The Pakistan Case

Asia's illicit gambling dens

Rob Crilly

Mohammad Amir, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif look on, Lord's, August 27, 2010
The den was in full swing barely a day after Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif had received lengthy bans for their role in the spot-fixing scandal © Getty Images

Business is good for Goshi and his small band of bookmakers, tucked away in a smoky front room overlooking the slums of Lahore. And it's about to get better.

"I'm going to buy a Prado after the World Cup - you know, one of the big 4×4s with the alloys and the fancy stuff," he says, throwing back his head and laughing.

It is not an idle boast. His makeshift gambling operation rakes in millions of rupees with every one-day international - even in a conservative Muslim country where betting is illegal.

The den was in full swing barely a day after Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif had received lengthy bans for their role in the spot-fixing scandal. Yet nobody thought the punishments would help clean up Pakistani cricket. "The bans aren't as heavy as they could have been. No one has been banned for life," says Goshi. "So when you look at how much players can earn from working with bookies - and many of these players come from very poor homes - I don't think this will put people off getting involved in fixing."

A flat-screen television on one wall shows the action as James Anderson fires a delivery at Brad Haddin in the seventh one-day international between Australia and England. Five bookies keep one eye on the TV as they answer phones, shout odds and note down wagers in neat Urdu script. It does not matter to them that, in Doha, three of Pakistan's leading players have just been sanctioned for corruption.

A scattering of cushions on the floor is the only concession to comfort. The bookies sit cross-legged as they concentrate on their calculators, pausing only for a drag on marijuana-laced cigarettes. Illicit dens just like this are thriving across Pakistan, and in India, where bookmakers run tiny businesses from bedrooms, empty offices and half-built houses - almost anywhere with a television and a mobile phone signal.

One of the eight wireless phones spread in a semi-circle on the floor suddenly belts out a lively Bollywood tune. Even at 8.30 a.m. there are punters ready to place bets on a match taking place on the other side of the world.

"This is nothing," says Goshi, who asks that his full name is not used. "It's early. Everyone spent yesterday watching the Pakistan match [a one-day international in New Zealand]. They are only getting up now. It will get busier."

He notes down a bet of 20,000 rupees (£160) on an England win. The minimum stake is set at Rs5,000, a considerable amount of money in a country where one third of the population survives on less than a pound a day. "Our clients are businessmen. No one else can really afford it," says Goshi in Urdu, as he sits leaning against the wall.

The phones - each connected to a tape recorder to avoid any disagreements over who paid what - ring incessantly when punters dial in to bet on the match outcome, or a complicated series of "figure" bets, gambling on the score after 10- or 20-over periods. Goshi's crew shun fancy bets, where gamblers lay wagers on the outcome of individual balls, as too complex and too easy to fix.

One telephone is left permanently on speakerphone to receive odds from a bookmaking mastermind in Karachi; another so that the figures can be passed on to some 20 smaller outfits near by that pay Goshi for a slice of the action.

The business relies in part on trust. Cash will not change hands until tomorrow, when Goshi's runners will fan out through the richer suburbs to collect payments and deliver winnings.

The figures soon mount up. A day earlier Goshi's small team took Rs2m (£16,000) during the match between Pakistan and New Zealand. During the World Cup, he reckons they will earn Rs10m (£80,000) in profit alone. And with as many as 1,000 illegal dens operating in Lahore - according to police estimates - millions of pounds change hands each match.

But with that comes the darker side of Pakistan's illegal industry. Allegations of match-fixing and spot-fixing have dogged the national team for years. "It stands to reason. You see how big this is," says Goshi. "If Australia are the favourites and loads of money is being put on them, then people could make a lot of money by getting them to lose."

On another afternoon, in another den - this one set up in a squalid bedroom, a temporary home while police raided properties close to the normal office - another bookie, PK, said he had no doubt fixing was rife during the England-Pakistan series of 2010.

"When we set our own odds we always lose. But when we take the odds from bookmakers in Karachi then we stay in profit. So we think they must have inside information on what is going on," he says. "We knew Pakistan would win last week. The odds we were given didn't make sense."

He has little in the way of evidence, other than a hunch and some painful losses. At the same time, though, these Lahore bookmakers say their operation sits at the bottom of a web connected by telephone to Karachi, the teeming, chaotic commercial capital of Pakistan, and from there on to Mumbai. The money, they say, ends up in Dubai and England.

Many believe Dawood Ibrahim, the notorious Indian crime lord, sits at the top. As well as suspecting him of racketeering and drug-running, the US believes he has links to al-Qaeda and has funded terrorist attacks in India. "Nothing this big, and crossing so many borders, could run without his sayso," according to a police officer speaking on condition of anonymity.

The phones ring all morning, as the narrow room gradually fills with smoke, dimming the sunshine flooding through a single window. Only when England's fifth wicket falls for 64 in the early afternoon, and Australia look certain to end up winning the series 6-1, does the betting stop.

"It's difficult to judge when Australia are batting because you never know what they might do," says Goshi. "But I think it's obvious the match is over. The book is closed." Not for long.

© John Wisden & Co.