of unexplained bank accounts.
Many officials firmly maintain that the assessment proceedings are time-consuming. "It can carry on till July 2002, which is the stipulated deadline," says an official. If undisclosed income and assets are established by the assessing officers, the penalties can range from 100 per cent to 300 per cent. But this can be contested which will first be adjudicated by the commissioner, I-T, and then the I-T appellate tribunal, the final fact-finding body.
But even as the CBI's investigations wind down on the biggest scandal to hit Indian cricket, it's not clear if the system is purged. "We hope our report will have a salutary effect on the game," says Raghavan. A sentiment that will find an echo in many hearts.