Shamik Das

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Cricket corruption: From India, to the West Indies, to Hove, everywhere there is evil under the sun


“WHAT has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

The sky is blue, the sun is shining, the Ashes in full flow... yet the spectre of corruption haunts cricket once again.

This week, former India bowler Sreesanth was charged with spot-fixing, the highest-profile player to be pinched since the Pakistan Three - exposed in an undercover sting during the 2010 Lord’s Test - and gaoled two years ago; an English county game between Sussex and Kent is under investigation; and last month’s West Indies-Pakistan ODI series is being probed.

Sreesanth and fellow Rajasthan Royals teammates Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan were arrested in May on suspicion of conceding runs to order for up to six million rupees (£70,000) each. Police say they have taped phone conversations with bookies and recovered INR2m from a kit bag belonging to Chandila, who they believe to be the main conduit between the bookies and the players.

The three are among 39 people - including notorious gangland fixer Dawood Ibrahim, India’s most wanted criminal - charged on Tuesday with criminal conspiracy, cheating and dishonesty under the Indian Penal Code and the much stricter Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), a special law passed by the state government to tackle organised crime syndicates and terrorism.

All three deny the charges.

As Cricinfo’s Sharda Ugra writes, the police have learnt from “mistakes and limitations” evident in the Hansie Cronje case more than a decade ago:

The archaic 1867 Public Gambling Act has been bypassed and the accused have been charged under criminal law. While invoking MCOCA is far too severe for those bowling no-balls for cash, cricketers remain high-profile media magnets, and the mention of MCOCA will surely send a shiver down a few pliable spines.

The scale of spot-fixing in the IPL could be widespread, and “getting even worse” according to Lalit Modi, the man who founded the competition, with former betting kingpin Dinesh Kagli telling CNN-IBN spot-fixing “wasn’t restricted to just [the] three matches [under investigation], but occurred in at least 15 matches in the current IPL season”. London is the nerve-centre for spot-fixing allegations, he added, with Delhi Police only uncovering “a minor, amateur spot-fixing operation”.

Only last year the IPL suspended five domestic players for corruption following a sting operation, with fixing stories, though not, thankfully, omnipresent, are seldom too far from rearing their heads.

We all know the template: player gets serenaded by an underworld goon, lavished with gifts, money, attention; asked for ‘harmless’ information (pitch condition, team selection); then, the ask is upped to getting the player to bowl a wide, no ball, block out a delivery for reward under implicit threat of being exposed or explicit menace of force against himself or his family; now firmly in the fixer’s pocket, more and more is asked, spot fix some more, bring in other players, graduating from mere spot-fixing to fixing a match.

It’s difficult to know how many have succumbed thus, or indeed those who have fixed for small stakes, legalised betting given the almost infinite and largely undetectable ways to in-play spot fix.

Take the recent Rajasthan Royals v Sunrisers Hyderabad IPL Eliminator: online, at legal, UK-based betting sites, anyone in the world could lay a wager on anything from runs scored in a specific over or set of overs and the method of the first dismissal to the outcome of the first ball - with a wide at 18/1 and a no ball at 50/1 - surely the easiest of spots for a bent bowler, opening with a ‘loosener’, to fix, in league with a lone punter or organised gangster, with no immediate, obvious impact on the match result.

However, as always, it is to the illegal Indian market, as much due to the greed of ‘ordinary punters’ as underworld criminals, that we must turn for an explanation for the latest scandal, as Ed Hawkins, author of the brilliant “Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld”, wrote on Cricinfo:

To understand why spot-fixing can be so easy to organise is to understand how the illegal Indian gambling market operates, and therefore how it can be manipulated.

There are estimated to be more than 70,000 bookmakers in India. Despite it being unregulated, it is highly organised and works much like a legalised system. In England the big four bookmakers might be considered to be William Hill, Ladbrokes, Bet365 and Coral. Each of those bookies sets their own odds, and supplies them to the managers of their shops dotted all around the country.

In India there are four big bookmakers, known as the syndicates. Two have their roots in Delhi and the others in Mumbai and Nagpur. Each of those bookies sets their own odds and supplies them to managers around the country. These “managers” - in actual fact they are bookmakers themselves - who take bets from their customers are ranked by the size of their customer base. First-tier bookmakers have up to or more than 1000. A fourth-tier bookmaker might have only 20 or 30. Like a franchise arrangement, the “managers” pay for the goods supplied.

There are, though, “two significant differences” between the English and Indian models, explains Hawkins:

The first is that whereas Hill’s and Ladbrokes might offer a wide variety of bets, in India you can only bet on four outcomes: the match result, the innings runs, brackets (a certain number of runs to be scored in a certain number of overs), and what is known as the lunch favourite. The lunch favourite is where the customer is offered a bet on following the team that is the favourite at the lunch break or innings break.

The second is that where Hill’s will offer different prices from Ladbrokes for each of their various segments in an IPL match, the Indian system will be almost uniform; the majority of bookmakers will be using the same prices. One set of odds for only four markets, with each syndicate doing its share of the work.

Each of those four syndicates has their own area of expertise. The top Delhi syndicate will look after betting before a ball has been bowled, providing odds pre-match. When the game starts, its work generally stops. The other syndicate connected to Delhi, known as the Shibu, operates the brackets odds. The Mumbai syndicate will take care of the ball-by-ball betting for match odds and innings runs. The fourth, the Nagpur syndicate, is a rival to the Mumbai operation.

