Sports

To Bet, Set And Go

Why is the subcontinent seen as the black hole where all cricketing ethics and norms perish?

To Bet, Set And Go
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The gentleman's game deteriorating into a mindless spectacle. The image boggles historian-novelist Mukul Kesvan's imagination, an avid follower of the game. "The terrifying thought is that if cricket loses its credibility people will still watch it - not the sport but the spectacle. The one-day game may have revived cricket but the result is that we live with cretinous spectators who demand constant thrills." For cricket to live again, after the latest match-fixing scam, Kesavan believes the authorities must be seen to be vigilant, "to be setting things right".

The latest cricket scam brings directly into focus India as the hotbed of match-fixing. It is in the subcontinent that bookies with strong underworld connections thrive. It is here that the public mania for cricket results in big money riding on the game. It is in the heat and dust of India that pristine, White 'demi-gods' of cricket like Hansie Cronje are corrupted. And it is the 'debasing' aspect of subcontinental cricket that the sports establishment of England, Australia and South Africa love to play upon.

The fact that match-fixing appears to be a subcontinental malaise can clearly be linked to the huge popularity of the game here. Information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley, who is also the president of the Delhi District Cricket Association, and an ardent fan of the game, agrees: "We can't overlook the fact that all the bookies are from India. The obsession with the game here has given this negative spin-off." His solution: "The cloud of suspicion that hangs over the entire cricket fraternity can clear only when the investigations are allowed to be taken to their logical conclusion in the three counties - India, England and South Africa. Otherwise these revelations will be a terrible blow to the game."

Sociologist and cricket-writer Ramachandra Guha draws attention to the gradual debasement of the game in India. "The question to ask is whether only bookies and players are involved - how can we be sure that organisers and bcci members are above board?" Guha points to the racket in tickets in Indian stadia, the tussle over broadcasting rights and the aggressive manner in which Jagmohan Dalmiya ran his campaign for icc's presidentship. Avers he: "This is far from being a gentleman's game."

In cricket-playing nations like England and Australia, football and rugby are more popular. Explains sociologist Dipankar Gupta: "We're a one-sport nation because it is the only game we play somewhat well. Besides, Indians love gambling as much as cricket." Therefore, we have this deleterious mixture on our hands.

That, however, does not mark us apart. For, betting on sport is not peculiar to the subcontinent. Guha recalls that in the 1950s and 1960s, before basketball became more popular than cricket in the West Indies, wagers would be placed on individual batting and bowling performances in the Caribbean. Today, gambling is legal in most parts of the world. In England, huge bets are placed on the weekly football pool. Kesavan even remembers winning a bet that Arundhati Roy would win the Booker prize!

But in India gambling has been pushed underground. Sumed Shah of the sports management group, pmg, asks: "Why is betting on horse racing legal and not on cricket?" He also says that not all contacts between players and bookies amounts to match-fixing. Captains and players are often contacted to find out who will be playing the next day, who will open the innings and so on. "It is only a few bookies who want to change the course of the game."

There is clearly a case for legalising betting on sport. And Kesavan makes it quite effectively when he equates making gambling illegal with imposing prohibition. "You end up creating a shadowy, cellphone-connected world of punters. As with any illegal world there is no public pressure to keep it regular. You end up corrupting the normal human desire to bet."

The other solution is to play less one-day cricket. Guha believes that the 50-over match is tailor-made for betting. As Gupta points out: "Indians are fulfilling their natural urge to bet on a game which is a national obsession." Tragically, it is the love for the game in the subcontinent, which appears to have sown the seeds of its destruction.

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