Tale of the Sting

The author, who was the first journalist to expose match fixing in international cricket, pieces together the intricate details of how the sting on the Pakistani cricket team was crafted by a British tabloid. He also remembers his own undercover operations closer home.
Cricket
This was the oh-ah moment of the exercise by the trio from News of The World posing as members of a betting syndicate. Mazhar Majeed was caught on camera taking £140,000 in crisp £50 notes, even as he offered a sample of no balls to show his control of Pakistani players.
Aamer's controversial 'no ball'
Amir, Butt and Asif

It took a while for Mazhar Majeed to lose his caginess. In his first meeting with the News of the World (NOTW) team at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane, London, he was full of “How did you get my number?” The team handled this by punching above their weight. They said something like, “In this business, we have to know about each other.” (Read the transcript)

This was on 16 August, after NOTW had been tipped off by a source about Majeed. It was in this meeting that the first hook was cast. The undercover team tossed their first ball in the air. They told Majeed they were interested in starting a Twenty:20 tournament in the Middle East. They said they wanted him to come aboard their team with suggestions on how to go about doing it. Because of Majeed’s questioning about how they had got his number, the NOTW team kept the meeting short. But despite his nervousness, Majeed could not help bragging about his connections with the Pakistani cricket team.  He said, “I manage ten of the players. I do all their affairs like contracts, sponsorship, marketing, everything. I work very closely with the Pakistan Cricket Board.”

He even went on to talk about the extent of cheating in the game. He said, “There’s more than two or three. Believe me. It’s already set up. That’s already there. I’m very wary speaking about this simply because I don’t know you guys. I’ve been dealing with these guys for seven years, okay? Who we deal with and how we deal is very, very important. This is the main thing. I only deal with certain people.” Before the meeting broke up, Majeed even said he was worried the others could be recording conversations and that he would check things out before “going further”. (The NOTW team was recording all this, of course.)

For NOTW, it was a good first meeting. Even though Majeed was suspicious initially, he had opened up by the end of it. 

The second meeting with Majeed was two days later at Bombay Brasserie restaurant near London’s Gloucester Road Tube station. There, three members of the NOTW team awaited Majeed’s arrival from the Oval. He came unkempt and apologised for his appearance. It was here, over a meal of dahi bhalla, baigan bharta, dal tarka, chicken curry and lamb kebabs, that the hook went in deep. At one point, he said, “I do feel I can speak to you about this, okay? Yes, there is big money in it.” He even confessed that he had been fixing matches with the help of Pakistani players for about two-and-a-half years and made loads of money. 

Interestingly, according to Majeed, it was the players who got him into match-fixing. “The players would never tell anybody else. They were the ones who actually approached me. This is the beauty of it. I was friends with them for four to five years, and then they said this happens. I said, ‘Really?’”

Majeed and two other reporters from NOTW broke their roza fast for the day with dates at the Brassierie. At the end of the meal, Majeed ordered kheer as dessert. Apple pudding also graced the table. 

Recounts a member of the NOTW team, “Because I consumed vegetarian fare he asked me if I had become a Hindu. He looked a Casanova type. At one point, he asked Amanda Evans, a reporter pretending to be the secretary of Maz [the NOTW journalist who broke the story with Evans], whether she was Iranian. Evans was introduced by us to Majeed as somebody who handled our London office. While I kept talking to him in Hindi-Urdu, Maz kept exhorting us to talk in English.”

The setting was a classic undercover strategy, specially where an impression needed to be conveyed of opulence and power. In this case, the NOTW team pretended to be members of a betting syndicate (two males accompanied by a female secretary). It was also a classic ruse to flood the scene with pinhole cameras. The presence of three undercover reporters at the table meant that there was a reassuring number of hidden cameras. In any such undercover scenario, the more camera circuitry you have swamping the scene, the more insurance you have. You never know which camera could go kaput on you, and it is always good to bank on the reliability of numbers. 

Ironically, at this meeting Majeed abused “Pakistanis” quite a lot, saying something to the effect that he “liked to deal with Indians” instead. He also sat on the table with two phones—one a BlackBerry mobile and the other a downmarket phone wrapped in polythene. He admitted to changing his Sim cards every other week, and he had a ready schedule of the Pakistan cricket team on one of his mobiles which he referred to every now and then. During the course of a two-hour-long dinner at the restaurant, he received several phone calls, spoke to some members of the Pakistan cricket team and his wife, who he claimed was an Indian. He also claimed to have an Indian visa and indicated that he would be flying to Kerala soon for a “film shoot”. 

