Whatever you think of the recent Al Jazeera documentary alleging spot-fixing in Tests involving England and Australia, it was a reminder that the unregulated Indian betting market remains a problem beyond the ability of cricket to control. A looming Indian Law Commission report into the area will be far more critical to safeguarding the game's integrity than any expose could ever be
"The criminal mafia that runs match-fixing and betting is also involved in other criminal activities in India. Large overlap - these are, by and large, the same people who are involved in narcotics trafficking, which a very big industry in India, far bigger than the cricket. Past experience shows that all these people have gotten away. I can't predict the future."
He did, though.
These words came in 2000, from Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, India's income-tax commissioner at the time, in a report filed by the Australian investigative journalist Liz Jackson in the wake of Hansie Cronje's exposure as a match-fixer. The report, still available online, shows a vastly different world 18 years ago: few mobile phones, no T20 or social media, and the ICC is located in the pokey Lord's clock-tower office rather than its more expansive current headquarters in Dubai.
But one central part of the picture is remarkably unchanged: illegal bookies throughout the Indian subcontinent, running informal operations for huge sums of money, all taking their odds from relatively few syndicate bosses with deep roots in the Indian crime underworld. Then as now, they are central to a massive, unregulated betting market that may be manipulated more or less at will, provided there are players on the take. This network was at the centre of the recent Al Jazeera investigation.
Back in 2000, with the weary world view provided by Gupta, much of the focus turned towards the ICC and its member boards, all of which clearly needed to do more to protect the game's integrity. While at the time this was largely done, and international cricket grew notably cleaner in the first seven years of the 21st century, the impetus then slowed, and the invention and proliferation of T20 opened up a new area for the gambling syndicates to infiltrate.
As early as the first T20 international, the ICC's anti-corruption unit raised concerns about the format's lack of context. The day after Australia beat New Zealand at Eden Park in a carnival of retro uniforms and jokes about the underarm, then Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Alex Brown reported that investigators from the anti-corruption unit were to meet to discuss the format and whether it would undermine the policing and educational work of recent years.
Whatever was discussed and attempted at the anti-corruption level, history shows that the pitfalls were to be many. The Indian Cricket League proved a hotbed for corrupt activity, while its BCCI-approved counterpart, the IPL, grew so rapidly in size and prominence that the actions of the Chennai Super Kings team principal, Gurunath Meiyappan, and Rajasthan Royals co-owner Raj Kundra, blew the lid off the fact that the format and the tournament had moved the battle for the game's integrity into the most fertile territory the syndicates had seen since the mid-1990s. This had been picked up by another sharp observer, the late Peter Roebuck, in 2008.
"It has been argued that the moral and financial consequences of legalising betting for India's vast population still living below the poverty line would be dire. There is also opposition on the basis that regulation would be an admission of failure to contain the "black" or off-the-books economy"
"The BCCI and IPL need to step up their anti-corruption activities," he wrote. "They could start by talking to ICL officials, and obtaining from them the names and numbers of the identified 'businessmen'. Of course, it is a pity that India does not permit gambling. Regardless, the bookies are back, and cricket must nobble them."
Malcolm Speed, during his time as chief executive of the ICC, felt that the anti-corruption unit led by Lord Condon made decent strides to reduce the likelihood of corruption, but noted in his 2011 autobiography, Sticky Wicket, that with the unregulated Asian betting market in play, it was a continuous battle with no obvious endpoint. "Condon said it was a matter of when, not if, they return," Speed wrote, also adding that the anti-corruption unit was frustrated by the fact that it was never able to land a "big fish" among the betting and crime syndicates as a warning to others.
Accidents of circumstance have tended to play a bigger role in the exposure of corruption: Cronje, infamously, was exposed because members of the Delhi police were conducting a parallel investigation. This was also true of the IPL gambling revelations of 2013.
