May 24, 2013

A time for sadness and fear

The spot-fixing controversy teaches us about the pitfalls of insecurity and of the desire to keep up with the Joneses

I am writing this soon after watching Rajasthan Royals, rocked by intrigue but glued together by commitment, make a heart-warming entry into the final eliminator of what has, from a purely cricketing point of view, been an outstanding IPL. Royals have had to deal with drama, largely unwanted, and as a result have demanded newer skills of their players - the ability to play under the shadow of false media allegations, for example. But while the action, even the emotion, was riveting, the backdrop, sombre and depressing, was impossible to ignore. This hasn't been just another week in Indian cricket. And this wasn't just another tournament.

And so I find myself in an emotional cauldron; in a sport I love, in a tournament whose cricket I genuinely believe in, but in an atmosphere, even if created by a few, tinged with moral decay and danger. I feel sadness and fear. I am angry very often, but from time to time expectation wells up within: that my sport might emerge stronger, that out of pain a better sport will evolve.

I am partly in denial; I want my sport to embody everything I have experienced within it: beauty, bravery and flair, everything that brings a smile. I want to be happy, I want to shout out that good vastly overwhelms bad. But another part of me is hoping that whatever has to tumble out does, that cricket finds its deepest caverns so those conspiring there can be exposed; that cricket feels so much pain that it will do what it takes to ensure it doesn't happen again. Neither emotion is viable, for I know cricket will continue to exist, like everything else, with the nicest and the bravest alongside the cowardly and the machiavellian.

One thing we must accept, though. The events upon us now are not only about cricket and cricketers, they are about insecurity, temptation, and a desire to keep up with the Joneses. Let us look at each.

Cricket, like all sport, offers glory to few and a lifetime of it to even fewer. For the investment it demands it offers short careers that end when people in other professions are starting to flourish. In that limited time a player must achieve all he can on the field of play and earn as much as he can on and off it. But not everyone can earn enough to sustain themselves for the rest of their lives. That is why insecurity resides in very close proximity to most sportspeople. If they don't make it, they don't have too much to fall back upon.

That leads to temptation, and when it is married to the awareness that it is virtually impossible to police the sport, the mind seeks out opportunities. Admittedly temptation is not the exclusive preserve of those who earn less, but combined with insecurity, it makes for a particular vulnerability.

And then there is the third factor that no one is willing to talk about. In sports teams, apart from talk of sporting prowess and the imparting of inspirational thought, an extraordinary amount of time is spent discussing, and flaunting, material possessions. And even more so in testosterone-fuelled activities, which, thus glorified, are seen as accomplishments; why, they almost become a rite of passage. Young players will gawk at gadgets and cars and eavesdrop on conversations that centre on the company of beautiful women. Like records, this too becomes aspirational.

Young players will gawk at gadgets and cars and eavesdrop on conversations that centre on the company of beautiful women. Like records, this too becomes aspirational

And you can see why they become easy targets for those who offer what these younger, and lesser-earning, players are led to aspire for. You can educate people all you want, but just as children instinctively do what their parents do, as opposed to what their parents tell them to do, younger players get carried away by the environment they are in. They become easy targets for honey traps. That is the beginning of deeper pitfalls. And that is why, while I am all in favour of educating and mentoring people, I am aware of the limitations of that approach, especially when the desire to keep up with the Joneses is so natural and widespread.

This is not to condone what happens, this is not a boys-will-be-boys explanation, for young cricketers today know exactly what not to do. This is my hypothesis on why sportsmen all over the world are particularly easy targets. Some might argue that this is a more universal phenomenon, and they won't be wrong, but there seems to be a sense of accomplishment attached to it in sport all over the world.

But let us stay with cricket and India. Can we then educate at all? Yes we must, for to not do so will be to accept defeat. But education must be accompanied by fear, and I am increasingly convinced that fear will be a greater deterrent. And that is why I was so disappointed that the probe of 1999-2000 was never made public. By burying it, Indian cricket was let down. It cannot happen again. The scandal of 1999-2000 now exists in whispers. The 2013 episode cannot, and that is why, painful as it might be, a greater churn will produce long-term gain. It might lead to better systems, greater transparency, maybe even a law against fixing. Scams made systems more rigorous in the money markets. They could in cricket, which, I suspect, is still much cleaner than the stock markets are.

The timing of what has happened is particularly painful too, because, looked at purely from a cricketing point of view, this was the best IPL yet. Power-hitting went to a new level, legspinners won matches in a format few believed was made for them, catching was ridiculously good, some of the captaincy was exceptional, city loyalties were strengthened, and we rediscovered, to our great joy, that the richest teams need not be the best.

