Fixing the fixers

By

 Updated:

NEW DELHI, India, November 13, 2000 — This article was originally published in the Nov. 13, 2000 edition of Outlook India. It is reproduced with permission.

Threats, inducements and plain old hard work get the names of ‘wicket’ players. Now for Act II.

Interrogator: Tell us, why did he (bookie Uttam Chand) make so many phone calls to you?

Jadeja: I don’t know. He brought me luck and I’m superstitious.

Interrogator: Obviously, you know his activities. He’s a bookie.

Jadeja: I have no knowledge. I know nothing of bookies or their activities. I thought he was a fan.

Interrogator: How about your meeting with other bookies?

Jadeja: I am telling you I know nothing. Go ahead with your job, I know nothing.

(The stonewalling continues for 40 minutes)

The cbi interrogator calls out for Delhi bookie, Mukesh Kumar Gupta. He emerges from the other room. Jadeja is taken aback. He and Gupta go back a long way. The game is up.

It took a 12-member team of the Central Bureau of Investigation (cbi)—which questioned 207 bookies and punters, 16 cricketers and five officials of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (bcci)—six arduous months to bring to light the canker afflicting Indian cricket, a disease that everybody knew existed but no one was willing to admit. At the end of perhaps the most wide-ranging probe of its kind, the cbi has also named nine international cricketers who have in some way or the other been connected with bookies.

“For us, it was a truly learning experience. Everybody knew match-fixing was on but nobody wanted to probe deep into it,” says cbi joint director R.N. Sawani, who headed the investigations.

At the end of the day, the cbi seems to have won the match for Indian cricket. All five cricketers mentioned in its report—Mohammed Azharuddin, Manoj Prabhakar, Ajay Jadeja, Ajay Sharma, Nayan Mongia—have, for the moment, been suspended from both international and domestic cricket. The much awaited cleansing of cricket seems to have been finally put into gear by the bcci.

However, the inside story of how the cbi managed to arrive at its findings is in itself a thriller. Having to start from scratch and with little or no experience in investigating a completely new territory like match-fixing, the cbi not unexpectedly ran into problems galore. “There was no starting point. The difficulties were compounded by the lapse of time between the events concerned and the investigation into them,” says cbi director R.K. Raghavan. The natural corollary was that concrete evidence that could have been presented in a court of law was missing.

Almost all the bookies and punters went underground with the announcement of a cbi probe.

Thus, identifying the betting syndicates operating in the country was extremely difficult. “But we had our ways to make them (the bookies) resurface,” says a senior cbi official. From threats of attachment of property to holding out the danger of days in police lock-up, the cbi used every ploy in the book to lure the bookies. The vital information on middlemen and the players involved all came from the interrogation of the bookies.

Having made a start with the bookmakers, the investigating agency then started an intensive exercise to analyse telephone and mobile phone records to establish the player-bookie nexus. “We had to pull out telephone records from hotels for a period of 10 years,” says Sawani. The cbi painstakingly found out the hotels and rooms where both the foreign and Indian teams stayed and worked backwards from there to zero in on the telephone calls. “We wanted to confront the suspects with these transcripts,” says an official.

For instance, the cbi found that Delhi bookie Mukesh Kumar Gupta, better known to the world as MK, stayed in Landmark Hotel in Kanpur where he met former South African captain Hansie Cronje during the third Test match in 1996.It was here that MK paid a sum of $40,000 to Cronje to lose the Test. “MK had checked into the hotel under his own name and the calls made were also available,” says an official.

Similarly, the agency also obtained the calls made by Azharuddin from the Taj Palace hotel in Delhi in February this year where the tab was picked up by a Delhi punter, Nishit Goel. Details of the 412 phone calls made by Chennai bookie Chand to Jadeja during the Test series between India and New Zealand in 1999, which Jadeja tried to explain away as a well-wisher’s good luck’ calls, were also obtained.

To analyse these transcripts, the cbi had to install a specialised computer software. “We called it the telephone analysis software and expert technicians were requisitioned,” says Sawani. The sleuths had also to understand the working of the “dibba” system used by the bookies. A bookie operating the “dibba” normally has a mini-exchange in which there are 10 to 12 incoming and 100 outgoing lines.

Despite the irrefutable evidence the cbi compiled, many cricketers stonewalled queries on their connections with bookies when asked to explain the telephone calls. Prabhakar, the self-proclaimed cleanser of the game who took it upon himself to secretly videotape those interviewed, was one such example (see box). He, however, confessed on sustained questioning. Moreover, he had no answer to some of the damning evidence the cbi confronted him with. Now many cricketers, including former England captain Alec Stewart, have admitted that Prabhakar was the one who introduced them to MK.

