Match-fixing verdict: Urgent need for stringent law

An image of the cover of the News of the World issue that told us how match-fixing continues to threaten cricket.

It is a sad commentary of the times we live in that the reaction to a British Court finding two Pakistani cricketers, the then captain Salman Butt and fast bowler Mohammed Asif, guilty of a conspiracy to cheat during a Test match in England last year has largely focussed on these players and another fast bowler, teenager Mohammed Amir. I would have liked a bit more attention to one of the most striking aspects – the cricketers being tried in a British Court.

Beyond the palest shadows of doubt, the verdict of guilty against three cricketers and an agent-bookmaker must be seen as exemplary and can send shivers down the spine of the cricket fraternity. Hopefully, cricketers around the world will rebuff bookmakers and not be lured by the glitter and glamour that appears to come along with success in the sport of their choice.

Yet, for just a moment, train your thoughts on these questions: What would have happened to the case had the whole thing transpired in the sub-continent? Would any sting operation of the kind that the News of the World carried out have led to a court case? It is a good guess that in these parts the case would never have been heard in a court of law and the mandarins of cricket would have, at best, launched an inquiry.

For years now we have been watching the game with tinted vision and not draw pure joy from it as much as we did in the past. There is no doubt that the game’s image has been sullied yet again by Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir. Nor is there any doubt that many fans around the world will continue to look at stray incidents in a game and wonder if there is more to it than meets the eye.

Sadly, no attempt has been made to use this chance presented by the verdict of a British Court to focus on how there is no law in any of the sub-continental nations to prevent the malaise or try those accused of indulging in match-fixing in any of its myriad forms and punish those found guilty of sharp deals made beyond the boundary but with enormous impact on the action on the field and causing millions of heads to hang in shame.

The International Cricket Council has done the best it could to fight corruption – from setting up the Anti-Corruption Unit to educating cricketers, from banning mobile phones in and near dressing rooms at cricket grounds to enhancing vigilance and security at neutral venues. But the next step needed to come from Governments, especially in this part of the world. They needed to craft strong laws to deter cheating in sport.

In India, we were served a wake-up call in the year 2000 when the Central Bureau of Investigation interrogated some bookmakers and came up with an interim report on the basis of which the Board of Control for Cricket in India banned four cricketers and a physiotherapist. But that investigation was never carried to its finish and no legal case was ever filed by the investigating authorities.

More than a decade has passed since the ugly face of match-fixing reared its head with the South African captain Hansie Cronje at its epicenter. We didn’t know then that the likes of former captain Mohammed Azharuddin, Ajay Sharma, Ajay Jadeja and Manoj Prabhakar as well as physiotherapist Ali Irani would also be swept aside by the storm.

I remember a few Ministers of Sport – Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Uma Bharti come to mind readily – for making the right noises about bringing legislation against match-fixing. And we all know that the incumbent, Ajay Maken, has sought to pilot a National Sports Development Bill without the draft including even a mention of match-fixing, let alone any punishment.

Back in 2000, I was told by a cricketer that since there was no provision in the Indian Penal Code against match-fixing; that someone had to prove that there was a contract and that the contract was violated before any legal sanctions could be imposed on the cheat. Things are much the same, though the players now sign a contract that perhaps entails them to give off their best on the field and not be associated with those indulging in sharp practices.

We have been woken up again and have to come to terms with match-fixing being a real threat to the integrity we believe is inherent in sport. It is time to bring in a legislation to prevent, deter and punish any corruption in sport. Yes, India needs to pass stringent laws against such crime in sport and not just against doping and age-cheats. Are our law makers listening? Will they work to make our sport totally clean all over again?