Hopefully by staining it, these weak-willed will end up doing cricket a favour.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashutosh on May 25, 2013, 17:53 GMT

    Harsha i dont know if you read this or not (i suspect not). There was a time when i was equally enchanted with cricket - an enchantment which grew even more when i happened to hear you commentate for the first time over radio from NZ (SRT opened for the first time i believe in that match). A decade and a half later i hardly watch cricket or whats become of it. However i do like to follow whats happening and while browsing thru your article and the comments below i could'nt help but feel that the real truth is captured not in your article but in the comment by Don Quixote - the Harsha Bhogle i see on TV and behind this article is very different from the HB i heard so long back on the radio. Even independence seems to have a price on its head. More's the tragedy.

  • Srinivas on May 25, 2013, 17:07 GMT

    It's good that those 3 RR players were suspended due to alleged wrongdoing until the investigations are complete. Likewise, the CSK team should be suspended until the investigations are complete, as the ownership group is now alleged of wrongdoing with strong evidences. My opinion is just based on as per rules, not on emotions or bias for/against any team or player. This final shouldn't go on and anything less would be such a shame and slap on my (a fan's) face.

  • Dummy4 on May 25, 2013, 13:26 GMT

    When I think about IPL, first thing that comes into my mind is MONEY and not cricket. The filthy volumes of money that was being pumped in the IPL. This was sure to happen. For me IPL only means making money. making money from franchise sale, sponsorship deals, and now fixing matches....

  • Dummy4 on May 25, 2013, 6:50 GMT

    Cool off, it was good article...

  • Geoffrey on May 25, 2013, 6:35 GMT

    Harsha, T20 was always wrong for our game. It's sad that this fact is (just beginning) to be realised.

  • a on May 25, 2013, 6:29 GMT

    Harsha has got an enormous amount of following and enjoys a lot of credibility with cricket fans all over. Its therefore disappointing to see such a bland and watered-down article that purports to offer a lame cause-and-effect analysis and some airy-fairy solution to the problem. "Keeping up with the Joneses"? Really?? Is that all you could come up with? If you really care about Indian cricket, take a stand. Identify and expose the real ills that afflict the sport.The players are mere pawns! Use your credibility and following to weed out the malaise. With journalistic integrity, balance and equianimity. Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword. Use it wisely. And use it to good effect.

  • Natan on May 24, 2013, 22:37 GMT

    Harsha, when I came into being, my mum taught me to steer clear of strangers. When I started going to middle school and beyond, my teachers encouraged me and my fellow school-mates to to focus on study. When I went overseas for the first time for education, I was 21 but still naive in terms of international exposure. My mum jumped in and said,"Remember, what you're there for." So first 25 yrs of my life (you and many others are not exception), we had our mum and dad or elderly relatives in the family who constantly steered us in the right direction. When we started working (for someone(, we had mentors at work. This all taught us lot of self governance when we are on our own and mum/dad, relatives, managers are not watching us. In short, we learnt the right and wrong from numerous sources and by and large everyone concurred. We need to guide these youngsters. At 19, they are on their own? I find it unreasonable. Agents are not parents. Personal mentors are imperative.

  • Robert on May 24, 2013, 20:06 GMT

    Yes, well. Lots of moral outrage, but not an awful lot of sense. If there are scads of money to be made, there are going to be people who will prey on that. For a start, gambling must be made legal in India, which means it will police itself (the only meaningful policing); the BCCI needs to be hauled into line with every other cricketing nation, so that the ICC means something (otherwise, India should be excluded from all international cricket, as indeed it should have been some years ago); the cash sloshing about needs to be accounted for ... I fear the current revelations are only the tip of the iceberg, and cricket surely deserves better than this ...

  • Peter on May 24, 2013, 19:31 GMT

    Here are some simple solutions: 1. Ban the culprits for life. 2. Imprison them for a minumum of 10 years 3. Make them pay (living expenses) for their stay in prison. 4. Penalize them with large fines. 5. Use them to mow the grass of the cricketing field, collect trash during a cricket match, clean toilets during the match, parade them before the start of the match... 6. Educate them about these consequences. That is tell them what is gonna happen if they are caught.

  • Bindiboo on May 24, 2013, 19:22 GMT

    Harsha, the real sadness is the fact that some eminent former players and commentators were nothing but mouthpieces of the BCCI. They were shamelessly toeing the BCCI line on everything under the sun. If some of these former players who are associated with the IPL either through the BCCI or the broadcaster had raised important and obvious questions about the way the IPL is run, who knows, may be things would have been different. That is what the spot-fixing controversy teaches us.