The spectre of match-fixing, which tarnished the image of cricket a decade back, has returned to haunt us. Are some players once again manipulating the result of the game by underperforming, something which sullies beyond repair the sacred bond between the game and its fans?
What is disturbing is that "fixing" does appear to be a reality even today after the now defunct British tabloid News of the World's more or less conclusive sting operation has showed that Pakistani pacemen Md Asif and Md Aamer traded bowling no-balls for a substantial sum of money. The court proceedings in London are throwing up new facts and a fresh set of allegations from Mazhar Majeed, a players' agent, who was caught on video accepting money for making the two fast bowlers bowl no-balls at a certain period in the Lord's Test. That the on-field action followed exactly as promised by Majeed much before the Test started is damning evidence that the game can be subject to a bookie's manipulation.
Majeed, who began as a player agent promising lucrative contracts, is a well-known face for those who have covered Pakistan cricket. His access to the players even during match days was "justified" because of the nature of his job, though eyebrows were raised at his presence whenever Pakistan played. Now the man has been unmasked, leaving behind an embarrassed, shaken cricket establishment.
The very credibility of the game and its governance is now in question, like it was when Hansie Cronje and other big names, including Md Azharuddin, were banned for life in 2000 for having "fixed" matches.
The bans, formation of an anti-corruption unit, policing of players during match days and a host of other measures followed in the aftermath of those shocking revelations. This latest expose suggests all that have in no way acted as a deterrent. Greed has no limit, though we would like to believe its spread is limited to those who govern the game and not its protagonists, because of whose skills an ordinary spectator becomes an inveterate fan.
When in 1997 my brush with an Indian odd-maker on India's tour of the West Indies led to an offer from him to my becoming a messenger between him and the players, there were compelling reasons to play along. Those days, the air was rife with stories of how matches were fixed and it was widely speculated that many top players were on the payroll of the bookies.
Though any conclusive evidence was lacking, all those connected with the game felt something was amiss. Allegations between Pakistani and Australian players started being traded with Shane Warne and Mark Waugh alleging they were offered money by Salim Malik to underperform. My encounter with the bookie resulted in a newspaper story and subsequently a book in 1999, which also detailed how resistant the establishment was in ordering a probe.
When finally the ugly truth surfaced, the game appeared to be an extended arm of the popular WWE bouts.
What had damned the game was that almost every big player then was named by Indian bookie Mukesh Gupta to have been on his payroll. What before the revelations became public were thought to be a chronic ailment afflicting just Pakistan, turned out to be a virus no country was immune to. It would be instructive to revisit the CBI report compiled in 2000 after it investigated the scandal. Mukesh Gupta, on whose testimony five Indian players - Azharuddin, Ajay Sharma, Ajay Jadeja, Manoj Prabhakar and Nayan Mongia - were named, had also given a list of other players that included Brian Lara, Alec Stewart, Mark Waugh, Dean Jones, Hansie Cronje, Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga and Martin Crowe. The CBI report proved that greed is classless, casteless, and knows no colour, religion or national boundaries.
A Pakistani player, it is said, comes from a poor background, is less educated, and gets a pittance compared to what most other international players earn. That is one of the reasons touted for their involvement even today but to believe this to be the only reason would be to live in a make-believe world.
When Majeed names other international cricketers, the reaction is one of incredulity. But in a world scarred by its past, any allegation is bound to leave a trail of suspicion. It would do no harm if cricket authorities become more stringent and draw a strict line between players, their agents and any conflict of interest.
India, the hub of money, sponsorships and the betting syndicate, needs to be extra vigilant. Ever since the IPL started, one has heard rumours, coming from those involved with the game, about matches being tanked. The line between an official and a team owner has got blurred. Today, the proximity of the agents to the players goes unchecked. There are even allegations that players have become their own agents, leaving them vulnerable to the temptation of influencing team selection by pushing players signed by the company they represent.
The Majeed episode goes to show how dangerous this liaison can be. It is time to heed these warnings, otherwise cricket could well spin out of control.