The crisis that threatens to swamp Indian cricket has nothing to do with betting. It has everything to do with cheating.

The essence of gambling lies in the unpredictable, in the proposition that you cannot be certain about the result. Fortunes, not to mention lifetimes, are spent in the exotic art of prediction, which contrives to mix data with insight while chasing a bet. But with the best of tools gambling remains a hope. There is arguably far greater buzz at a racing course before a race than during the two or three minutes in which a set of horses determines who returns home happy. The 50 faces of a pack of playing cards tease the brain with their infinite permutations and combinations. But that is what makes gambling a test of skill as well as nerve.

Match-fixing is pre-arranged theft, with an insider at work and guards on the take. Those who argue that fixing will end if betting is legalized miss the point entirely. It will not. Betting is a business, whether a country permits it or not. India has legal betting in one sport, racing. This does not prevent manipulators from trying to corrupt the sport to make a killing.

This evil is not restricted to the genius of some Indians. Britain has legal betting even on the weather. The 27 April issue of Economist reports details of the “biggest doping scandal in racing history”. Mahmood al Zarooni, head trainer of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s brilliant stable, admitted doping 15 horses. Sheikh Mohammad, who has indulged this passion with “old-fashioned style and intense professionalism”, was “appalled and angered” when he learnt. But it happened. It is the police, in cooperation with the sport’s authorities, who keep a game clean. In India, the chaps in charge are the ones who party with fixers.

Bookies have been around as far as one can remember. Everyone looked the other way as long as they kept to some unwritten rules. But temptation rose with the change of culture: from a gentleman’s game, cricket has been slowly driven into a cash-and-carry junket. This did not happen overnight. The first evidence of serious fixing came from Dubai, and South Africa was soon in play as well. But the biggest cash flow was from India. It was only a question of time before “foreign direct investment” entered Indian bookie space.

Dawood Ibrahim’s name is always bandied about, never with sufficient proof and always with sufficient conviction. But senior Indian and Pakistan cricketers of a generation ago were caught in the company of fixers located in Dubai but with wider travelling rights. What did the authorities do? Nothing much. Everyone was eventually rehabilitated. As great a public hero as former India captain Azharuddin was banned by BCCI, but then honoured with a seat in the Lok Sabha. All that was left to do was to put him in charge of the sports ministry.

It is perfectly reasonable that today’s young men swimming in the sex and fame of the IPL industry should believe that their only punishment will be a slight tap on the knuckles just now and a Parliament seat from Kochi or Trivandrum when they reach an enlightened age. 

It is perfectly reasonable, then, that today’s young men swimming in the sex and fame of the IPL industry should believe that their only punishment, in the unlikely event of being caught, is a slight tap on the knuckles just now and a Parliament seat from Trivandrum or Kochi when they reach a more enlightened age. Tears of contrition, some of them probably genuine, never hurt. There is always a touch of the romantic in any prodigal’s profile when he returns home to his wailing mother and moist-eyed dad.

We should have no illusions. The few who are staring at the walls of a prison represent only a few chunks of a pretty huge iceberg. This scandal began unravelling when the Delhi police said that it was limited to three fools from the Rajasthan team. It has climbed pretty fast to the owner of the Chennai franchise, N. Srinivasan, and his now famous son-in-law Gurunath Neiyappan. From there it will find its way to other stars and superstars. Srinivasan also heads the parent body, BCCI. A man who helps his son-in-law consort with fixer bookies is hardly going to throw the moral code book at others.

It is only a matter of time before someone in media, if not an official investigator, asks Rajiv Shukla, chief executive of IPL, or Mahendra Dhoni, captain of the Chennai team: what did you know, and when did you know it? As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

Indian bookies thrive over two seasons, cricket and elections. One can only hope that bookies will never be strong enough, even with Dawood Ibrahim’s help, to do unto our elections what they have done unto our cricket. The thought that fixing election results could begin from the fringe, in isolated Assembly constituencies, is too intriguing to be entirely dismissed. Shift, for instance, 15 seats from Narendra Modi’s tally in Gujarat to Congress, and Indian politics becomes a different drama.

The price of corruption can never be predicted.


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