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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Not Playing By the Rules?

Allegations of match-fixing cloud a major sport

By Catherine Shepherd and Arjuna Ranawana / New Delhi


IN SOUTH ASIA, CRICKET arouses the sort of passions that make rabid English soccer aficionados look positively nonchalant. Stadiums bulge with screaming fans, televised matches are watched religiously by young and old alike, and winning or losing is a matter of national pride or shame. Pick-up games with sticks and tennis balls are played everywhere -- big-city streets, dusty villages, even while waiting at the airport. The sport has made household names of star players, and this year, it will generate some $57 million in revenue for the Indian Cricket Board. In the subcontinent, cricket is big. And it could be headed for a fall.

The trouble started in 1995 when two Australian cricketers said Pakistan team members had offered them several thousand dollars to "play badly" against their country in a match a year before. Pakistani authorities found no evidence to back the claim. But then, earlier this year, an Indian cricketer said he, too, had been offered money in 1994 -- in this case, tens of thousands -- to lose a match against Pakistan. In recent months, moreover, accusations have been furiously traded about both Indian and Pakistani players consorting with bookmakers.

Betting on cricket is legal in countries like Britain but against the law in the subcontinent. Still, it is common. Bookies are many, accommodating and efficient. Engineering consultant Krishan Singh, a New Delhi punter, says it's easy. "All you have to do is call up a Bombay number and place your bet. They are very well-organized." Singh says that through his Bombay bookie he has placed bets in U.S. dollars even on matches in other countries. Often, bets are placed while the game is in progress -- using mobile phones. Punters wager on anything from the final result to how many runs a batsman might score. Local agents collect money door-to-door from the losers, and distribute winnings the same way, usually within a day of the match, regardless of location. "I've made a packet on cricket," Singh admits.

Until recently, the authorities did not seem overly concerned. But the bets are becoming huge, leading to allegations of match-fixing. Says New Delhi criminal lawyer Harish Gulati: "[Cheating] be-comes necessary if there's heavy betting." There is. Last year Bombay police arrested prominent bookie Sunil Sawant, saying he made $12 million after an India vs. New Zealand match. Under investigation are four Indian players accused of taking about $50,000 each from Sawant to throw the game. In another operation earlier this month, police raided the offices of a suspected betting racket in Calcutta. They found international phone lines, recordings of bet placements on audio tapes, floppy disks on which account transactions were logged and evidence that the office was connected to a subcontinent-wide wagering web. Four men have been charged with illegal betting. They face fines and imprisonment if convicted.

The police investigations have forced Indian cricket authorities to act. They have asked a former chief justice, Y.B. Chandrachud, to conduct an inquiry. He is expected to report his findings to the Board in a few weeks. So far, none of the investigations has yielded proof that any player on the India or Pakistan teams ever fixed a match. Taking matters into his own hands, one manager even bugged players' hotel phone lines during an overseas tour. The surveillance revealed no evidence of dubious activities. Calcutta investigator Surojit Kar Purakayastha says the accusations are just "plain mischief."

The top players, certainly, have little financial reason to bet or cheat. Their endorsements are huge. Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar, just 23, already has a reported $7.5 million worth, and is negotiating for a $500,000 contract with Pepsi. Reebok has paid ex-captain Mohammed Azharuddin over $200,000 to use his signature on its products. All this is on top of regular match fees and salaries. And if sizable incomes are not enough incentive, personal safety is. Fans have gone so far as to stone the homes of cricket celebrities if they play poorly.

The foul-play investigations have upset connoisseurs of the sport. "Every time an important team member plays carelessly or the captain makes a questionable decision, they are accused of taking money," laments Bishen Singh Bedi, a former Indian player. Bettor Krishan Singh doubts a game can be fixed. "Even if you get four players to play badly, a fifth can win the match." The very joy of cricket, he adds, is that "anything can happen." Perhaps even match-fixing.


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