In the film ‘Godfather II’, Michael Corleone steps out of a gleaming Ford Fairlane and walks towards the quiet Miami home of the gangster Hyman Roth. Inside is a scene of domestic bliss, a contrast to the world of crime. Roth is watching football while his wife makes him a tuna sandwich.
With sports commentary audible in the background, Roth tells Corleone he enjoys football. And baseball as well.
“I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919,” the wily codger says. The two men laugh.
For decades now sport has attracted lawbreakers. The scope it offers for betting and match-fixing makes it a lucrative revenue stream. In the 2022 period, Sportradar, a Switzerland-based integrity services company that tracks matches across the world, found 1212 suspicious matches across 12 sports and 92 countries.
Football topped the list with 775 suspicious matches, while cricket was number six with 13 suspicious games, although none of them were in India.
It is an open secret, however, that voluminous betting takes place in India on cricket. Nearly Rs 1000 crore is reportedly punted on a single Indian Premier League (IPL) game. In 2016, the International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS), a Doha-based sports security and integrity body, pegged the size of India’s illegal betting sector at Rs. 990,000 crore (approximately $150 billion). Over 80 per cent of the illegal betting is generated by cricket.
Also, as we get ready for IPL 2023, two recent releases have rekindled the topic of cricket match-fixing. One is the Netflix documentary ‘Caught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket.’ The other is ‘A Cop in Cricket’, a book by former Delhi police commissioner Neeraj Kumar on his years as the cricket board’s Anit-Corruption Unit (ACU) chief.
The documentary is told from the viewpoint of its investigators, such as former ‘Outlook’ reporter Aniruddha Bahal, former CBI chief Ravi Sawani and Neeraj Kumar.
Kumar was at the centre of two major match and spot-fixing probes. The first was in 2000, when bookie Mukesh Gupta’s confessions nailed former South African captain Hansie Cronje, India’s Mohammad Azharuddin and some other prominent players. The other was in 2013, when S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan of the Rajasthan Royals were alleged to have committed spot-fixing. Gurunath Meiyappan, Team Principal of the Chennai Super Kings and son-in-law of then BCCI president N Srinivasan, was banned from cricket for passing team and match information to bookies.
Both works provide a peek into the personality of Indian cricket. Surpriya Sobti Gupta, the director of ‘Caught Out’, ran into a wall of ‘Omerta’ – Mafia code for sealed lips – when she approached cricketers to speak in the documentary.
Kumar, during his tenure as ACU boss, found the BCCI strangely unenthusiastic towards most of his initiatives or suggestions towards curbing corruption. He was particularly disappointed with Vinod Rai, the chief of the CoA (Committee of Administrators), despite his clean reputation.
“I told him (Rai) what achievements we had made (at the ACU) despite the inadequacies, and what was possible to do. But, to my horror, it made no impact on him,” Kumar said in an interview. “For somebody who had almost worked hand in hand with the police at various stages of his career to be so indifferent to the ACU, to corruption, and to the existence of an officer who had been with the Indian Police Service for 37 years and had tons of experience in the fight against corruption in cricket, I found it extremely odd that he was so indifferent to it and to me.”
It is not that the Board has not done anything to curb matchfixing. Some checks and balances are in place, the ACU being one. But betting and match-fixing are a virus that mutates. It sidesteps roadblocks, latching on to newer, more conducive ways to bite at the game’s soul. Take technology, for instance. Just as it helps investigators, it also helps bookies and criminals thrive with the help of betting websites and smartphones.
Most top players earn too well now to succumb to the lure of shady money, unless they are intimidated into mischief. But cricket happens through the year, at various levels, and in various parts of the world. There are leagues galore. So bookies find a way. That players keep getting caught for corruption is proof that the game still is not 100 per cent clean and can never be.
In 2020, Shafiquallah Shafaq of Afghanistan, rising fast as a cricketing nation, was banned six years for attempting to fix matches in the Bangladesh Premier League and Afghanistan Premier League. In 2021, five UAE players – Shaiman Anwar, Mohammad Naveed, Qadeer Ahmed, Amir Hayat and Ashfaq Ahmed – were banned for attempting to fix games in the qualifying stage of the 2019 T20 World Cup.
And yet, cricket continues to prosper, simply because India, the hub of the sport, loves it too much. It is true that many fans were permanently put off the game by match-fixing scandals. But in the big picture, their number is small. Most shrug off the painful realities about the sport, and prefer to settle in for a nice game, like Hyman Roth on a sunny Miami afternoon.