A scandalous sport

April 2, 2023

A 77-minute watch on Netflix chronicles select cricket controversies for a mainly young audience

A scandalous sport

The only three certainties in life are death, taxes and every two years a new piece on corruption in cricket.”

This is surely what Mark Twain would have saidafter watchingCaught Out: Crime. Corruption. Cricket, a documentaryreleased on Netflix last week.

As you would have guessed by now, this is another sports documentary examining India’s biggest match-fixing scandal; the icons caught in its web; and the investigative journalists and agents who uncovered the corruption.

The scandal that broke out in the year 2000 later engulfed other international figures like the revered South African captain Hansie Cronje and led to match-fixing inquiries in many other countries, including Pakistan. These inquiries resulted in permanent bans on severalprominent players.

It is important to remember that this was not the first time one heard of match-fixing in the sport; suspicious incidents had been reported previously, going back all the way to Pakistan vs India test in 1979. Bets were placed by former Australian players, the late Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee, in the famous Ashes Test of 1981.

The first real allegation came from former Australian players the late Shane Warne and Tim May who alleged that former Pakistan captain Salim Malik had offered them money to underperform on the 1994-95 tour. Late Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer’s death was also alleged to be in connection with bookies and the underworld.

Maybe it was after the introduction of limited-overs cricket that spot-fixing become more prevalent. The advent of T20 cricket may have converted the practice into a lucrative business for bookiesas match-fixing becoming a thorn in the side of authorities for years to come.

Match fixing both intrigues and saddens cricket lovers all over the world. On one hand, they find it hard to believe that the game they love so much may be scripted. If the results and the moments are preplanned, it takes away from everything that cricket stands for. It is hard to preserve the spirit of the sport when there is foulplay involved.

On the other hand, they want to know more about the culprits behind this and make an example out of them. So far 33 international cricketers have faced some form of ban or punishment over activities related to match-fixing in cricket.

Directed by SupriyaSobti Gupta with a running time of more than 77 minutes, the documentary features conversations with journalists AniruddhaBahal, ShardaUgra, Murali Krishnan and Tehelka co-founder Minty Tejpal, who weigh in with their sting operations and findings about the prevailing match-fixing issue in Indian cricket.

The documentary relies heavily on the testimony of Ravi Sawani, director of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who led the inquiry after a huge public backlash.

Cricket in the subcontinent really found its mark after India’s World Cup victory in 1983 followed by the joint hosting of the World Cup in 1987 by India and Pakistan.

This was followed by Pakistan’s own World Cup victory in 1992.By the time South Asia hosted the 1996 World Cup, cricket fever was at its peak.

Cricketers like Kapil Dev and Imran Khan were being treated likedemigods and had larger-than-life personalities. Cricket became a religion in India and every boy wanted to play for the country.

So it came as a huge shock when ManojPrabhakar became the first cricketer to bring the dark side of the game to light. The Board denied the allegations and sued him for defamation.

While the documentary delves into the lack of clarity, legislation and legal support required to address issues like match-fixing and its younger twin spot-fixing, the viewer needs more detail and context for proper closure.

Prabhakarwent the extra mile and worked on a sting operation with the Tehelkateam. This resulted in a 90-minute documentary titled Fallen Heroes.

Later, by accident the Indian authorities stumbled upon information that some cricketers were making frequent contacts with individuals suspected to be bookies.

When they listened to the recorded telephone calls of these individuals, it was revealed that one of them was in touch with the South African captain and local hero Hansie Cronje.

This opened a Pandora’s Boxthat not only ended Cronje’s career but, according to many, was also the leading cause behind his untimely death in a plane crash.

The ordeal was captured well in another Netflix documentary Bad Sport (Episode: Fallen Idol). Though this documentary explores the background and dealings of prominent bookie MK Gupta, it does not tell us stories of bookies Sanjeev Chawla and Rajesh Kalra who were big names in the Cronje affair.

Eventually, the Indian board woke up and there was a flurry of inquiries, statements and counterstatements. Everyone was stunned when the name of Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin surfaced in the scandal.

Here was someone who had started his career with three hundred in his first three Test matches, drove fancy cars, was married to a Bollywood star (SangitaBijlani) and was seen as a uniting force in a religiously charged country.

Cricket fans were in a state of shock and disbelief when formal inquiries were lodged against Azharuddin. According to CBI officials, the captain eventually confessed and was sentenced to a lifetime ban by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) along with Ajay Sharma, another cricketer on the team.

Ravi Sawani claims that there is enough evidence to believe that the two cricketers were involved in match-fixing.Interestingly, there is no mention of the inquiry conducted by the BCCI under RK Raghavan, a former CBI officer himself.

The final ban on Azhar and others was based on the Raghavan report, which was submitted to the BCCI.Its exclusion seems to imply that the documentary makers believed more in the CBI inquiry than the BCCI.

Ravi Sawani also went on to head the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) and was in charge till 2011 but there is no mention of that either.

Prabhakar, perhaps understandably, did not take part in this documentary. He is the central character since he names Kapil Dev as the person who offered him a bribe to underperform.

Dev is still cherished by many in the country due to his bold and entertaining personality. His World Cup triumph as captain remained unparalleled till 2011 when Mahendra SinghDhoni took India to another height.

Nobody really believedPrabhakar because honestly, nobody wanted to believe Dev could be guilty. No one wanted their god to be tainted. This takes one back to the statement of the late Justice Qayyum who led a similar inquiry in Pakistan where he claimed that he was ‘soft’ on WasimAkram since the latter was a national hero to everyone, including him.

Watching this documentary one gets the feeling that while the directors focused a lot on Azhar and Prabhakar, they perhaps let off Dev relatively easily (and fondly). Another baffling exclusion is of Ajay Jadeja, a former India all-rounder, who was also banned for five years for a similar charge alongside Azharuddin and Prabhakar.

Jadejaallegedlyhad connections with bookmakers and was the only active player along with Azhar and Sharma to be named in this scandal.

One can understand that these players refused to be part of this documentary but not mentioning Jadeja who was quite active in defending himself through press conferences also seems another deliberate attempt at picking and choosing narratives.

The makers of this documentary have used archival footage well along with the interviews of the journalists who dug deep into this scandal but, other than that, there are no new revelations for cricket enthusiasts like me who heard of these developments firsthand and lived through some of them.

The documentary, in a nutshell, is everything we already know (and don’t know yet). While it raises important questions, it does not go into details like the difference between gambling, betting and fixing. Not every type of betting involves fixing, but we all know by now that all fixing is about betting.

While the cricket documentary delves into the lack of clarity, legislation and legal support required to address issues like match-fixing and its younger twin spot-fixing, the viewer needs more detail and context for proper closure.

That is why younger fans are often baffled about what to believe since the bans on Azhar, Sharma and Jadeja (and Saleem Malik and Ata-urRehman in Pakistan) were lifted by the courts only a few years later.

Overall, it is a refresher to our memories of those who lived through those terrible years and a relatively basic and selective introduction to the younger audience who unfortunately have lived through their own turbulent years like 2010.

The writer is a digital communication expert and consultant currently working in the public sector. He is the mastermind behind the digital platforms Sukhan, Mani’s Cricket Myths and Over The Line

A scandalous sport