End of cricket as we knew it
Pah, pah. Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination.
THE former Australian captain, Richie Benaud, has the good fortune of remembering his first view of a first class cricket match. My memory of my first visit to Eden Gardens is lost in the mists of childhood. One of my earliest memories is that of my father telling me stories of Victor Trumper to keep me awake at dinner time. Trumper became a childhood hero and has remained one. From those stories about Trumper’s genius, his kindness, his humanity and the grace of his batting – the last quality confirmed by that unforgettable photograph of his glorious straight drive – I came to associate cricket, in my own boyish and starry-eyed way, with all that was good, noble and worthwhile.
Growing up in a household where cricket talk was incessant, through some inexplicable cultural and intellectual osmosis, even without my ever realizing it, cricket came to occupy large acres of my sensibilities and mental space. I devoured my father’s massive cricket library, discussed and argued with him, had a dab at the game in school, college and on the Maidan and watched it at Eden Gardens, on the Maidan and in grounds across England. By the time I was a young man, cricket had become a part of my identity.
I lost that identity the day, in April 2000, the former South African captain, Hansie Cronje admitted that he had taken money from bookies to fix matches and had encouraged other players to do the same. Something important went out of my life that day and since then I haven’t switched on the television to watch a cricket match. I am suffering from the pangs of betrayal.
The report of the Central Bureau of Investigation in India has not helped my condition. But it has not come as a complete surprise. It has only confirmed my worst fears. The report is nothing short of devastating. It indicts an Indian captain and four other players for taking money from bookies to fix matches and to pass on vital information which could influence betting odds. It points the gun of suspicion at a number of foreign players, among whom there are three who captained their respective national sides. The report unveils an elaborate network of bookies and mafia dons who had spread their tentacles into players’ dressing rooms. It rips the masks off players who in the guise of being sportsmen sold, without a qualm, their own and their country’s dignity. Richie Benaud has called them ‘bastards’. One cannot hope to improve on his choice of epithets.
In 1932-33, during the Bodyline series between Australia and England, the Aussie captain, Bill Woodfull told the English manager, Pelham Warner, ‘There are two teams out there on the oval. One is playing cricket, the other is not. This game is too good to be spoilt. It is time some people got out of it.’ This comment precipitated a crisis in the cricketing world. But compared to what has been revealed now, the Bodyline crisis was child’s play. It is clear that a large number of players, irrespective of country, have not been playing cricket.
One cannot also avoid the impression that players and officials not directly implicated in match fixing and taking bribes from bookies were aware of what was going on and preferred, for reasons and motives one can only guess at, to remain silent. They were complicit through their silence. Woodfull’s injunction, ‘It is time some people got out of it,’ might mean under the present circumstances a cleaning of the Augean stables. In 1932, it could be said with a degree of confidence that ‘the game is too good to be spoilt.’ Today, the game is already spoilt and spoilt rotten. Purification is impossible through half measures.
Despite the hue and cry that has ensued in India after the CBI report and in South Africa after Cronje’s confession, certain features of this shameful episode are not being given the attention that they deserve. Cronje said that during the tour of India in 1996, before the final one day inter-national, he was made an offer of $ 200,000 if the South African team threw away the match. Cronje placed the proposal before the entire team in a team meeting. The offer was rejected. After the meeting some of the players were curious to know if the offer could be raised. Cronje spoke to the person concerned and the sum was raised to $ 300,000. It was an agreement within the South African side that such an offer would be accepted only if there was unanimity among the players.
What is significant here is that though three players – Andrew Hudson, Darryl Cullinan and Derek Crookes – spoke strongly against the proposal, nobody told the South African captain that it was an insult to place such a proposal to the team. Nobody stood up in the team meeting to say that he refused to play under a captain who could even consider a proposal to throw away a match. The unanimity clause is an euphemism for a conspiracy of silence. None of the cricketers informed the South African Board of what their captain was up to. There are grounds to believe that even had the Board been informed no action would have been taken.
Bob Woolmer, the South African coach, has revealed that he had in fact told Ali Bacher, the head of the South African Cricket Board, about Cronje’s attempts to fix matches in 1996. Nothing happened. There was in all probability a chain of complicity. It also appears that Ali Bacher had contacts with a bookie codenamed ‘Mr R’ whose identity he tried to protect. There are no explanations forthcoming for his hobnobbing with a bookie. There is nothing that cricket officials have done or said which inspires the confidence that they are determined to clean up the game. The glaring fact is that had the Delhi police not accidentally stumbled upon Cronje’s phone connections, cricket boards on their own would have taken no action. The game would have continued in its rotten state.
It is significant that the former colonies of Great Britain, especially South Africa and India, have taken concrete steps to enquire into the betting and match fixing scandals. Neither England nor Australia has moved in this direction. If anything, they have tried to soft pedal and cover up. The International Cricket Council is yet to announce what punitive action should be taken against the guilty. It is important to recall that this same august body, despite conclusive evidence against Shane Warne and Mark Waugh (evidence which the Australian Cricket Board tried to suppress), did not insist that the ACB should impose stricter punishments on the two players.
Cricket officialdom is taking recourse to legal niceties. Is the evidence enough? Is it too circumstantial? And so on. The matter is more than legal. There is an ethical point involved. Here were players who had been paid to play and win; in practice they had done the exact opposite. Millions of people had paid good money to watch them perform in the expectation they would be sincere and good sportsmen when in reality they were no more than petty crooks trying to get rich quick. They toyed with that most precious of human emotions, trust.
In India, and elsewhere too, there are no laws against fixing matches and taking money from bookies. When laws were made nobody conceived that such things were possible. The players can be nabbed for not paying legitimate taxes on their earnings. Is that enough for people who sold their country’s honour and the goodwill of a game for monetary gain?
The answer is an obvious no. So how can they be punished if the corpus of evidence is insufficient to convict them in a court of law? This is a case where one has to look outside the realm of the rule of law. In India, at least, there existed – and maybe still does in the rural world such modes of punishment. The guilty should be made targets of an orchestrated social boycott. A person like Azharuddin should be barred from entering all establishments which carry the sign ‘rights of admission reserved’. This will keep him out of hotels, restaurants, clubs and so on. Shops should refuse to sell him their products. This will be a modern equivalent of the traditional naudhobi bandh.
Someone like Azharuddin has indeed committed a crime against the entire community and, given the popularity of cricket in India, against the nation. The punishment against him should come from the entire community and not be confined to the niceties of the legal process. This might sound harsh but one has to keep in mind the enormity of what he and his ilk have done.
Whatever the punishment, it may not serve to redeem cricket. The game will never be the same. The days of innocence have been gobbled up by sponsors and Sodom. All over the cricketing world beastly people have made our time and the game we loved into nothing.
It is difficult to comprehend how memories affect one in middle age. For days, the past is an inert record of past events, long forgotten. Then suddenly, the past explodes inside with a palpable emotional force – in the image of the parks in Oxford on a crisp May morning and the recollection of the ball hitting the willow and the sound of church bells in the background, in the image of Gary Sobers poised after the finish of a cover drive. One is astonished to find oneself with tears on one’s cheeks while rustling through one’s cricket books.
What can bookies and punters who have never loved cricket understand of such sentiments?