Match-fixing, as we know it, may well have been nipped in the bud. But clandestine betting remains a rampant feature of cricket on the subcontinent, as this exclusive probe by a globally respected investigative writer shows.
SA Sports Illustrated
ILLEGAL betting on cricket is alive and well and keeping the Indian book-makers busy. There have also been attempts at match-fixing, but no concrete evidence of any such activity in the recent, hiatus-ending series between Asian powerhouses Pakistan and India.
However, so great is the shadow cast by bookmakers in the subcontinent that questions about their influence surfaced at the end of the one-day series won by India for the first time on its neighbour’s soil.
The fourth match of that five-game series was the decisive one: after a last ball of the opening encounter in Karachi — a wonderful start to a his-toric series which is meant to help the two nations become peaceful neighbours — Pakistan won the next two to take a 2-1 lead. In the fourth they seemed to be heading for victory when Rahul Dravid and Mohammed Kaif came together in a match-winning stand and made it 2-2. India then went on to win the fifth even more comfortably.
Immediately afterwards, questions were asked as to whether the pattern of the matches suggested a fix by the Indian bookies. After all, a series tilting to Pakistan then changed dramatically and India emerged as the victors. The bookies, who must have been long on Pakistan, could not have scripted it better.
But did they script it, or was this just the nature of the game? Old allegations that matches were fixed by book-makers were once again aired by Rashid Latif, the former Pakistani wicket keeper and captain, who had been the initial whistle-blower back in the 1990s.
At that time, Latif’s allegations were brushed aside before further evidence emerged to show they had more than a grain of truth. So this time when he went on television to say that the one-day series was fixed, a lot of attention was paid to what he said, despite the fact that he provided no proof.
One reason it struck a chord was because it was well-known that the book-makers on the subcontinent had made Pakistan favourites for the series. In the way the bets are taken there, Pakistan had been priced at 10-9 on, while
India was 10-11 on.
As they describe it in the subcontinent, in a language that is colourfully expressive, the bookies had “eaten Pakistan” — that is, taken massive bets on Pakistan to win. So in order not to get indigestion, they would want India to win and make sure they did not lose money.
The allegations by Latif led to questions put to both teams at the end of the series and resulted in both Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq getting very angry. Inzamam told the journalist to shut up; Dravid asked someone to remove the journalist concerned from the press conference.
But the fact that these questions could be asked after a one-day series, which by common consent has been one of the best in the history of the game with record run-scoring and some memorable finishes, shows that the scars of fixing still hurt.
Four years after investigations by Delhi police finally brought confirmation that match-fixing was rife in the game and led to the unmasking and fall of Hansie Cronje, the suspicion that book-makers are continuing attempts to fix games still prevails.
To an extent, part of the problem is that betting in the subcontinent is so peculiar: people there love to bet but, except in a very restricted sense in India, cannot do so legally. So all betting is illegal and this frames the way betting takes place.
Unlike Britain — or South Africa for that matter — bet-ting is not a legal activity. In Pakistan it is wholly illegal, being contrary to the provisions of Islam.
There is only one form of betting that is legal in India. This is on-course race betting. In order to bet, a person has to go to a race course and either bet with the book-makers there or on the tote.
But even here the Indian Government’s imposition of a tax on winnings has made book-makers and punters conceal their real bets. One book-maker told me: “The government taxes winnings of more than 2,500 rupees [around R400] at 34.5 percent and if you have a big win then the income tax authorities will come around asking where you got the money.
“So we have a code for betting. You are Mihir, your account will be called Charlie. Your basic bet is 200 rupees [around R35]. That will be called one, and when you bet you say Charlie one plus three, which means that you are really betting 500 rupees. Or you can bet one plus eight, which is 1,000 rupees, or one plus 98, which is 10,000 rupees. Whatever you do, the bet that will be written down will only be one.”
In this way, punters not only avoid income tax but also the betting tax of 26 percent — although book-makers charge an illegal betting tax themselves of nine percent to meet expenses.
For various reasons the centre of book-making in the subcontinent is India, reflecting to an extent their power and strength of Indian business. There are bookmakers in Pakistan, but they are in effect offshoots of Indian book-makers who act as the head office in such transactions.
For many years, Mumbai was the centre of all illegal book-making. In the 1950s, before cricket took off, Indians indulged in their love of betting by placing bets on the closing prices of the New York cotton exchange.
Then in the 60s and 70s, betting took place on a game called matka. Every evening, somewhere in a secret location in Mumbai, numbers would be drawn, then communicated by word of mouth to the rest of the city and indeed India.
Millions were bet on matka and fortunes made and lost. In the 90s, as cricket really took off economically and India became the centre of world cricket (it now provides 60 percent of all world cricket’s income), this sport replaced matka as the main form of betting.
As it happens, events on the cricket field helped the bookmakers. The 1990s were to see a phenomenal rise in the one-day game with India and Pakistan taking the lead in playing such matches. Despite political problems between the two countries, they played each other often on neutral grounds such as Sharjah, Toronto and Singapore in what are known in India as ‘masala (spicy) matches’. The spread of these masala matches provided the book-makers with ideal raw material with which to work.
