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March 16, 1999

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A call to arms

Harsha Bhogle

When you were watching Pakistan v Sri Lanka, from an empty Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore, what were the first thoughts in your mind? Those two words that have caused a storm in world cricket? And which follow Pakistan like an inescapable shadow wherever they go?

Wasnít this match-fixing? I am not talking of shady deals where dollars and rupees change hands to under-perform. That is not yet proven and till somebody is proved to be guilty, he is innocent. I am talking of what I saw and heard in Lahore and in my book that amounted to match-fixing and should attract penalties.

As far as I am concerned, match-fixing takes place when a team intentionally under-performs with the objective of altering the natural course of a match. From what we saw on television, Pakistan openly tried to get a depleted Sri Lankan team into the final and in doing so, clearly altered the natural course of the match.

It was terrible cricket (Geoffrey Boycott called it a farce) and that is what you would expect when neither team wants to win (Sunil Gavaskar said Sri Lanka did not seem too keen either). Sportsmen are finely tuned people; every nerve, every muscle is programmed to win. When they go against their natural inclination, they look like poor actors. Some of the cricketers on that cricket ground were acting. If they werenít, they didnít value their wicket, their esteemed position as representatives of their country and therefore, irrespective of what they might have achieved, donít deserve to play.

I have no problems with a team stating its preferred opponent in the final of a tournament they are ostensibly trying to win. That is a perfectly natural feeling. I have no problems either with a team resting experienced players and trying out newcomers in a match that is not crucial to them. So, if Pakistan chose to play, for various reasons, without Waqar Younis or Shoaib Akhtar or Saleem Malik or Ijaz Ahmad, that was their prerogative and cannot be questioned. Similarly, if Sri Lanka, in spite of being without several key players still preferred to rest Chaminda Vaas, that was their decision and must be accepted.

What cannot be accepted, and indeed should not be accepted, is what happened once the teams had been exchanged. Sri Lanka were dropping catches like there was a death warrant attached to holding them, and Tony Greig actually said that it would be a miracle if a simple skier was held. Was it merely poor cricket? Was Wajahutallah Wasti trying to score runs or get out? Was it not a farce that a batsman was trying to get out and the fielders were refusing his request? And how can you accept the fact that Pakistan kept their best bowlers away until Sri Lanka had virtually qualified?

In more regulated sports, there would have been an inquiry ordered within a few hours of the end of the match. Can you imagine a European Cup soccer game where a striker refuses to score goals till the opponent qualifies on an away-goals ruling? And then immediately scores three times in ten minutes? Or where opposition forwards are consistently allowed a clear look at goal? That is why I believe there should be a committee appointed to study video-tapes of this game, send a report to the ICC and rule on what to do with the teams involved.

It raises a more fundamental question about the Asian Test Championship itself. One of the members of the technical committee, Asantha de Mel of Sri Lanka, has said in an interview that the tournament has ruined their preparation for the World Cup. Would it surprise you then if Sri Lanka didnít look too keen to qualify for the final? In fact, if you want to find some humour in the situation, consider the fact that one team did not want to qualify but was forced to by another that didnít want to play India.

Ironically, what Pakistan did was the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket in the short term. I am not ashamed to say that as an Indian cricket lover I was cheering Sri Lanka on because I genuinely believe that Indiaís best interests lay in allowing their players to rest before the two one-day tournaments and the World Cup. Sachin Tendulkar needs to allow his finger to heal, Azharuddin needs rest as well and I am sure Nayan Mongia could do with some free time as well. Remember too, that these are normal human beings with families. They have children and wives and parents they would like to live with. The last thing they would want to do is to go to Dhaka to play the final of an experimental event.

However, there are two sets of people who have been shortchanged by the events at Lahore. The sponsors and the television networks would justifiably have hoped for an India-Pakistan final because that attracts audiences and advertisers. They were cheated of a big match. Now, if Sri Lanka had played out of their skins and denied either India or Pakistan a place in the final, that would have been perfectly acceptable; indeed, that would have been something to cheer about. Sponsors and networks can at best be disappointed, in such an event, for that is part of the risk they take when they sign on a tournament.

But when the result seems to be contrived, and in doing so, causes financial damage, it goes beyond the realm of normal risk and returns. I donít know if the events of Lahore are sufficient to consider legal action but you can be sure that will not happen because sadly, on the sub-continent we are all one-sport nations. Had there been competition for the sponsorís money among staging organisations, or if television networks had the option of investing in other sports, you could be sure they would have done so after this; or at any rate, would have made a protest loud enough to be heard.

Now they wonít because market conditions demand that they grin and bear it. But surely the organisers can take some initiatives to show that they care for the money that is coming into the game. There can be no escaping the fact that the match at Lahore has brought the game into severe disrepute and it would be most encouraging if the Asian Cricket Council, or indeed even the ICC, condemned what happened there.

That is why it is so important to be in a competitive market situation. What cricket in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka desperately needs is another sport to rival it; or at least to provide some sort of competition so that networks and sponsors acquire a voice and provide a regulatory mechanism. Sadly, at least in India, the people that run other sports are very happy shooting themselves in the leg. In hockey and in soccer, two sports with a base to rival cricket, the kings have turned assasins. I wonder sometimes if they realise, amidst all their outpourings of venom against cricket, that they, more than the BCCI, promote cricket in this country!

The Asian Test Championship was (and I refer to the tournament in the past tense even before the Pakistan-Sri Lanka game is over) not a bad concept. It had a lot going for it and the idea of using this as a ďpilot projectĒ for a World Test Championship was an extremely good one. In fact, from that point of view, it might even have worked. The tragedy was in its timing, because it tended to get thrust onto people who were not very keen to get onto it. Maybe, in all fairness, another window to stage it wasnít available for a while; maybe Mr. Dalmiya did not anticipate what happened at Lahore.

He has been the driving force behind this tournament. The invitation to several prominent cricketers to be present at Calcutta was both, an attempt to improve and to legitimise. Now he must act again because the very legitimacy he strove for is at stake. If no action is taken against what happened at Lahore, and remember as Test matches they do come under the overall jurisdiction of the ICC, he will allow a precedent to establish itself. He will allow manipulation of matches to acquire a legitimacy and this is very very dangerous. Would he allow, for example, a team that has won a semi-final place at the World Cup to throw its last Super Six game to deny a dangerous opponent a place? And if somebody did that, can the ICC take any action at all?

These are serious questions, for they take us straight into the realm of match-fixing. It will be very disappointing if the Asian Cricket Council and the ICC choose to ignore this. I donít think they will. Mr. Dalmiya is a shrewd man and he is very good at recognising a threat when he sees one. He needs to be very very firm on this issue.

Harsha Bhogle

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