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It’s time to go after those who might get away

A Mumbai businessman who has been betting for years on cricket and horse-racing sits on a couch at an acquaintance’s home in a Mumbai suburb. He has a moustache. He is slim, but bears traces of a paunch. Over a plate of sheera and cutlets, he reveals a few things about bookies.

“There is a bookie who is a good friend of mine,” he says, “But when a match is on, he doesn’t tell me his location. He could be anywhere—in a house, a car, or on a cruise ship.”

The businessman says bookies have no conscience. They don’t need one, he feels. “They are not killing anybody.” The rationale is the same as Don Vito Corleone’s when he turns down a lucrative offer from drug lord Virgil Sollozzo in The Godfather. Sollozzo approaches Corleone for cash and protection from the politicians and powerful friends that Sollozzo says the Don carries in his pocket “like nickels and dimes”. Corleone declines, reasoning that his powerful friends would desert him if he got into a dangerous business like drugs. Gambling, on the other hand, was a harmless vice. Like cricket betting, according to this businessman, a—relatively—harmless vice.

Who is at the crease reflects on the betting rate. “With Chris Gayle, you never know,” says the businessman, “Woh aake khada rehega, lekin kabhi bhi gear badlega (He might just block deliveries initially but can shift gear anytime). So the [betting] rate can fluctuate widely. With someone like Rahul Dravid, the rate will be steady.”

The slang in use for getting a player on board, one learns from the interaction, is ‘player ko phodna’—‘smashing’ the player. But it is only top bookies, the man says, who have access to players. The rest of the bookies are just operatives. He also says the kind of gambling that takes place during the Indian Premier League (IPL) is mostly ‘even money’ gambling. If you bet Rs 10,000, you win or lose Rs 10,000.

The families of bookies know what they do, the businessman says. But relatives might not. They use couriers for collections and payments. The couriers often travel on bikes and meet their clients at street corners or some meeting place, but never at their homes. Main team owners are not involved, the businessman believes. But it would be foolish to rule it out after revelations of the link between actor-and-punter Vindoo Dara Singh and Gurunath Meiyappan, son-in-law of BCCI President N Srinivasan and also Team Principal and CEO of the Chennai Super Kings. Held for questioning in Mumbai, Vindoo has revealed that he helped two bookies escape to Dubai and that he made Rs 17 lakh from bets. But sources say that Mumbai aside, a lot of betting takes place in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Haryana.

Haryana is where Ajit Chandila, who has so far emerged as the slyest of the three Rajasthan Royals players accused of spot-fixing, comes from. The tall offspinner is from Faridabad. Reports suggest he was a hardworking cricketer who often played more than one match a day. But, like Hansie Cronje, he had a weakness for money. Unlike Cronje, he was not a big name. Already 29, Chandila couldn’t resist the opportunity to rake in what he could. He had a Rs 10 lakh deal with the Rajasthan Royals. This was upped to Rs 30 lakh after his encouraging performance last year, when, among other things, he took a hat-trick against the Pune Warriors. But Rs 20 lakh or thereabouts for a single over thrown away was far more tempting. According to newspaper reports, the Delhi Police have named Chandila as the main fixer and one who convinced Ankeet Chavan, another accused, to participate in the scam.

Chandila also made proposals to some other players. It is not unreasonable to compare Chandila with Chick Gandil, the Chicago White Sox player who took the lead in fixing America’s 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, perhaps the first high-profile case of match-fixing in sport.

Of the three accused, it is Chavan for whom one feels some sympathy. By all accounts a sincere, even conscientious cricketer, Chavan seems to have given in to a weak moment. A quote from a Vanity Fair article on Steve Cohen, a leading hedge fund owner under investigation for insider trading, feels apt for Chavan, or any player who saw his will buckle under the promise of big amounts of money. The article quotes a former colleague of Cohen as saying, “The payout is huge and you can get swayed. What would you do for, say, 20 per cent of $276 million? You do stuff. You fucking do stuff. You can’t be in this job without navigating a grey line constantly.”

That last line hits the bat smack on the sweet spot of contemporary cricket. Starting from the 1980s and its Sharjah jamborees, if not before, players, umpires, curators or anyone with a direct involvement in matches has navigated a grey line. To cite one example, in 1991, India played Pakistan in the final of the Wills Trophy in Sharjah. Before that match, according to a highly reliable source, a senior Pakistan cricketer had come to the Indian dressing room and said, “Come what may, don’t let the ball hit your pads. You will be given out leg-before.” The umpires, he’d hinted, had an incentive to raise their finger against Indian batsmen. Pakistan won the match, with Aaqib Javed taking 7 for 37. This included a hat-trick, Javed’s victims being Ravi Shastri, Mohammed Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar. All three were out lbw. To this day, people laugh at those decisions.