India's Central Bureau of Investigation did collaborate with Condon's unit on the 2001 report that formed the basis of anti-corruption methods over the next decade, in which allegations against the likes of Mark Waugh, Alec Stewart, Aravinda de Silva and Brian Lara were followed up. Little came of these subsequent investigations, largely because the CBI's star witness, the bookie MK Gupta, declined to cooperate further. In the case of Australia, the CBI made enquiries as to whether Gupta would be immune to prosecution should he travel to Australia to participate in the investigation being conducted by the ACB's investigator, Greg Melick. Having failed to gain any such assurance, Gupta chose not to cooperate further. Once Melick handed in his findings, the CA chief executive, James Sutherland, offered up an early version of the "no credible evidence" defence used in response to Al Jazeera last month.
The corruption of Meiyappan and Kundra was one of many reasons for the far more comprehensive Lodha Committee report into the inner workings of the BCCI and the IPL, out of which emerged a comprehensive road map for cleaning up the game. Most of the headlines, when the final report landed in January 2016, related to governance reforms for the BCCI, removing conflicts of interest, and increasing transparency.
But the most game-changing element of the Lodha recommendations concerned the Indian betting market. A push for the legalisation and government regulation of the area, allowing for the registration of both bookies and bettors, and the tracking of trends to pick-up suspicious activity, was greeted with something approaching euphoria at the highest levels of the game around the world when announced in January 2016.
"As far as Betting alone is concerned, many of the respondents before the Committee were of the view that it would serve both the game and economy if it were legalised as has been done in the United Kingdom," the report stated. "It cannot be overlooked that the worldwide legal sports betting market is worth over 400 billion dollars. However, with the interest of cricket being foremost in our minds, it would always be necessary to protect and invoke transparency from those involved in the game."
When this recommendation reached the Indian Supreme Court, it was deemed an issue requiring an act of parliament rather than merely a court order - an act that will invariably prove difficult to pass. Beyond the deep and complicated web of organised crime in India, there are cultural and historical factors at play. It has been argued that the moral and financial consequences for India's vast population still living below the poverty line would be dire, as modest livings are gambled away. There is also opposition on the basis that regulation would be an admission of failure to contain the "black" or off-the-books economy, akin to legalising drink-driving or illicit drug use because it is so frequent.
The fact that it is an uphill task is underlined by the still uncertain fate of legislation that is sought to be introduced in India to outlaw corruption in sport, namely any action that would affect not merely the outcome of a match but any bets made within it - essentially making spot-fixing a crime. Introduced in draft form in November 2013, the bill reportedly included such measures as protections for whistle-blowers, and penalties for officials and administrators who allow corruption on their watch. Five years later, for reasons best known to politicians, sports administrators and others, it is still languishing somewhere near the bottom of the pile of pending Indian government legislation.
Nonetheless, the court's response to Lodha was not to ignore the issue but instead refer it for further investigation by India's Law Commission, an independent group of eminent judges appointed to three-year terms, with a brief to look into legal reforms.
Since then, indicators of the commission's progress have been mixed. Strong suggestions that its ultimate report would recommend a framework for legalised betting and regulation across India emerged via newspaper reports in December and January, but the most recent indicator was more equivocal, coming in reply to a Right-to-Information query by the website GLaws, which monitors gambling-law developments in India. Among the commission's responses were that public responses about whether or not to legalise betting were still being sifted through, and that no date had been set for the delivery of a report. Tellingly, they are working against the clock - the current Law Commission's term expires in August.
Elsewhere, the possibility of regulation has been the subject of informal discussion between the ICC, the BCCI and the CoA. Alex Marshall, the current head of the ACU, has previously flagged a change in approach by the unit to target the sources of corruption in partnership with players, rather than seeking to play "gotcha" with the cricketers themselves. No single measure would do this more effectively than regulation. This is not to say that the creation of a legalised betting market in India would, in a single stroke, prevent all threat of corruption. What it would do, in the words of Condon, is make life far more difficult for the corruptors, and perhaps cause them to look elsewhere.
It would take a considerable level of imperviousness to changing times for the Law Commission to simply not submit a report before its current tenure expires. But then, going by Vishwa Bandhu Gupta's words in 2000, it would also take considerable courage to force the issue. Either way, corruption in cricket will remain a problem beyond cricket's ability to control until the unwieldy Indian betting beast is brought to some kind of heel.