A time for anger, a time for action
Yesterday was a day of untold sadness and vast opportunity. But it has pushed Indian cricket into a corner, and raised the hope that the necessary reforms will materialise. Hopefully what is lost will produce some gain; the churning could produce some nectar.
First the sadness. There is within all of us a romantic. We spend long hours talking about - and some of us, reporting on - heroic deeds on cricket grounds. This kindles love for the game in another generation and forms the foundation of all sport. The sportsman is important but as vital is the fan. And every time a fixing story emerges, a little bit of the love diminishes, a missionary dies somewhere. And yet we flock because we want to believe in the inherent goodness of sport.
Incidents like these will make the fans question more and more. A mistake on the field will no longer be just that, an integral part of sport, but will be scrutinised for a dark motive. An unorthodox shot or a gamble with the ball will not produce a thrill and a sigh, but anger. And it won't just be fans but captains and team-mates who will feel that way. If Rahul Dravid throws the ball to his bowler for another over, and after a good first over if the second is expensive, will he doubt his judgement or the bowler's integrity? Will the fan question it too?
The fan has a right to be angry and let down. And there is a part of me that wishes the anger continues for a while. Indian cricket must hurt, it must not only grieve. Thirteen years ago, when the first match-fixing matter erupted, India's cricket fans weren't angry for long enough. Maybe the coming together of the most outstanding set of people I have met in sport healed the wounds and gave hope. For the next few years Indian cricket, through this fine set of people, gave much joy (and occasional despair), and brought trust back. These were solid people: Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Laxman, Ganguly, Srinath. When they lost we thought again that it was only defeat and nothing else. And that was acceptable.
But the wounds healed too early, anger dissipated too fast, fans returned too quickly. In the process, maybe we allowed things to be glossed over too quickly. Admittedly we say so in retrospect, but how could you not be carried away by Leeds 2002, the World Cup campaign, Adelaide 2003, Pakistan 2004? Those were Indian cricket's best days in all the years I have covered the game, on the field and off it.
Now the fan grieves again but in a different climate. We do not yet know if those who will carry the flame forward are made the way those six players, and others who played around them, were.
T20 cricket has arrived, with its instant thrill and unpredictability, and there is a lot of it around. The IPL has revolutionised world cricket and polarised it just as much. It would be easy to lay the blame for what has happened entirely on the IPL and the culture of greed it supposedly propagates. That would be an angry, lazy verdict at a time that calls for calm, decisive thought. True, it is an indicator to the IPL, not just of what could happen but of what actually does. There were rumours, and at least some of them may have been validated. And those who run the sport cannot be surprised. They can be anguished, they can be angry too, but they cannot be surprised. Knowing the pitfalls of your business is as important as knowing the opportunities.
But there is a wider issue here. Cricket, indeed all sport, is but a microcosm of society itself, it is a reflection of the times; and we live, in our part of the world, in particularly depressing times. There is a scandal knocking on your door every day, a scam seems to lurk around every corner, and never have more people with criminal records been in government. All this lends a veneer of acceptability to what might have been considered wrong at another time.
With fewer people getting convicted, there is a greater brazenness. One of these three arrested was a very rich Indian cricketer, another had a good job and a place in one of the best teams in the country. What happened with cricket, with these three young men, is therefore a reflection of what is happening everywhere. It calls for greater vigilance, but where do you see that in public life in India today?
What is even more dangerous is that this was uncovered by accident, just as the Cronje affair had been. So how much really is going on? If the police hadn't stumbled onto this, would it have incited more such falsehood? In fact, was this the result of earlier frauds that went undetected? It would be naïve to believe that this is an isolated case, that nothing else could have happened. Assumptions of goodness will have to be suspended.
Inevitably, then, we must ask what the solution is. There has been much talk of educating and mentoring cricketers but every young cricketer, even at the Under-17 level, knows that he shouldn't be talking about money to people of questionable repute. And you can spot them a mile away. I wonder, therefore, if fear is a greater deterrent and that can only come through stringent laws. At the moment there is no law against match-fixing but that is now inevitable; it is required urgently.
The IPL has also brought much joy, and sustenance, to many families. It is an extraordinary product and a lot of cricketers have benefited from it, both financially and through the opportunity it has afforded them. It is important that it stays strong and that the good it has done doesn't get buried amid the bad that we are now seeing. That is why, for the BCCI itself, and by implication for those that run the IPL, this is the time to act swiftly and decisively. India prides itself on its financial muscle; it must now move very quickly towards legislative leadership.
Many have spoken about transparency and openness in financial matters, and this must catalyse that process. There are many people in India who run businesses with a lot of integrity and sagacity, and I would advocate an independent panel to recommend business practices and help set up processes. There is already a lot of organisational rigour to the running of the IPL and throwing it open to the best minds can't hurt. Many industry associations have independent ombudsmen too, people who are not answerable to the organisation they sit in judgement over but who reassure stakeholders by their presence and their actions. Indian cricket needs trust and this can only come at the moment from people outside the cricket system.
India's cricket fan is hurt and the BCCI has to reach out to him/her. It is not possible to police sport completely, and across continents and sports we are reminded of that constantly. But the fan often wants intent and the BCCI will have to move in that direction very quickly. If they do, if they strengthen the game, something good can still come out of this. But for that the anger must simmer longer. The player must fear the administration but the administration must fear the fan and be answerable.
I do not know when that will happen but I know that it must to protect Indian cricket and make it stronger. It must do so to protect young Indian players and allow them to fulfil their dreams and not be waylaid by immoral bandits. It is a dark night but you cannot just sit back and wait for the first light. Out of the shattered lives of these three young men, newer and stronger players must emerge.
Indian cricket must ensure that. Cruel as it may sound, it is too good an opportunity to miss.
Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here