All cricket betting is illegal and done on mobile phones. To place a bet you have to hire a betting line, which is supplied illegally by telephone workers. On these lines you can hear continuous commentary on the cricket betting. The more expensive the line, the more information you get. And for the right amount, you can not only hear the constantly-changing odds, but also what the big punters are betting on. The punters are constantly hedging their bets.
This is how one bookie described the process to me: Let us say the odds were: for a draw evens, 12-10 India or 10-1 Pakistan. As the match progresses, a batsman gets out. Immediately the odds change. As the book-maker put it to me: “When a wicket falls, the odds will change. The side which has lost the wicket will see its odds lengthen, while the odds for the draw and on the opponents will shorten. Bookmakers will try to adjust their books, often after every ball.”
It is this ability to place bets on constantly-changing fixed-price odds that provides the scope to ‘nobble’ players.
The bookmaker explained: “Let us say in a match Pakistan start on even money and India are 2-1. If in the first 15 overs, Pakistan lose two wickets then the odds change and the punter ‘eats’ [hedges] his position as Pakistan will become 2-1 and India will become even money.”
This means, said the book-maker, all you need is two batsmen to agree to lose their wickets, or a fielder to drop a catch, or a bowler to bowl badly for a few overs, particularly in a one-day match, and it can make all the difference.
The bookies I spoke to said they were not involved in trying to ‘nobble’ players but this was done by the underworld dons, many of whom operate from outside India.
Having decided to back India, they could, in a couple of overs, switch to a draw or a victory by an opposition team. The odds change minute by minute reflecting the fluctuations of play.
In the last couple of years, attempts to ‘nobble’ players have led to enormous problems for Mumbai bookmakers, who have incurred huge losses.
In July 2001, in a one-day match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand, played in Colombo, there were tremendous fluctuations with first New Zealand then Sri Lanka becoming the favourites.
One don, who lives outside India, had bet heavily but, suspecting a rival don had fixed the match, he put out an order for sauda fok (stop payments) on the entire match. No bets, he said, were to be honoured.
Book-makers were threatened if they did not obey; they held a crisis meeting to discuss what to do. One book-maker told me the stop payment led to bets totalling £300 million being lost. He himself lost £51,000.
In November 2001, when Pakistan played Sri Lanka in a tournament in Sharjah, there was much talk of match-fixing and Bhujangrao Mohite, the joint commissioner of the Mumbai police, let it be known that his policemen would stop bets being laid.
When I asked him how he did it, he got angry and said: “That is an operational matter. Why do you want to know?”
However, his assistant, Shirish Immamdar, told me: “The first time this sauda fok happened was in 1996 just before the World Cup. There was a tournament in Sharjah in which there were a number of upsets. The underworld dons said sauda fok, and even threatened some bookies. And with their lives in danger they came to us asking for protection. While the underworld dons are wanted in India for various murders, the bookies are small traders in Mumbai.”
It may seem strange that India, classified as a poor country, could see such betting on cricket. But India is a classic case of a fat man inside a thin man. Six hundred million of the one billion population may be on the bread line, but there are some 250 million Indians who are well-off and have an income comparable to the West.
They thus have the means to bet, and massive amounts of money are bet on series involving India, with odds changing by the minute. By the time a series involving India is over, it is not unknown for £420m to be bet. This is in sharp contrast to what book-makers in England may take, with £100,000 for the series being considered a very good haul.
According to Immamdar — the inspector in charge of Mumbai’s police’s social security cell which tackles illegal betting — the police arrest scores of illegal book-makers every year and the book-makers are constantly playing hide-and-seek with the police. During the recent Pakistan v India one-dayers, the Delhi police raided what looked like a residential house in a suburb there and found a dozen book-makers taking bets from punters on the series.
They were all arrested and will face the inevitable charges.
What makes the practice especially dangerous is that many of India’s most notorious underworld characters, who are wanted on a variety of charges, bet heavily on cricket matches.
One book-maker I spoke to said that there had been many murders involved with cricket betting. As we finished talking, he even warned me to to careful.
Every now and again associates of one of the underworld dons, who have been involved in illegal cricket betting, are shot dead in what the Mumbai police term an ‘encounter’.
Such incidents have caused much concern to the International Cricket Council’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), headed by former London police chief Lord Condon.
Since then, of course, Lord Condon’s anti-corruption unit has taken a number of steps to curb players trying to fix matches and it believes that, while betting on cricket goes on, match-fixing is no longer a scourge. However, none of the bookies I met had heard of Lord Condon.
The best informed opinion on the subcontinent is that match fixing in the way it went on in the 1990s has probably been curbed. However, according to one well-informed source who knows both book-makers and players, what goes on is what he calls ’spread fixing’.
“Remember, betting is taking place on everything … who will bowl the next over, which batsman will score how many. So you can still get a batsman making a deal with a book-maker and saying ‘all right, if I get past 10 then I shall get out between 60 and 65′.
“Or you get a bowler saying ‘the 10th ball I bowl will be a no -ball, a wide or a full toss to be hit for four’. Such fixes can still be done and I believe they are still being done.
“It is much more difficult. The advent of the ACU means players are watched and the fear of God has been put in them and they do not willingly talk to bookies.
“But I do not believe all contact between players and book-makers has been eliminated …”
© Mihir Bose