Keeping Majeed amused with humour of some kind was also part of the ploy. “I was playing the good, legitimate guy, while another member of our team was playing the truant role,” says the NOTW member, “I joked with him that too many Pakistani men are marrying Indian girls and that it was time for it to happen the other way round.  Since I had been introduced to him as an Indian, I asked him to arrange my marriage in Pakistan.”

At the end of the dinner, another member of the NOTW team escorted Majeed to his hotel in a car pre-rigged with cameras. The “escort” was necessary so that Majeed did not get any talk time with the driver. (The driver could have inadvertently let on something that could have made Majeed suspicious).

The next day, the NOTW team met Majeed at Al Shishawi, a restaurant on Edgware Road. It was 19 August.  Pakistan cricket captain Salman Butt was already in the restaurant with Majeed along with two other players, Wahab Riaz and Umar Amin. “The strategy in this meeting was to detach Majeed from the rest of the players, and while one member took him out for a chat (it was outside in the car that he was handed £10,000), one of us sat with the players to distract them,” says the member of the NOTW team.

It was here that one member of the team sat aside with Butt. Two other players were busy mingling with fans. “We indulged in some banal talk with Butt for nearly half an hour—questions like ‘Should Sachin retire or not?’ When we talked to him about former Indian captain Azharuddin, Butt was uneasy. Butt also joked about how Pakistani captains couldn’t speak English. He said their image was not good earlier, but now with him around, they at least had a new face who can speak English!”

The NOTW team member repeated the joke about Pakistani men marrying Indian women. By this time Majeed had come back with the £10,000 deposit given to him in the car; he had stashed the cash in his jacket. He had already told NOTW that there would be two no balls in the Oval Test. 

He also joked with the NOTW team member that he would try getting him married to a Pakistani woman in London. A tricky situation developed here when the NOTW team tried to have their photographs taken with the three Pakistani team players. A group of fans present in the restaurant insisted on taking the pictures for them, and that’s why the photo frames did not work out exactly as planned.

After this, the NOTW team left.  An ironclad rule in undercover reporting is to stay no longer than necessary.

The next day, Majeed called to cancel the no balls at the Oval. It is not clear why. The day after, NOTW went up to Majeed’s £1.8 million home in Surrey. It was possibly here that Majeed confessed that his brother Azhar did not know about the “fixing” part of his relationship with the Pakistani players. It was after this that the famous meeting took place which had TV audiences see Majeed piling up cash (£140,000 in crisp £50 notes) on a table. That was in a west London hotel room at the Copthorne Tara. 

That was the oh-ah moment of the story, ahead of perhaps even the no-ball freeze frames of Amir and Asif. It was here that Majeed gave the NOTW team those exquisite details of what would happen on the field the next day. Of course, as NOTW says, it was a ‘taster of all the lucrative information he could supply in future’. 

Indeed, these are now among the most famous words spoken in the history of match-fixing. Says Majeed to the NOTW team: “I’m going to give you three no balls to prove to you first that this is what’s happening. They have all been organised, okay? This is exactly what’s going to happen, you’re going to see these three things happen. I’m telling you, if you play this right, you’re going to make a lot of money, believe me!”

That is exactly what happened. What Majeed could not deliver at the Oval, he organised at Lord’s. 

 “The kind of access he had with captain Butt and the players was incredible,” says the member of the NOTW team, “The team was so much at ease with him around.” 

It is hard to believe that Majeed’s brother Azhar was clueless. Azhar is called Mota (‘fatty’) by the Pakistan players. “This Mota was with the team throughout the T20 World Cup in England which Pakistan won and also during the 2006 tour of England,” says a Pakistani photojournalist who is a regular with the team, “He was a self-appointed agent for them. He would get the players small sponsorships for goggles and stickers on bats. And he was a total chipko (pile-on), always with the players. He is particularly close to Kamran Akmal. After the tour Down Under, Daily Jung reporter Majid Bhatii wrote against the two brothers in his column; even Pakistan’s ODI captain Shahid Afridi spoke about them to the Pakistan Cricket Board.” 

In London, when the tour was underway, Pakistan team manager Yawar Saeed left instructions at the team hotel for the guards to deny the two brothers access to the players’ rooms. But when hotel security stopped Azhar, Akmal came down to get him past security. 

The NOTW story is probably the most breathtaking sporting scandal of all. What is most interesting, and for me the most striking evidence so far, is that when Amir bowls his no ball, you can actually see Butt looking at the bowler’s crease rather than at the batsman. 

