It’s a nippy spring day in Delhi, perfect conditions under the gentle sun, as two heavyweight colleges take on each other. Sitting alongside me was Eric (name changed), a bookie from Mizoram, supposedly a UPSC aspirant. He needed the extra money, but accepted that he liked this more.
The new release on Netflix, “Caught Out”, reminded everyone of the biggest match-fixing scandal in Indian history, based on the courageous reporting of Outlook’s very own journalists. Mohammad Azharuddin’s name is burned into the collective consciousness, but cricket corruption is still our present.
The players looked bored. In this tournament, the two powerhouses have already qualified for the next stage, so this is a dead rubber.
“But perfect game for us,” Eric tells me.
He then monologued, “Covering the big names is pointless, a list of facts that the whole nation knows. Paan shops offering ten-rupee and hundred-rupee bids to regulars, and small-town hotel bars being gathering points for the betting crowd, that is almost tradition. Even the cricket board probably considers that as an important cultural component of the game.”
I was reminded of how many cricket films feature a similar scene, working-class men circled around a spotty TV, and screaming out their calls while the underdog made his way up. Another popular cricket series, which touched upon match-fixing was Prime’s “Inside Edge”. Eric dismissed it as pure fiction, asserting one didn’t need to go to such great lengths to hide. It is always hidden in plain sight. He said I would see it now. A curious mismatch of colleges existed in the tournament. Some with players languishing and planning their alternative careers, and some that have produced famous India cricketers.
My attention is on the stumps. Eric shakes his head, points over to the small stands, where a motley crowd of people are watching the game. They all had one thing in common, phones out, furiously texting. “That’s the phone army of fixers and bookies, sending out information in real time,” he said.
The dust kicked off the bowler’s spikes as he hurtled towards the stumps, and Eric began his colorful commentary. Just not of the game.
“I used to play a lot of online games”, he said, “There was this parlour in Kamla Nagar where I spent most of my day. A certain college was opposite to it.”
One day, a friend of his from a famous college cricket team dropped in to see him before a friendly game. Eric remembers the friend with his cricket bag slung around his shoulder, groaning as he watched Eric sip a Red Bull and play Warcraft. The cricketer joked that Eric was lucky to spend his day this way, while he would have to waste two hours in the sun for his college. This caught Eric’s attention. Even he knew most university games lasted longer than that. He asked his friend how could he know it was going to be two hours.
The player laughed, and told him the real reason was that the opposition’s only wicketkeeper was injured, and to conserve him for future tournaments, they would concede the game after his team batted. They just wanted to test their pace attack. What if the other side had to field first, Eric asked. His friend winked, “In India, even the coins are fixed.”
Eric was excited. He knew a lot of people in the gaming parlour came in to use betting sites, so he asked one if he could bet on this meaningless friendly. The regular told him not online, but the shop outside where they sold hookahs would take the bet.
“On a meaningless friendly?” “On any university game. The staff, rickshaw drivers, they all bet on these games only.”
Eric won enough money to take his girlfriend to an expensive restaurant that students like him dreamed of visiting. She was impressed, and he was hooked.
The top college mentioned above played again three days later. Their opener had received a call to training camp for the state team so he wasn’t playing. This wasn’t public information. Eric’s friend grumbled about being the replacement, noting that their opponents had the best pacers in the university. “They’re going to murder me,” he said. Eric quietly went back to the same shop. He betted against the heavyweight team, knowing they were without a key player, and made a neat collection. Twice lucky, the shopkeeper commented, eyebrows raised. Eric said nothing, and bought his teammate a bottle of his favourite whisky to soothe the pain of the loss. The third time he went back in, the shopkeeper shared a smoke with him. “You hid it well last time, kid,” he told Eric between drags. “I know how you won, it’s nothing new. Many of these players try to have their friends come in and bet for them. But it’s so obvious, so we don’t take them”. They came to an arrangement naturally.
In no time, Eric had his own operation. It was far too easy, he said, and gave me a demonstration. He pointed at one of the outfielders. “That guy is middle-order, and he is going out in the first over or second when he bats,” Eric told me.
“Fixing?”, I asked. Eric pulled out his phone, and pulled up an Instagram story of a party the previous night where the same outfielder was struggling to stay upright. The sufferer’s turn came. Eric chuckled as he misread an easy ball. The wicketkeeper was laughing too. “Party boy likes this girl in Daulat Ram, and this game is pain for him,” Eric told me with a gleam in his eye. “So I told him to save himself the pain and take the out when signalled. In return, I gifted the couple a rendezvous at a glitzy hotel in Greater Kailash. The player agreed just like that.”
He added, “This is why the real action is in college cricket now. These guys don’t care, it’s a fixer’s goldmine.”
Delhi sporting culture has always been rich. So as the technology generation seeped into the ancient walls of some of the institutions, most colleges had signed agreements with partners, or start-up projects from their own film societies, to help stream the games. They were mostly amateur, and free to watch on YouTube. The catch here was, since the ragtag film crews relied on outdated equipment, the lag between streams and real-time action was anywhere from two to ten minutes on average.
“Ten minutes?” I asked, stunned. Eric nodded. That was why the phone army hung around, watching a dead-rubber university game. They passed on real-time information through texts, and odds could be changed or bets could be placed before streams caught up. The possibilities were endless.
The hotel room was Rs 13,500 a night. Eric was going to make six times that when our hungover friend walked off. What was the signal, I asked Eric. I didn’t see any covert relay, although I did see a furious patter of texts as the poor batter’s second over started. The wicketkeeper told him, Eric said, waving at the wicketkeeper, who returned the wave. A richer man at the end of the game, Eric asked if I would like to talk to some of the players, and we got up and walked right over to where they were changing to leave. I couldn’t believe how brazen and open it all was. Although none of them wanted to be on record, they privately verified everything Eric had told me. As I left, a player had a parting remark for me.
“We have played together for years, now we all make money together, what’s the big deal?”