After an unreasonable period of indecision, the third umpire in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (bcci) finally decided to hit the red button, sending the players back to the pavilion.
There was nothing unexpected about the verdict itself, but other questions remain. The most important being whether the buck stops with the players and if the match-fixing controversy has run itself out with the thumbs down on cricketers. Many within the government and the cbi feel that by doling out the punishments, the bcci seems to have circumvented the line of inquiry against itself.
"By punishing a few cricketers, the bcci has conveniently forgotten its own role," says a cbi official. Though bcci vigilance commissioner K. Madhavan has been quick to pronounce judgement on the players and gone along with the cbi's findings, he has been disturbingly quiet on the agency's scathing attack on the bcci.
"I have asked the board for some more information. I'll submit a supplementary report," Madhavan had told Outlook. But that was more than three weeks back, when Mohammed Azharuddin was questioned in Hyderabad. Since then, there have been interesting twists to the match-fixing saga.
At the bcci's special general body meeting in Calcutta on November 29, where the members were to have announced their verdict on the tainted players, the board instead released a document rebutting the cbi's charges.
In that rebuttal, the only logical contradiction the bcci made was on the figures the board earned through guarantee money and TV rights. "Sure, we could have erred on some of the figures," admits an official who was part of the match-fixing probe.
On the more substantive issues the cbi has pointed out, such as the holding of tournaments in Sharjah and Toronto (the big money-spinners for bookies) and that match-fixing could be a national security issue if left unchecked, the bcci is unusually quiet. "The report released in Calcutta looked like a pre-emptive strike and a boding of what Madhavan would say, if at all, in his report," says a prominent cricketer.
So, will the report on the bcci also hold it accountable for all the corruption that surrounds the game? There can be little doubt that match-fixing could not have gone on without the knowledge of the game's administrators. In fact, if probed further, the sub-plot could well thicken into a murky tale of its own.
"Madhavan has not completed his findings fully. There is no covering up, it is only the process of clearing up," bcci president A.C. Muthiah told Outlook on Friday. In his reckoning, there were other issues to be sorted out, including the verdict on off-spinner Nikhil Chopra, whose fate hangs in balance despite his selection in the one-day squad in the ongoing series against Zimbabwe. "Madhavan is on leave for three to four weeks. Once he is back, all the pending issues would be subjected to a fine-tooth comb scrutiny," said Muthiah.
However, many argue that the gap of a month may blunt the zeal Madhavan has displayed in the first report. "This could be what some "suspect' board members will be banking on," says a cbi official. By handing out the bans, the bcci seems to have taken the first crucial step in stemming the scourge, but ignored how the cbi has dwelt on its own negligence in dealing with the match-fixing malaise.
To an extent, the players who have been banned and suspended would be eagerly awaiting the vigilance commissioner's verdict on the role of the bcci.If a clean chit is given to the board members and selectors, there is a strong possibility that one of the cricketers may strike and rake up more dirt.
For instance, "Private Eye' Manoj Prabhakar, whose cricketing career ended four years ago and who has been slapped with a five-year ban, has stated that it was a bcci official who first introduced him to a bookmaker. "During his interrogation he named one Prakash Kelkar, who many years back apparently used to sit in the bcci office wanting Prabhakar to introduce him to some players in the New Zealand squad," says a cbi official. He adds, however: "We don't know who he has in mind now."
Azharuddin, whose life ban has come in the twilight of his career, has already decided not to take the punishment lying down. Some of his close associates in Hyderabad say he was waiting for the end of Ramzan before he "opened up". "He is talking to his lawyers and will definitely go public," says the cricketer's cousin. Similarly, Ajay Jadeja—the only person immediately affected, with his five-year suspension—is already on record as saying he will approach the bcci to overturn its verdict and even the courts, if it came to that.
But considering that 28 of the 30 board members have recommended maximum punishment, there is little chance of the board rescinding its decision. "Jadeja will then have to decide on his next move," says an official.
The punishments meted out to cricketers like Ajay Sharma and Prabhakar carry little meaning, but as a board official says, "We had to do it because of certain technicalities." Both of them retired from cricket years ago and a ban has no bearing on their cricketing future. So is the case with former physiotherapist Ali Irani, who now runs his private practice.
That the bcci is expecting a backlash from the players is certain. Muthiah and other board officials are aware that more dirt could spill out, but remain confident that it won't upset the apple-cart further. "One reason for their confidence may be that the players will be implicating themselves further. Then it becomes one tainted player's word against the other," says an official in the cbi's legal team. cbi officials are not unduly worried if Madhavan does not follow up with his supplementary report on the bcci. "We have a fool-proof case on television rights where we will file a proper chargesheet where some board officials will face problems," says an official.
As cricket writer Suresh Menon, in his long years of covering the game, rightly observes: "For years, we have known that players are merely pawns in the hands of the cricket board." He cites the instances of former captains Dilip Vengsarkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, either dropped from Test matches or one-dayers, and feeling "shattered" and "devastated" by their omissions. Menon maintains that "Indian cricketers know that a few men in the board room, who go unrecognised by the public, hold the real power".
Bans on the cricketers may perhaps have brought one episode of the match-fixing drama to a close. They are but one important element in the vicious cycle of match-fixing. The story itself is far from over.
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