May 26, 2013

What makes players cheat?

Getting away with deceit can provide a certain high. For some, the rewards of cheating will always outweigh the potential consequences

As the story of spot-fixing gets deeper and dirtier, I am reminded of the seemingly unsullied early 1990s, when mobile phones hadn't yet become indispensable. Those were the days when the business of betting was made to look unintentional.

When the Indian team travelled overseas during this time, rich expat Indians in the countries the team went to would host lavish dinner parties for the players. The world hadn't become the global village it is today, and most young Indian players, with meagre daily allowances, craved home food when abroad. That's when these expatriates came to their rescue. Home cooked dal-roti made players happy and gave their hosts bragging rights for a lifetime.

Most such dinners ended with players getting parting gifts. While some of the top players invariably received expensive presents, like branded watches and perfume, the not-so-consequential ones were mostly gifted souvenirs or miniature replicas of the city's most famous monuments. Such exchanges were the beginning of friendships - which would sometimes later go on to raise eyebrows - between these rich expats and a few established Indian cricketers.

In Indian cricket lingo, these contacts were referred to as "mamus" (uncles). Many of the top players of the time had such benefactors in nearly every city that hosted cricket around the world. It wouldn't be far-fetched to assume that some of these casual interactions could have led to something more disturbing, for no one ever took the pains to conduct thorough background checks on these expats before visiting their houses or taking favours from them.

Would you think twice before telling a friend whether you were going to enforce the follow-on, or what the likely playing XI for tomorrow's game would be?

It may not have been how it started, but the ease with which interested parties could have access to cricketers made fixing a simple and risk-free job.

That's a thing of the past, for the modern Indian cricketer is not only more aware but also rich enough to not need such favours. No wonder such informal dinner invitations have been on the wane, and even when they come along, most players give them a miss. Pizzas and burgers have replaced dal-roti - not the best diet for a player's health, but it has helped to keep the game healthy, mostly!

Now an Indian player is expected to be not as easily accessible or as gullible. But while some comprehend the ramifications of match- and spot-fixing, and hence keep away, there are a few who like to play with fire. What makes them susceptible to cheating? What makes them jeopardise their lives and careers? It can't just be that they are silly.

The fact that domestic cricketers don't get paid as much as their international colleagues makes them easy prey. The lack of interest in first-class cricket more or less kept betting away from the domestic game. But with the coming of the ICL, followed closely by the IPL, lesser-known players from the Ranji Trophy emerged from enforced obscurity; almost overnight, the IPL turned them into stars. What a life of playing first-class cricket couldn't give them, an innings in an IPL match did.

It's true that just as an artist craves recognition, a sportsman yearns for spectators. While the IPL satiated these players' appetite for appreciation, there were also repercussions. I've seen many talented young cricketers losing perspective after just a season under the arc lights. They earned big bucks in the first season but spent it all soon after and were at a loss about how to fund their new, expensive lifestyles.

While the BCCI tried hard to control uncapped players' aspirations with regards to the IPL, franchise owners refused to play ball. They weren't shy of offering a little more than the ceiling set by the BCCI. It resulted in Ravindra Jadeja getting banned for a year and Manish Pandey for four games. Unfortunately the franchisees negotiating these illegal deals went scot-free.

Television is a very powerful medium and when a current player sees past offenders taking up various roles in the media and administration, he tends to think that legitimacy is only a few years away

A couple of years ago, a young Ranji Trophy team-mate of mine, playing his first first-class season, was approached by an agent with an offer of Rs 1 crore as a minimum guarantee fee for signing up with his agency. It was an offer too good to be true. The player discussed the offer with me and I cautioned him straightaway, for I hadn't heard about the agency. Fortunately, he listened to me and didn't sign up. In lots of such cases though, either the player doesn't ask for advice or chooses not to listen. There are many such dubious characters in the garb of agents waiting for the right prey to pounce on. They are a version of the mamus of the '90s; the informal dinners have been substituted with meetings over coffee or a meal in a posh hotel.

The difference between being honest and dishonest is the fear of getting caught and its consequences. Chances are that if a player has got away with fraud once, he'll try it again. He'll become bolder each time. In such cases, the company he keeps and the influences they create matter too.

Unfortunately, for some, the rewards of cheating, especially in sport (in return for money) outweigh the enormity of the consequences.

A desperate desire to win at all costs, and fear of losing, not only point towards a systemic failure but also degeneration of the self.

Perhaps we must also review our understanding of sport - games mustn't turn into battles and sportspersons mustn't become demi-gods.

Television is a very powerful medium, and when a current player sees past offenders taking up various roles in the media and administration, he tends to think that legitimacy is only a few years away.

Cheating and getting away with it can also give you a high a sinister kind, and the fact that you could control the result of an over or a game gives you a sense of power. Lying or cheating is tough only the first time. Lance Armstrong is a classic example of how lies become audacious. He was so confident of never being caught that he sued people who called him a cheat.

Can this menace be curbed entirely? Even the most optimistic answer is no. Sport will always be susceptible to cheats and cheating. You may pay a player a million dollars more than he deserves, but it won't guarantee honesty. Keeping one's word, telling the truth, being fair, are individual choices. You choose to lead an ethical life, or not.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here