Thursday, May 23, 2013

Of the game, greed and grace

Randeep Wadehra

But then one is always excited by descriptions of money changing hands. It’s much more fundamental than sex…  Nigel Dennis (1912–89) British writer.

This excitement has apparently led to the current brouhaha over the IPL match fixing scandal. Nothing has yet been proved and investigations are still going on, but tongues have started wagging already; salaciousness never goes out of fashion. However, one must admit that the current verbiage is not unjustified, only a bit too shrill and incessant. Indeed, it is interesting that in a country where cricketers are deified, the fall of icons is applauded with the glee of an iconoclast. Is it not the same Sreesanth we loved to watch, when he got under the skin of South African players like Graeme Smith? Or, when he sent Chris Gayle’s wickets flying in the 2006 Jamaica Test? Restless and distractingly aggressive, with that dash of eccentricity, he had become a potent weapon in the arsenal of the captain who had the insight and skill of handling him right. But, as with everything related to cricket in India, Sreesanth too had to contend with overenthusiastic public adulation and media hype. Not everybody can handle instant prosperity and fame.  Thus, Indian cricket’s stormy petrel’s current tumble from the pedestal is keeping the media as well as audiences and readers enthralled.

But he is neither the first nor the only one to get into this situation, nor would he be the last. There is an entire hall of infamy hosting some of the most talented players – famous and notorious; not all of them are from an IPL franchise. There are plenty of prominent “white flannelled fools” too. Allow me to digress a bit here. During, the relatively innocent years, when Test cricketers worked for PSUs and played for love of the game plus TA/DA, one remembers front-page snaps of cricketers returning from abroad, lugging trolleys overflowing with electronics goods. That used to be the ultimate perk for being in the national team!

White clothes, as we know, signify purity in almost every culture. Hence, the expression “lily white”, which would remind the readers of these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Alas, the “lilies” had started festering much before test cricket’s shorter and colorful versions took the centre stage. Indeed, even earlier than Pakistan’s Salim Malik tried to fix a test match in 2000 and Hansie Cronje publicly confessed to having fixed several international matches. While some, like Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, got away with plain warnings and fines, because they were only talking of weather with the bookies (?!), others were not so lucky. Most of them were banned for a few years or even life. There were others whose careers had just begun, and were nipped in the bud. But, thanks to the authorities’ lack of urgency in tackling the spreading corruption in cricket, things deteriorated to the level of vicious blackmail and murder. In effect, the authorities concerned should have treated the Bob Woolmer case as the ultimate warning of the rot that had set into the game. Readers will recall that Pakistan cricket team’s coach Bob Woolmer was found dead at the Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, hours after Pakistan's surprise loss to Ireland in the 2007 World Cup. Although a pathologist had declared that he had been strangled, the death was inexplicably dismissed as the result of a heart attack.

The recent “RR Trio” scandal has sent various instant historians of the game travelling back in time and churning out names from the game’s rogues’ gallery. But cricket is not the only sport marred with corruption; athletics, tennis, snooker, football etc too have their share of scandals. According to a BBC report, the head of Interpol had pointed out that “Match-fixing in football today generates hundreds of billions of Euros per year…" What’s more, in football tournaments in various European countries like Germany, Portugal etc, it is routine to hear of match fixing scandals involving not just players but referees too. The megabuck earning tennis players are not immune to greed either. According to an investigation in 2003, some players placed bets on matches they themselves were playing, through third parties, and collected huge winnings. Most of them were not among top 100 seeds, although a few were. In Olympics too, where big money is not involved, matches and performances were apparently fixed. In the 2012 London Olympics, badminton teams of China, Indonesia and South Korea were charged with, “not using best efforts to win a match… and conducting in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Returning to the current scandal, the government is reacting predictably. The Union Law Minister is initiating the process to pass a “suitable law” to check illegal betting and match fixing. Indeed, the faith in legislation as solution to all crime is touching. Until now, mere passing of laws has not checked crimes like rapes, female feticide, murders, thefts, corruption… In fact, these heinous crimes are only getting bigger, ghastlier and more brazen. Undoubtedly, the problem lies elsewhere.

Plainly, implementing a law is an entirely different ballgame. We need to create an ecosystem that will make laws effective. Unbiased investigation is the first requirement. This is possible only if an investigating agency is immune to political pressures and other corrupting influences emanating from within and without. Then comes the judicial process that needs to be speedy and just. There have been cases wherein a court gave its verdict within weeks, and there are infinitely more cases languishing in various files across the country for years. But the most important constituent of the ecosystem is the individual sports organization, which should be able provide the right atmosphere for nurturing ethics among young and aspiring sportspersons. This requires strong and healthy structures and a whole range of responsive systems.  As a first step, professionals of proven caliber should be at the helm of various sports bodies. Their ethical standards should be exemplary. In this regard, one can only quote these lines from the late humorist Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s Baseless Biography:When their lordships asked Bacon/ How many bribes he had taken/ He had at least the grace/ To get very red in the face.’

So far, we have been able to espy only poker faces.

Published in The Financial World dated May 23, 2013

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