Column | High time the bogey of match-fixing got a permanent burial

Column | High time the bogey of match-fixing got a permanent burial
Sanjeev Chawla, left, and the late Hansie Cronje.
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Two events happened outside the playing field during the week that went by and involved persons who were connected with cricket, though not in the capacity as players. The first was the demise of veteran journalist Raju Bharatan who had contributed to improving the popularity of the game by writing about it in elegant prose, besides reporting on matche during the period prior to the advent of live television. He created history by covering the tour of national cricket side to England in 1952 when he was still a teenager. He subsequently became the Assistant Editor of “The Illustrated Weekly of India” and his reporting and coverage of Test matches during the early 1970s was so brilliantly descriptive that it made an entire generation of youngsters, including this author, ardent fans of the game. Though cricket was his chosen area of work, he gained lasting fame in the world of music, as the author of masterly biographies of Bollywood singers Naushad, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle. He passed away in Mumbai on February 7 at the age of 86. Rest in Peace Raju Bharatan!

The other person in the news was Sanjeev Chawla, who brought infamy to the game and cast a shadow over the credibility of some of the leading cricketers of the world. Chawla was extradited from United Kingdom to India last week to stand trial in the match-fixing case involving Hansie Cronje, former captain of South Africa, that was detected by Delhi Police in 2000. India had revoked the passport of Chawla in 2000 itself, after his involvement in match-fixing and running of illegal betting syndicates came to light. However, Chawla managed to get a UK passport in 2005 and continued to stay in that country till now. India had sent request for extradition in 2016, following which he was arrested in UK. However, the District Judge in the Westminster Registrar’s Court in UK passed an order in October 2017 wherein, while acknowledging that there existed clear evidence to link Chawla with the alleged crime, refused his extradition on the grounds that facilities in Delhi's Tihar Jail, where he would be lodged, posed a risk to his human rights! Justice and, more importantly, common sense were restored when this order was overturned on appeal by the High Court, following which the District Judge issued fresh orders in January 2019 that Chawla could be extradited to India. Prompt follow-up by the Indian law enforcement officials ensured that Chawla could be finally brought back to India to face criminal charges, almost 20 years since the offence was committed and four years since the request for extradition was submitted.

The match-fixing scandal which broke out in April 2000 after Delhi Police filed the First Information Report (FIR) in this regard had shocked the country. The evidence gathered, which was presented before the public, included excerpts of telephonic conversation between Cronje and Chawla, wherein they discussed about the One-Day International (ODI) matches played between India and South Africa, the money to be paid for underperforming and details of other players taking part in this plot. What stood out in these transcripts was the easy camaraderie between Chawla and Cronje, who were on first name basis with each other, and which extended to the latter inviting the former to his room. Though initially Cronje and South African cricket management denied the allegations and dismissed the tapes as forged and fabricated ones, the Proteas’ skipper soon realised mountains of evidence had been gathered against him and so had to confess about taking money to underperform and fix matches.

The storm set off by the revelations of Delhi Police soon turned into a tsunami that shook the basic edifice of Indian cricket. Ever since the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) found transcripts of telephonic conversation showing close links of a former India captain and a couple of senior cricketers with some underworld dons with interests in betting in cricket, there had been rumours about the involvement of some Indian players in match-fixing. However, these remained under the category of innuendos and hearsay as no evidence had emerged that would lend credence to them. The evidence gathered by Delhi Police established conclusively that betting syndicates had access not only to Indian players but to cricketers of other teams, including those hailing from countries that prided on honesty and integrity. This created an uproar within the country and Union Government announced a probe into this matter by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

CBI moved in quickly and conducted raids at the premises of prominent cricketers, officials and persons known to be involved in betting operations. One of the cricketers who came under the scanner of CBI was Kapil Dev, the iconic all-rounder who had led India to an incredible win in the 1983 World Cup. Kapil broke down while being interviewed in a popular television programme, an incident that caused immense embarrassment for him. The scandal and the odium that followed in its wake served to drive away many of the fans from the game the sport they loved dearly.

Meanwhile, South Africa constituted an inquiry commission headed by Justice Edward King. Cronje appeared before King’s Commission where he made the dramatic statement hat he was introduced to the Indian bookie Mukesh Gupta by none other than Mohammad Azharuddin, former skipper of the Indian side. This was a huge bombshell as Azharuddin was still playing for India and had hit a century in his 99th Test match, which was played against South Africa at Bangalore in February 2000.

CBI probe also revealed the nexus between Azharuddin and Gupta, with the former admitting in his testimony to have “fixed” one match, during Pepsi Cup 2009, for which he received Rs 10 lakhs. However, CBI estimated that Gupta had paid around Rs 90 lakhs to Azharuddin, out of which Rs 30 lakhs was paid back by the latter as some of the “predictions” offered did not come true. Though CBI concluded that Azharuddin was deeply involved with betting syndicates and had received money from them, he was exonerated by the Andhra Pradesh High Court which found no evidence against him. Though he was banned from cricket for life after an inquiry by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, subsequently this was reversed following the High Court verdict.

Much water has flowed through the Ganges in the two decades since the scandal broke out in 2000. Cronje died in an air crash a few months after his confession while Azharuddin is presently the President of Hyderabad Cricket Association. Indian cricket continues to be wracked by the scourge of illegal betting and match-fixing that continue to rear its ugly head at periodic intervals. Despite demands from various quarters, government has not taken any measures either to legalise betting or to cure inadequacies in the existing statutes that prevent punishment of those guilty of match-fixing. Unless these changes are brought in and match-fixing made a criminal offence, illegal betting syndicates would continue to flourish, threatening the credibility of the game and the players.

Chawla's extradition is certainly a victory for Indian law-enforcing machinery and diplomacy. However, there is very little prospect that his interrogation and trial would, by itself, eradicate the curse of illegal betting and match-fixing that continue to plague Indian cricket, though it does without saying that he should be awarded the maximum punishment that he deserves under the laws of the land. It is the fond hope of millions of cricket lovers in this country that the Government utilises this extradition and the ensuing trial as an opportunity for bringing in structural changes in statutes relating to betting and fixing of games, which alone would pave the path for giving the bogey of match-fixing a permanent burial.

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