As Hawkins concludes, this results in us having:

...a swath of bookmakers all using the same odds; it is the perfect environment for corruption.

All that said, it would be a mistake to believe this is solely an Indian or IPL problem.

The Mervyn Westfield affair shone the light on corruption in the English game, highlighting the temptations on offer to journeyman non-internationals in low-interest, relatively insignificant though televised domestic games. And just this week, the spotlight was shone on another county scandal, with the ECB reopening investigations into a Kent-Sussex one-day match from three years ago, a game previously probed (and cleared) by the ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit (ACU).

That match came to attention in “Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy”:

Rattan Mehta, the punter from Delhi, laughed at my feigned wide-eyed ignorance when I balked at his suggestion that county cricket was fixed. It was all the prompting he needed. “They are coming live in India now,” he laughed. “Twenty20 matches, 40-over matches. All 40-over matches are live. Every Ten Sport match you watch how the odds swing. I know one county player who had £100,000 deposited into a Dubai account. He had a big party.”

[Bhopal-based bookie] Vinay, too, had warned of corruption in the county game, revealing that in 2008 he had been offered the results of three matches in the 40-over league before they happened for three lakh (£3,800) by a Delhi-based bookmaker. “I thought this was too much, too much of a sum to pay... it could go wrong. So I said no. He said I could have the information for free. He was right. And he was right for the next three games in England.”

On my first trip to see Vinay he alleged that a 40-over match between Sussex and Kent at Hove in August 2011 was fixed. “It was fixed,” he said. I can bet on that. Kent won the match, 40-40 domestic. That was a fixed match. One of our bookmakers called me in the match telling me to leave it, don’t bet on it, don’t take bets. I ask if there was a problem with the police. He said: ‘It’s a fixed match. Kent will surely win.’” Kent won by 14 runs. The match was televised, although it was far from irrelevant for Sussex, who would have guaranteed qualification for the semi-finals of the tournament with victory.

It is understood that a bookmaker from Mumbai was involved in the ‘fixing’ of this match. He has now left the bookmaking industry, trying his luck in the casinos of America after he was arrested by police in India under the foreign exchange and regulatory act.

Adds Hawkins:

The ECB, it is known, had started investigations into this match in the summer of 2012. The PCA (Professional Cricketers Association) are understood to be aware of the reports surrounding the game, which attracted almost £14 million of turnover on Betfair when a televised county match may average normally half that. So, too, are Sussex, who are believed to have informed those two bodies about the potential for corruption. They did not, however, at that time inform the ECB or PCA of the names of the players who were alleged to have been involved.

Such stories give credence to the suspicion that the Mervyn Westfield incident was the tip of the iceberg...

The probity of ODIs has also come under renewed scrutiny this week, with the ACU investigating the recent West Indies v Pakistan series, as the Mail on Sunday revealed:

Suspicious betting patterns were identified during the low-profile five-match series, which concluded on Thursday, while unusually slow run-rates during certain overs followed by bursts of high scoring have “set alarm bells ringing”, according to industry experts.

Concerns have been raised, in particular, around the tied third match of the series played in St Lucia a week ago on Friday, as well as the final game, which resulted in a last-ball win for Pakistan on Thursday.

The second ODI, which saw Pakistan fail to score a run off the bat in the first five overs after being set 233 to win, will also be looked at...

The fifth ODI, which saw Pakistan win by four wickets off the final ball, is also to be scrutinised. ACSU officers will also analyse patterns on spread-betting sites around the first 18 balls of the West Indies innings when only one run was scored.

The MoS adds:

One betting website reported unusually large sums of money - said to run into several millions of pounds - being wagered between innings on a tied result during the third ODI after the West Indies were set 230 to win from 50 overs.

Pakistan appeared to be cruising to victory, with their opponents still requiring 45 off the last 21 balls and only three wickets left. But with the tail-enders scoring at more than four times the rate of most of their team-mates, West Indies scraped the unlikeliest of ties.

Field placings for the final over, when No 11 Jason Holder and fellow tail-ender Kemar Roach crashed 14 off six balls from Wahab Riaz, will be scrutinised by officers of the ICC Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU), along with a failed run-out bid off the last delivery...

Another passage of play, between the 29th and 34th overs, when experienced West Indies batsmen Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels were at the crease, will also be analysed in an effort to understand why just two runs were scored from five overs before 16 were hit off the 35th over.

With Hawkins explaining:

“There were suspicious betting patterns on a betting exchange.

“A suspicious pattern, simply, is a flood of money wagered on an outcome just before it happens. There were some noticeable examples of this during the West Indies-Pakistan series. In the tied match, a weight of cash arrived on the tie market before Pakistan’s innings.”

Fixers are even using a variant of the ‘wire’ con, being relayed the result of an event from ‘court-siders’ at the game before it’s broadcast (thanks to a ridiculously long nine-second time delay), betting big or changing odds. The ECB say there have been 17 incidents this season, with 14 individuals removed from 13 different grounds.

For all the purity of the current Ashes series - the third Test of which began today under glorious midsummer skies at Old Trafford - cricket remains susceptible to scandal, shame and sickness, at county, IPL and international level.

As Reverend Pycroft wrote in “The Cricketer’s Fields”, one hundred and sixty two years ago, ’twas ever thus:

“The temptation was really very great - too great by far for any poor man to be exposed to.”

Cricinfo: In Focus: Spot fixing
Cricinfo: In Focus: The IPL mess


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