In the current scandal, the biggest name among the three accused is obviously S Sreesanth. Ever since it broke, a retired police constable in Kerala, his home state, has lost his sleep. Samson Viswanath, father of Sanju Samson, the teenage find of this year’s IPL and a player for Rajasthan Royals, is worried about the fallout on his son’s career. “Sreesanth was like his elder brother,” says the former policeman, “I was not able to comprehend the news initially. I started believing it only after watching the press conference by the Delhi Police Commissioner. The police would not say such a thing unless they have solid proof.”

Samson’s specific worry is that Sanju’s friendship with Sreesanth might be misunderstood. “I asked him to keep his phone switched off,” the father says, “People may call him for comments. I also instructed him not to take calls of strangers. We don’t know who is who and what is what. The police might be monitoring everyone’s calls.”

A Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) official describes Sreesanth as “naive but vulnerable”, someone who was not aggressive off the field. And Sreesanth was also trying to control his onfield aggression. In a diary found in his Mumbai hotel room, the bowler had reportedly scribbled lines such as, ‘I should not be aggressive’, ‘I will never get into arguments’, ‘I will never take up a fight’ and ‘I will always keep my cool.’

Indrajith Sukumaran, a noted Malayalam film star and a close friend of Sreesanth, believes the cricketer is innocent.

‘Knowing Sreesanth for so many years, I personally don’t feel that he’ll get involved in scandals like these,’ he posted on Facebook, ‘I hope and pray that he comes out clean.’ But Indrajith seems to be in the minority. The story and people’s responses might change by the time you read this, but so far, rather few famous people in Kerala have gone out of their way to support Sreesanth.

On 16 May, when journalists arrived at Skyline flats in Edappilly, Kochi, where Sreesanth owns a villa, all they got to see was Sreesanth’s white BMW in the porch. His father, Santhakumaran Nair, and mother, Savitri Devi, were at Thrippunithura, where Sreesanth’s sister Divya and her playback singer husband Madhu Balakrishnan live.

Santhakumaran’s first response to news of the scandal was that his son was a victim of a conspiracy hatched by MS Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh. Savitri Devi also believed her son had been trapped, though not by Harbhajan or Dhoni. Madhu Balakrishnan said he subscribed to this view too. But none of them spoke to the media after the press conference held by the Delhi Police Commissioner, detailing the modus operandi of spot-fixing. But Santhakumaran did a sensible thing. He apologised to Dhoni and Harbhajan, attributing his rash statements to emotions run loose.

Santhakumaran was a development officer with Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), and Savitri Devi, a state government employee. As the youngest of four siblings, ‘Sree’ was a pampered child who often threw tantrums for anything and everything. His elder sister Nivedita is a small-time TV and film actress. His second sister is married to Madhu Balakrishnan. Sree’s brother Deepu has also acted in some films but his career as an actor has not gone far. He looked after Sreesanth’s business ventures—mainly Bat and Ball, a chain of restaurants opened by the cricketer in Kochi and Bangalore with Robin Uthappa and former Ranji player JK Mahendra. Sreesanth also had a sports goods agency in Kochi. Despite the initial hype, both these initiatives failed and were shut down.

By way of property, Sreesanth has three houses that he bought in Kochi city. There are rumours that the family had other real estate schemes being run by close relatives. But many surmise that the failures of his other businesses, and the fact that he is now 30 and near his performance peak in cricket, may have led him to succumb to the lure of easy money. He did of course earn rather well as a senior player for the Royals, not to mention the Rs 25 lakh a year that he received as a contracted Grade C player of the BCCI.

As the probe so far reveals, Sreesanth’s crossover to the dark side was facilitated by Jiju Janardhanan, a former cricketer and now allegedly a middleman between players and bookies. It was Sreesanth who introduced Jiju, a Malayalee based in Gujarat, to Kerala cricket. “Sreesanth introduced him as a talented all-rounder and recommended him for the selection trials for the Kerala Ranji team,” recalls the KCA official. But Jiju could not make the cut for the Ranji squad, though he was selected for the under-25 Kerala team and even played an A-list game. “He was not Ranji stuff,” says the KCA official, “but was a good enough player for shorter versions of the game.”

