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Missing leg and off

June 06, 2013

THE dimly lit labyrinth of oversized halls and more numerous smaller rooms was lined with massive casks brimming with exotic elixir that Faiz and Ghalib would be jealous of.

Casually spread, expensive sofas were surrounded by ornate Italian chairs. The lingua franca in the secret ‘cricket den’ was rustic Punjabi though most of the men in that Dubai penthouse wore white Arab gowns to comply with an unwritten dress code. Ashtrays on the side tables were choked with cigarette butts. You could cut the thick smoke with a knife.

A man from Kasur in Pakistan pulled on the hookah. The darkened garishness of the casino was palpable from the loud conversations, mostly laced with rustic invective. Stacks of the largest denominations of dirham notes were casually strewn on the tables, under them, in the lap of the owners. There was no live television broadcast from Sydney in the 1980s so the men, nearly all with handy radio sets, were glued to every inflection of the running commentary. It was past midnight in Dubai.

The cricket match being played was poised critically in a far away country. The teams in the fray were Australia and West Indies, but the punters in the den were Punjabi patriarchs from Pakistan. I was told that Indians, mostly Gujaratis and Marwaris, ran a separate establishment in Dubai. The common link between the two flanks was Dawood Ibrahim, the Mumbai fugitive now thought to be lying low in Pakistan.

My escort to the vulgarised variant of Hasan bin Sabbah’s Alamut magic retreat was a Pakistani broker from E.F. Hutton. He later fled the country when he overplayed a hand and lost. His masters, gold traders from Pakistan, are still said to be waiting to lay their hands on him.

I watched cricket in the emirates with keen journalistic curiosity in the 1980s, when it was conceived and played as a punter’s delight. Sub-continental diplomats and Mumbai movie stars, smugglers and fugitives from the law, would converge in special enclosures of the pavilion with private boxes for very private conversations. Their main interlocutor, Dawood Ibrahim, was not the villain he became in 1993. Mobile phones had just been invented and were therefore expensive to keep, but they flourished in the Sharjah pavilion, from where bookies from around the world were marshalled and directed.

On one occasion, India had scored something like 121 plus in their innings against Pakistan. I went home with deep suspicions only to be woken by a Pakistani journalist congratulating me on India’s victory. Pakistan had been bundled out for something like 91 or thereabout. Similarly, come to think of it, the game-changing last-ball six off Chetan Sharma’s final over by Javed Miandad, who later became Dawood Ibrahim’s relative by marriage, must have changed many a fortune.

You can’t stop betting in cricket because you can’t stop a bowler from bowling a bad ball, a batsman from throwing away his wicket and an umpire from giving a poor decision. And you can’t stop the sign language they speak.

All the noise about spot fixing during the Indian Premier League series is old hat. Corruption has been there since the advent of Kerry Packer’s televised series, if not earlier. The legendary Pakistani bowler Sarfraz Nawaz had spoken about spot fixing more than 20 years ago. “Sometimes there is betting on a particular delivery being bowled. The bookies signal to the bowler from the stands, and the ball is bowled accordingly,” said Nawaz.

The comment is recorded by veteran Indian sports journalist Kishin Wadhwaney in his book Indian Cricket Controversies. There is also a reference to a drawn Test between India and Pakistan at the Eden Gardens.

Deep corporate hold on Indian cricket cannot be wished away. In an era of privatisation, euphemism for handing over the state’s prerogatives to big business, it is not surprising that dubious tycoons run the IPL series directly or through their political representatives. That is the source of the menace. Moreover, the model of the Indian economy prescribed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is predicated on the primacy of speculators and market manipulators. Add to that the potent parallel economy, which is conducted through informal banking channels or havala, and you have an intractable mess on your hands, for cricket and the economy alike.

We all have loved at some point the Indian cricketer famous for breaking all manner of records and for his passion for foreign cars. At least on one occasion the government waived duty on his Ferrari. That is one worldview, but is that the model to follow? Consider the following recorded clip from an interview with Don Bradman: Did he hope to break Jack Hobbs’ records, he was asked on a tour of England in 1930?

“No, I have never set out to break any records,” Bradman said. “I have always tried to do the best I can for the team that I am playing for; if they want me to go in and lose my wicket so that they can win the match, well, I will be quite happy to do so; on the other hand if they want me to get runs then I try and get as many runs as I possibly can and if in getting those runs I should happen to break any record then naturally I am very pleased; but I don’t deliberately set out to break records.”

If Bradman’s rigorous rules are to be applied to cricket in the subcontinent you have to rescue the sport from private enterprise and its badly lit dens. Anything less is futile and the ball from the punter will be missing your leg and off stumps.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.