MEMORIES OF ANOTHER TIME

Mazhar Majeed reminds me in many ways of Saeed Younus, who in 1997 used to be the marketing agent for nearly a dozen Pakistani players. Players like Wasim Akram, Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail and Rashid Latif. Back then, Akram and Latif were at loggerheads. Latif himself was vice-captain of the Pakistan team to South Africa in 1995. There, twice in the finals, Malik opted to bat under the lights though a young Latif thought otherwise. I had been tipped off about this thick dossier that Latif had on Pakistani players, and flew to London to meet Younus so that he could set up a meeting with Latif. 

I met Latif with Younus at Dailey’s Bar. We all drove down to the bar in Younus’s BMW. I was all wired up for the meeting. In those days, getting surreptitious video footage meant strapping yourself with bulky contraptions. You would have to hide them in the arch of your back and walk around like a stiff pole. Thinking himself smart, Younus gave me a headstart of only 15 minutes. In that time I had to rush to a shop at Tottenham Court Road and get all dressed up in a suit. Luckily, you could also get ties designed to hold pinhole cameras. I took the precaution of carrying a back-up audio device as well. 

Outside Dailey’s bar, Younus looked me up and down and told me to leave my bag in the boot of his BMW. Latif and Younus thought that if I had any recording device, it would be in the bag rather than on my person. I was sweating like a pig, though, and there were the camera device’s vibrations (an indication that it was in ‘record’ mode) to contend with. In the beginning, the wires somehow went into my underwear, and the device started buzzing my vital zone as I sat and chatted with Younus and Latif. It was most uncomfortable. 

Latif took the names of some Indian players who used to call him up at home for information about matches that Pakistan was involved in. He said he often used to oblige, as he never felt he was doing anything wrong. The questions were generally about how strong the teams were, the weather and so on. Latif also talked about being approached by bookies to ask whether match fixing was still on. He took the names of some Indian bookies, notably Mukesh from Delhi (whom the CBI later interrogated) and a certain Rahulbhai from Mumbai. He talked about his estranged relationship with Salim Malik, the involvement of Javed Burki in branding him an activist of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), how much players got for fixing a match, a certain hot tape he had implicating certain players, and other things he was privy to. He put a price on all of it. It was steep (a high five-figure in pounds, as I remember). It was all rather strange, especially since he was also trying to project an image of integrity for himself, as someone trying to clean up cricket.

After I came back to base from the meeting, I was excited as hell. The video device hadn’t worked as planned, to my disappointment, but the audio tape was loud and clear. 

Younus’ career as an agent soon came to an end, I guess. I never heard of him anymore. But between 1997 and 2010, nothing seems to have changed in London. The culture of mamus (overseas fans of subcontinental origin who are cultivated by cricketers to get homemade food to their hotel) remains indirectly responsible for a lot of the ills facing these cricket teams when they tour the UK or Australia. These cricketers are in the habit of not spending their own allowances on food and other needs, which leads them to rely on these mamus.  Most mamus are probably guileless, but some are shady. They would be in and out of the players’ rooms, and be privy to most gossip. They knew enough to be used by bookies, or to become bookies themselves. I have no idea how the culture of mamus can be controlled. Maybe they can be asked to register with the BCCI! 

Of course, the other big story that happened in the Indian match fixing context was Manoj Prabhakar’s naming of Kapil Dev as the player who offered him Rs 25 lakh to throw a match against Pakistan. Earlier, in 1997, when Krishna Prasad and I broke the story, Prabhakar had just pointed to “a team mate”. But in 2000, after he and Tehelka got down to investigating the truth about match fixing, he finally mustered the courage to reveal the name of Kapil Dev. The Tehelka investigation, ‘Fallen Heroes’, focused on three episodes: the incident of the teammate offering Prabhakar Rs 25 lakh, the match in Sharjah where they were told to play on by the management even when it was clearly night, and the 1994 incident at Kanpur where Prabhakar and Nayan Mongia were penalised for playing slow. These were just loose terms of reference. 

We talked to others as well who could throw light on the match fixing issue. The people in the film we shot include Rakesh Maria, the Mumbai police officer, former BCCI official Jayant Lele, former physio Ali Irani, Jagmohan Dalmia, and former players like Ajit Wadekar, Ravi Shastri, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Bishen Singh Bedi, Sandeep Patil, Sunil Gavaskar, Prashant Vaidya, Nayan Mongia and Sanjay Manjrekar, among others. It was this investigation that provided that immortal line from Maria: “See, we don’t have ‘Good Christians’ in the Indian team, unfortunately.”

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(Aniruddha Bahal is editor of Cobrapost.com and author of the forthcoming novel The Emissary)