Jiju was a member of the Ernakulam Cricket Club for which Sreesanth also plays. In his last game for the club a couple of months ago, Jiju scored a brisk century. Interestingly, Sreesanth had introduced him as his cousin to several of Kerala’s former players, according to PG Sunder, a former Ranji player. Santhakumaran has now clarified that Jiju is not a relative but only a friend of Sreesanth. The father has also disclosed that Jiju was looking after Sreesanth’s accounts, even though the cricketer had a couple of managers on the job.

Jiju’s father, who once worked for the Gujarat government, had once said his son was not well-to-do in the family’s Gujarat days (they have moved to Kerala since), and that he used to send Jiju money whenever he was in need. As news of the spot-fixing scandal spread, Jiju’s family left their house near Koothuparamba in Kannur district of Kerala. The house remains locked. The neighbours have no clue where the family is. Jiju’s father’s phone is now switched off.

Jiju, of course, is in police custody in Delhi. If he had a slippery side, he hid it well. Sunil Pallan, a senior player in Ernakulam Cricket Club who has known Jiju for over five years, says, “He was hard working and focused. I have seen Jiju advising upcoming players to dedicate themselves hundred per cent to their career. He was an aggressive cricketer, but was pious off the field. I’m shocked at what has happened.”

Mobile phone to his ear and a bouquet of flowers in hand, Professor Ratnakar Shetty, the BCCI’s general manager for cricket development, waited for his car at the entrance of Acres Club in Chembur, Mumbai. Shetty had flagged off a two-day symposium on the business side of sports called Indian Sports Forum 36. Now he was leaving. As he waited for his car, Shetty shared some of his thoughts on the spot-fixing episode. Ever since the scandal was exposed, the IPL and BCCI have faced a lot of flak. Shetty said he did not understand why.

“If Sanjay Dutt goes to jail,” Shetty asked, “will you also arrest Sunil Dutt?”

Shetty pinned the blame for spot-fixing on the moral corruption of contemporary times. He also reiterated that the BCCI’s Anti Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) had limited power. “I just hope there is more fear after this among players,” he said and got into his car.

The next day, in a Chennai room, another senior BCCI official took a seat to deal with the same issue. N Srinivasan, the BCCI’s president, had called an Emergency Meeting. Two notable things happened here. The Rajasthan Royals, for which the three accused players play, were asked to file a police complaint in Jaipur against the players, which they did. Two, an enquiry commission was formed. This will be chaired by Ravi Sawani, head of the BCCI’s ACSU.

The BCCI could not have punished the players without an enquiry because that would have been against the rules. Sawani’s report will determine the future of Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan. “The report, which we seek at the earliest possible, will be placed before the disciplinary committee for further action,” Srinivasan said, “We have to go by the rules that are applicable to players as formulated by the BCCI. We have also requested the Delhi Commissioner of Police to provide us with information to help us complete our internal enquiry.”

Another major outcome could be that match- and spot-fixing are declared ‘criminal offences’ under the Indian Penal Code. This demands legislation and Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal has backed this proposal. As of now, taking a bribe to act against the interests of your own team is not covered under any specific law, though the three have been charged with ‘cheating’ and ‘criminal conspiracy’ by the Delhi Police. Still, since these are indirect, it is not always easy for the authorities to secure convictions or harsh sentences for offenders. The Cronje case of 2000, remember, has still not seen a chargesheet filed.

What direction the case takes is being closely watched. Whichever way it goes, two things are certain. It is idiotic of players to sully themselves with corruption in an era when you don’t even have to be an international player to earn well. The IPL and domestic cricket compensates them handsomely. Besides, it affords them exposure that the less talented only dream of. How else could the likes of Chandila and Chavan get a chance to perform in a packed stadium for a TV audience of millions? How else could they ever share a dressing room with Rahul Dravid? Besides, just having those three magical letters—I-P-L—on their resume would have meant plenty post-career. They could have leveraged it for years to come and become coaches, commentators or eminent cricket professionals.

Two, the credibility of Indian cricket has been injured again. There is not a single season without Indian cricket being in trouble. Boards of other cricket nations, which often have to tolerate the BCCI’s autocracy for their own financial survival, must be revelling in the discomfiture of the big bully. These foreign boards are no angels, but India, being the finance and passion capital of cricket, must make the most effort to maintain the integrity of the game.

In other words, the BCCI’s refusal to be answerable to anyone has to end. Right now, nobody, not even journalists—let alone the Right to Information Act—can breach the high walls that Srinivasan has erected around Indian cricket. The spot-fixing scam should make the BCCI see some sense at last. Or so we hope.