Indian cricket team | Representational image | @BCCI Twitter page

In early 1992, while India were getting pasted at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Manmohan Singh was busy liberalising our economy. On the afternoon he allowed NRIs to import gold, I, in search of a story and tickled by how this might damage the smuggling business, called Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai.

“How will this affect your business?” I asked.

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“As a nationalist,” he said, “I am happy with Dr Singh. In fact, I could tell him to do so much more to save India’s economy,” he added, quite jauntily.

“But how do legal gold imports affect your business?” I asked, emphasising the words `legal’ and `business’.

“Bhai saheb, first of all, you might call it smuggling but this business is perfectly legal here,” he said. “What I am upset about is the way our team lost to the West Indies this morning.” He said it meant loss of money and face. Because, after all, “I am an honourable man, bhai. I always bet on India.”

My quibble with the current match-fixing controversy is that, somehow, we have taken a moral position on betting and confused it with match-fixing. In a free market, betting is a perfectly honourable thing. In fact, betting enriches sport much the same way stock markets build economies. In large parts of the world betting is legal, documented and taxed. Which should have been the case in India as well.

The crime, in the Cronje episode and the rest, is that it even cheats the bettor who, in fairness, should take his chances on his reading of the game, the respective talents of the teams, the pitch and the weather and leave the rest to the fabled glorious uncertainties of the game. Match-fixing negates all that. Match-fixing is to betting what insider trading is to the stock markets. If you believe Imran Khan, betting came to the subcontinent through Pakistan as a way of making the game more interesting. “It was actually quite small, healthy and good fun,” he told me in the course of a long afternoon drinking tea and talking cricket in Lahore. “Unlike your domestic cricket,” he said, “ours has no competition, no spectators. So the organisers started throwing in small bets to make the game more exciting.”

The practice grew and in the absence of any regulation or publication of odds, match-fixing inevitably followed. The most unfortunate fallout is that this has now got us so outraged that we link it to the issue of stars making big money from the game. So we cry blue murder. Money corrupts. Big money corrupts incorrigibly.

Also read: When Rahul Dravid told Ram Guha to ‘shut up’ about cricket strategy, write history books

Sunil Gavaskar, in his Sunny Days, recounts a touching incident in a Karnataka-Bombay Ranji final, fought more keenly those days than an India-Pakistan match at Sharjah. Only he stood between Karnataka and victory and freak leggie Chandrashekhar bowled an unplayable one that missed everything, the off stump by a whisker. As Chandra finished his follow through, Sunny looked up, expecting deathly sorrow on his face. He found pure bliss instead. A transistor in the crowd was playing a Mukesh song. “Suna kya?” Chandra asked Gavaskar, his eyes still lit in joy.

Yes, there was a time when cricket was played for pure pleasure, when it was truly a gentleman’s game. When there was very little money involved, when Neville Cardus wrote a long, masterful tribute to Vinoo Mankad, certifying him a legatee of “England’s own orientalists” Ranji and Duleep, and acknowledged India as the moral victors even after they had been walloped by England. Those were simpler days. Those were also days when angels lived in the skies or in fairytale books and when the VC was the vice-chancellor you feared, or respected, and not the venture capitalist you wooed and chased. If so much has changed with the times, so must the game of cricket.

Please do not grudge the cricketers their money. If you buy products they endorse, or choose to share Sachin’s VISA power, it is what makes sport so international. If footballers, car rallyists, golfers, tennis stars all make money, why shouldn’t the cricketers? So what if in the process the next time a Chandra misses a Gavaskar’s off stump by a whisker he might let out a four-letter curse that the cameras will duly record and repeat several times, in between commercial breaks charged for at a premium.

If big money brings big tension, big excitement, better standards, greater spectator interest, it promotes the game. The problem arises when the sportsmen, and the game’s establishment, begin to think that there is more money to be made on the side, fixing the game, than on the pitch, winning it. This is now threatening to destroy the game in India and, ultimately, internationally.

Also read: How bookie Sanjeev Chawla, kingpin of 2000 cricket match-fixing scandal, fell into police net

The Indian cricketing establishment has a lot to answer for for this loss of credibility in what is truly our national sport. Over the past decade they’ve got so smitten by the lure of big money in tamashas that they have raped and pillaged our domestic cricket, laying pitches where No. 11s score centuries, where teams score 700-plus and yet lose a Ranji match on the obscenity described in the newspapers as “vital first innings lead”. The same cricketers then look like clowns when faced with genuine competition on foreign pitches. If they have won just one Test abroad since 1985, and that too in Sri Lanka, if they haven’t beaten any of the big boys Australia, South Africa and the West Indies abroad in almost two decades, you need no more evidence of the way the game has been destroyed in India. Now they will compound that by running away from the Cronje controversy, by confining it to one individual or one match. The sickness in world cricket runs deep to its core. It is not a wound you can easilycauterise.

What cricket needs is a FIFA-like reform, it needs a Joao Havelange and the daadas of the Indian establishment be damned. For far too long we have been kind to them just because we were so proud some Indians had risen so high in world cricket. They owe it entirely to Indian cricket and the strength of our consumer. Today, if hoardings and commercials plug mostly Indian products even in Australia-South Africa matches, it underlines how much our money drives the game.

If India loses interest, there will be very little money left in cricket. Also, if the demise of cricket begins in our country, the world will say the game died when the Indians took over. Forget match-fixing, how can we overlook the ham-handed manner in which the ICC handled the Muralitharan and Shoaib Akhtar chucking cases?

Managing international sport is not about running masala tournaments or taking the same circus to new locations like Singapore, Toronto and Los Angeles. It is about building standards, making the game more exciting to give spectators more value for money, to bring greater credibility and thereby an honest deal to the bettors. Football is today growing so rapidly in non-traditional areas, including the US, because FIFA has done just that. The athletics federation has similarly cracked down on doping and decimated the fabled Ma’s Army of Chinese champions and others of that ilk. Even hockey has been made faster, more interesting, exciting; there are more goals, fewer whistles and very few draws. What have the Dalmiyas done for cricket meanwhile?

The one thing they could take the credit for was bringing big money into the game. But that could now be a thing of the past. We certainly won’t wear suitings displayed by Hansie Cronje. How long will you continue buying colas, beer, shoes, jam, shampoos and tyres endorsed by the others?

Also read: Broken bones, fractured jaws, bruised egos — The lesser-known tale of India’s pace bowling


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