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April 8, 2000


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Titanic revisited

Harsha Bhogle

Folklore has it that the world cleanses itself from time to time. For the cricket world, this is the biggest shower yet.

Cricket has been through upheavals before. There was bodyline, there was the South African ban and there was Packer, but none of these had the element of cheating to it. There was the chucking controversy and briefly, the cricket world got extremely perturbed over the ball-tampering issue. Both those are acts of cheating but there isn't any subterfuge involved. They are visible crimes and require an alert eye, and occasionally a more decisive organisation, to detect and solve.

But with match-fixing, you enter the world of conspiracy. This is organised crime.

Who do you believe now? Is cricket a beautiful game where the skill of a fine athlete and gentleman is matched against that of another? Is it, as so many of us grew up believing, one of the highest forms of human endeavour?

You might turn around and say that nothing has been proved yet; that people are innocent until proven guilty. True. But there is enough mud here to cake a skyscraper. And whether justified or not, the mind, hitherto blissfully and naively closed, will open itself to questions.

Maybe these are unfair questions -- and what would I give for them to be unfair! But they are questions that suddenly seem to acquire an air of legitimacy. So do South Africa choke, or do they give it away? Was the declaration in the last England-South Africa Test an example of positive cricket, or was it meant to ensure that nobody made money on a draw? Was Hansie Cronje's breathtaking innings in the final at Sharjah cut short by a silly shot, or by a contrived one? Was Gibbs' scratchy performance at Faridabad an attempt to score runs, or to get out?

Even a couple of years ago, I would have wished these thoughts away. I would have told myself that I would much rather remember all those handsome shots that Cronje played at Sharjah, than the false one that produced his wicket. I still want to, but I am struggling. If only the transcripts hadn't said that Gibbs would get less than 20 at Faridabad, I would have thought he struggled his way to 19.

For that thought to be reality, the transcript needs to be a hoax. I do not know the legal procedures involved, but as an Indian who is hoping that the investigative machinery that represents his country is right, I would have liked to have heard a little bit.

What this means, though, is that there is no place for a genuinely poor performance any more. Anything that is unexpected -- and the unexpected used to be the great charm and the appeal of the game -- will now be questioned. Can Warne have an off day? Can Tendulkar have a bad patch? If Rahul Dravid struggles to get the ball off the square, can it be construed as a sincere cricketer having a bad day? Is it a good time to be an honest cricketer at all?

I fear this is just the beginning, and that is why I am so disappointed that the ICC doesn't seem to take it seriously. You can understand that the United Cricket Board of South Africa will back its cricketers, will deny that this could have happened. That is how it should be, for till such time as they get hard evidence in their hands, they must stand by their cricketers. Cricket is an enormous social movement in that country, a force that seeks to bring together the white and the coloured communities. It is critical, more in South Africa than anywhere else in the world, that cricket projects the right image, and you can be sure that the nation will be behind its cricketers all the way.

But the ICC should be taking a more serious stand, for this is an investigation by a legal body. They should be saying that they are concerned, rather than living behind flimsy curtains and saying they don't believe things.

For the truth is, irrespective of the solidity of these findings, enough has happened and has been said to warrant a very serious look. The happy old boy's club went out of fashion too long ago. But what can the ICC do? Maybe announcements of very strong deterrents will be the first step forward, but do they have the muscle or indeed the will? Do they have the jurisdiction and the vision? If they cannot take a decision on what constitutes a legal delivery, can we expect them to have the stature to decide on more serious legal issues?

For a start, the ICC has to admit that the problem is real, and that it exists. A sufficient number of cricketers have admitted to being approached for that to be accepted. And the BCCI has to take the lead, because every major match-fixing issue after the original one in Pakistan has surfaced in India. That is depressing, but that is true. India drives the world cricket economy in every sense. But for the BCCI to take a stand on something as serious as this, they will have to bat out of their skins.

And what does the future hold for the cricketers themselves? Will we get into a Bollywood scenario where actors are forced to act in movies for no remuneration? Will cricketers, including the wider pool of honest ones, have to follow certain dictates for fear of harm? Will we get that far?

It is in times of anguish that disaster scripts are written. Maybe the world is cleansing itself after all.

Harsha Bhogle

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