Writing about match-fixing in cricket is never easy, as I can personally testify. Especially more so for a South Asian author writing a non-fiction book on the subject. It is a fiercely divisive topic about which all cricket fans — on both sides of the border — are highly opinionated.
This is why Chandramohan Puppala’s No Ball: The Murky World of Match-Fixing is a particularly praiseworthy effort. The author takes a hot-button topic and handles it with great dexterity, providing tremendous insight into this murky world of dodgy players, dodgier officials and unsavoury characters from what we ubiquitously call ‘the underworld’.
Puppala’s book starts off very much in the vein of a Frederick Forsyth-esque thriller, with the Delhi police tracing calls and slowly becoming aware that the case they are investigating is much bigger than they had thought and that there are extremely powerful transnational forces at work at the heart of match-fixing. I must admit, after reading that first chapter of No Ball, I did get a pang of regret at not having written such a heart-pumping intro myself.
A book takes the hot-button topic of match-fixing in cricket and handles it with great dexterity, providing tremendous insight into a murky world
Puppala lays down an extremely useful timeline at the beginning of his book, chronologically mapping the history of corruption in cricket. It sequentially lays out the key events from across the globe, through which he attempts to construct a picture of the world of match-fixing. The timeline is particularly interesting because it highlights many events that — because of our limited attention spans — have vanished from the collective consciousness. But seen as part of a chain, as laid out by Puppala, they assume a greater significance and lend themselves to a better understanding of the causes and effects of cricket match-fixing.
The most fascinating aspect of Puppala’s work is his making a connection with the rise of match-fixing as a result of two factors. The first is the establishment of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates as an off-shore venue for one-day cricket in the 1980s — a seemingly innocent move that was the brainchild of Abdul Rehman Bukhatir, a cricket-mad sheikh who had grown up watching and falling in love with cricket in Karachi, and Asif Iqbal, a former Pakistan captain who brought to reality Bukhatir’s Field of Dreams-style vision. Sharjah brought together cricket, Bollywood and big money, a cocktail that eventually became explosive in the context of match-fixing.
But Sharjah’s role has been commented upon by other writers and analysts before Puppala as well. It is the second factor — Puppala’s original hypothesis — that is really interesting for the student of crime and sociology.
1984 is a kind of Year Zero for match-fixing, although there had been incidents and allegations even before then. But it was in 1984 that the first international tournament was played in Sharjah, and also round about the same time that the leading lights of the Bombay underworld moved to neighbouring Dubai to escape Indian authorities. As the Bombay — it was still Bombay back then and not the Mumbai that it became under the rule of the Shiv Sena — crime syndicates settled into their new home, they discovered cricket betting as a small, but relatively lucrative income stream. As their other financial interests such as smuggling and film finance declined for various reasons, cricket betting became more and more important as a cash cow to the syndicates.
And it was there, because of the “innovative genius” of people such as the gangster Sharad Shetty, that they found that this income stream could really become huge if one included the element of getting players to fix matches, rather than leaving things to the whims of chance. The syndicates already had an established delivery mechanism — the hawala networks — to move illegal money around the world in minutes. Thus, bookies could take bets in dozens of tier-two and tier-three cities in India and Pakistan, and the money could be transferred virtually instantaneously to Dubai or anywhere else.
And what of the players? They were, for the most part, soft targets. Young men from mostly humble backgrounds, conspicuously easy to lure with flashy gifts such as expensive watches or jewellery, or best of all, dollars. Puppala’s description of the two young Indian cricketers, S.N. Sreesanth and Ajit Chandila, is especially enlightening about the ease with which an experienced bookie can net a young man who has known nothing but cricket for all of his short life.
Puppala gives the reader an introductory overview into the history of match-fixing and the various scandals that have occurred over the past two decades, but the central focus of the book is the more recent match-fixing scandals that centred on the Indian Premier League (IPL). And here we find the birth of another phenomenon that has inevitably had a positive impact on illegal betting networks: the franchise league. The mushrooming growth of T20 cricket has seen the establishment of a franchise league in almost every single cricket playing country, from the Big Bash in Australia to the Caribbean Premier League in the West Indies, the Pakistan Super League in Pakistan, and of course, the mother and father of all franchise leagues: the IPL. The growth of leagues means an automatic growth in the number of often pointless cricket matches being aired on television, meaning, naturally, the growth of betting opportunities for punters.
And with the regulatory and supervisory environment being much more lax in the policing of these leagues than at the international level, it almost seems as if the administrators of cricket are complicit in deliberately turning a blind eye to fixing in these leagues, just as long as the stench of corruption does not reach the international game. Thus we read the gripping account of the extent of fixing in the IPL and the very clear — or so it would seem to me had I investigated the case — involvement of franchise owners, including the all-powerful N. Srinivasan, vice-chairman and managing director of India Cements, owner of the IPL team Chennai Super Kings and feudal overlord of Indian cricket.
Only a handful of writers have attempted to navigate the waters of match-fixing in the past 20-odd years. Simon Wilde’s Caught: The Full Story of Corruption in International Cricket was the first book to explore match-fixing, coming out as it did in the immediate aftermath of the Hansie Cronje scandal in 2000. More recently, Ed Hawkins’s Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld examined the phenomenon in 2012, after the 2011 World Cup where, famously — according to Hawkins — he was given the exact ‘brackets’ of how Pakistan would crumble against India in the semi-final.
Puppala’s book picks up where these left off and brings us up-to-date with the developments in match- and spot-fixing to the present day. If one is a lover of cricket, or a hater of it — perhaps even more so if you hate it, as it will reinforce your beliefs about the evils of this sport — this book should be a staple.
The reviewer is a police officer and the author of four novels, including The Fix
No Ball: The Murky World of Match-Fixing
By Chandramohan Puppala
Pan Macmillan, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 29th, 2019