2001

The fall of Azharuddin

Sidharth Bhatia in Delhi reveals how India's CBI brought the bookies to book and dethroned an Indian hero back in 2001

Sidharth Bhatia

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Mohammad Azharuddin on the attack © Getty Images
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The Central Bureau of Investigation is a shadowy organisation accustomed to chasing big fish rather than small fry. India's version of Scotland Yard has examined allegations of bribery against the former Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao, and claims that backhanders were paid in the purchase of Bofors guns during the premiership of the late Rajiv Gandhi. The Indian government handed it the match-fixing inquiry because it wanted to make sure that no one got away.

The Delhi bookie Mukesh Gupta - aka John, or MK - soon found out just how ruthless the CBI is. Despite a high public profile, it rarely shows its face to the media. Its reputation is for meticulous investigation, but lately there has been criticism of shoddy detective work and a low rate of prosecutions. When it undertook the most far-reaching inquiry ever into cricket"s ill, it had something to prove.

Getting Gupta to testify was the CBI's biggest break. Gupta, a jeweller by trade, was familiar with several Indian and international cricketers, and had been known to Indian police since the first whispers about match-fixing. An alert was sounded as far back as mid-June that he might try to escape India, and a close watch was kept on the country's airports. Hansie Cronje provided corroboration of Gupta's involvement when he confessed to the King Commission that he had been introduced to him by Mohammad Azharuddin in Kanpur in 1996. Gupta allegedly paid Cronje $40,000 for information.

When Gupta went into hiding, the CBI told his family that they were ready to take his 70-year-old father into custody if he did not surface. The threat worked. Gupta voluntarily walked into the CBI's office and spilled the beans. Once he had cracked, the CBI had sufficient evidence to confront Azharuddin, Manoj Prabhakar, Ajay Jadeja, Ajay Sharma and Nayan Mongia - the five Indian players named in the November report.

When the relationship between bookies and players first emerged in the early '90s, the bookies were only interested in getting inside information about the condition of the pitch, the final XI or, at best, a general assessment of how the match might go. Then they got smart and decided they wanted to influence the game too.

It was widely known among cricket followers and specialist journalists that large-scale betting was rampant all over India, even though it was illegal. In Bombay, I have seen warren-like offices where bookies handle calls from clients while matches are going on. The betting is not confined to results - it changes from ball to ball, over to over. Punters even place bets on field-placings and bowling changes. Individual players can, in theory, decide in advance how many runs they will score and when they will get out. The role of the captain becomes crucial. Thus, Azharuddin, Cronje and, perhaps, Alec Stewart, Brain Lara and Aravinda de Silva - all past captains, though their alleged role in match-fixing is unproven - are all vital links in the chain.

Right from the beginning, we knew that we had not only a tough but also delicate task at hand, says a senior CBI official. The celebrity status of the cricketers was one constraint; the CBI had no choice but to handle them with kid gloves, lest there be any allegations of harassment. Some of the players are also well-connected politically, always an important consideration in India, notwithstanding the CBI's autonomous status. Most importantly, the CBI was aware that the legal implications of the players' alleged wrongdoings were, to say the least, fuzzy.

There are two distinct strands to sleaze in Indian cricket: betting and match-fixing. Though some of the suspects are involved in both, either as participants or as agents, the two activities would stand separately before a court of law. Betting in India is illegal (except in horse racing) and there are enough laws to prosecute violators, though the fines are negligible. Thus, the bookies could be tried under any of those laws.

But match-fixing - assuming such a thing can be proved - is a whole new ball-game. Try as they might, the CBI's sleuths have failed to come up with convincing answers as to exactly how the players could be tried in court, no matter how damning the evidence. The only provision that could be applied is the notorious section 420 of the Indian penal code, which is used in cases of cheating and fraud. But who have the cricketers defrauded? And how can it be proved that giving information about the condition of the pitch is cheating?

According to informed sources, the best the CBI can do is to go after Azharuddin and Sharma, both of whom work for the government-owned State Bank of India and can be prosecuted as public servants. Here, too, it is not clear whether there is irrefutable admissible evidence. Azharuddin reportedly confessed that he had fixed three one-day matches; the first against South Africa at Rajkot in 1996, then Pepsi Cup matches in Sri Lanka in 1997 and Pakistan in 1999. But he was subsequently quoted in an interview denying that he was involved in any such activity. That cut no ice with the Indian Board, however, who declared Azhar guilty as charged late in November.

Dr Irani stated that he had never heard anything adverse regarding Tendulkar. In fact, in most of the matches where fixing was taking place, the clue was that the game would "be on" only when Tendulkar got out, because he was one player who could single-handedly win the match and upset any calculation.

But I understand that, in Azharuddin's case, the CBI had in its possession photographs of him with well-known figures of the Bombay underworld - including at least one person whose name has been linked with terrorist bomb attacks in the city in early 1993. These photographs were discovered by Bombay police during their investigations into the bombings, but they did not follow it up by interrogating the cricketer. Sources say that Azhar crumbled under pressure when the CBI confronted him with evidence of his shady connections. Allegations that some of these underworld figures have been closely connected with matches played in Sharjah have been doing the rounds for a long time.

But does Azhar's association with them, in itself, constitute a crime? Legal experts are not so sure. So far none of the players have been arrested, and even the raids by income-tax inspectors on the homes of major players - including former captain Kapil Dev - have produced nothing concrete enough to prove match-fixing. These raids have shown that some players have asset beyond their known means of income, and that they may not have paid taxes on their wealth - not a particularly unusual occurrence among rich Indians. But that does not prove wrongdoing in cricket matches.

Meanwhile, the government is pursuing a separate line of inquiry into the officials who rule Indian cricket. The homes of many of the game's most senior administrators, including former ICC chief Jagmohan Dalmiya, have been raided by the CBI teams. They were investigating allegations that Board officials had colluded with representatives of the Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan in rigging the price for television rights - which the channel eventually paid, leading to a financial loss.

The legal aspects of that case are clearer: the officials are civil servants and, if they were involved in shady dealings, they can be prosecuted. But, though all these goings-on show that the game has become increasingly sleazy and that people at all levels are linked to the sleaze, the government is no closer to making the perpetrators pay for their sins in court. Azharuddin's career may be in ruins but, at the age of 37, it was almost over anyway.

If the charges are ever field, as the various cases follow their tedious course through the Indian justice system, public opprobrium may be the only punishment that gets handed out. Even that is not a certainty. In India, cricket is almost a religion, and there is widespread disgust among cricket lovers that the game has been sullied.

Soon after news broke of the match-fixing scandal, attendances and television ratings fell to new lows. But victories in two one-day tournaments abroad brought back the fans, showing that public memory can be short. There have also been reports that betting is back in full swing. Under these circumstances, can anyone hope to really clean up the game?

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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