But the most difficult nut to crack was Jadeja, whose promising career has come to an abrupt end with the indictment. “Jadeja was too clever by half when he was being interrogated,” says a cbi investigator. The team which questioned the all-rounder was surprisingly persuaded to believe that the calls made by Chand was for wishing him good luck. “You continue with your job and I will continue to say that I know nothing,” was his final exasperating sentence. Realising that he was proving a tough nut to crack, the cbi pulled out their trumpcard and summoned MK from the adjoining room.

“He looked like he had been punched in the solar plexus,” says an official who was present during this particular interrogation session. “It was foolish for him to deny everything after that as he knew he’d been caught out.” On seeing MK, Jadeja broke down and wept inconsolably. “We had to console him and that required a huge effort,” says an official. The tears said it all.

It was Ajay Sharma who introduced Jadeja to MK in 1996. Both of them had in fact visited MK’s home in Delhi’s posh Defence Colony, where Jadeja offered to “do” some matches. For that introductory meeting and agreement for a “prosperous future”, Jadeja was given Rs 50,000. But MK was not the only one who testified against him. Some of the other bookies also volunteered information on Jadeja’s “nefarious activities” off the field.

Most surprising has been the confessions of Azharuddin. But this wasn’t because the elegant batsman was in a repentant mood. It was after a long and nerve-wracking interrogation that he finally admitted to his guilt. Azhar’s interrogation lasted over five hours, during which he gulped 26 glasses of water. (Interestingly, the cbi also drafted a psychiatrist to study the responses of some of those being questioned.)

Described as the one who “contributed substantially towards the expanding bookie-player nexus in Indian cricket”, Azhar’s first brush with bookies was reportedly his 1995 meeting with MK, who paid him Rs 50 lakh.It was the beginning of a long relationship.

Officials maintain that Azhar too would have continued to stoutly deny all charges of match-fixing. Just as MK’s dramatic entry softened Jadeja, it was certain “explosive documents” showing Azhar’s dubious financial transactions with the underworld and photographs of himself with Tiger Memon, a prime accused in the Bombay serial blasts of 1993, that had the former captain stumped. He started to come around. “Azhar admitted to fixing some matches but only after we confronted him with these papers,” says an official.

On sustained questioning, Azhar admitted to having received Rs 10 lakh from Ajay and Ameesh Gupta, both Delhi punters, for fixing the Pepsi Cup match in Jaipur between India and Pakistan in 1999. However, cbi officials believe that Azhar has not told the entire story. His admission to having appointed former physiotherapist Dr Ali Irani as a conduit for receiving money from MK, his decision to fix two matches in the 1996 Titan Cup series against South Africa and another match in the Pepsi Asia Cup in Sri Lanka in 1997, may just be the tip of the iceberg.

For instance, officials admit that they have not been able to get a fix on the matches played in Sharjah where Azharuddin and other players are suspected to have thrown away games. “Yes, we were in a difficult position to verify allegations of match-fixing there,” admits a cbi official. The cbi though is firm that the money Azhar got from MK and the Guptas is just a fraction of his ill-gotten gains.

As for Irani, his interrogation revealed that Azhar was “doing” matches for Anees Ibrahim, brother of underworld don Dawood. Azhar himself admitted that Abu Salem, another Dubai-based underworld mobster, had contacted him on several occasions. “We are keeping that line of enquiry open. When we get some more evidence, we will look further,” says a cbi official.

That the cbi knew some players in the Indian team had links with the underworld is certain. But in the absence of even circumstantial evidence, it decided not to probe further. That is why in its concluding pages of the report it submitted to Union sports minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, the cbi notes: “There are clear signals that the underworld mafia has started taking interest in the betting racket and can be expected to take overall control of this activity, if not checked immediately with a firm hand.”

Though Azhar, Jadeja, Sharma and Irani have named former wicket-keeper Mongia as part of the betting syndicate, the cbi has said that despite “strong suspicion” it could not gather corroborative evidence. The two matches cited by Azhar where Mongia played below par are the Titan Cup match in Rajkot and the India-Pakistan one-dayer in Jaipur last year.

Despite giving a clean chit to former captain Kapil Dev, the cbi feels there were many grey areas in his conduct it could not get a clear lead on. The 1999 Ahmedabad Test against New Zealand, where Kapil was the team coach, is a case in point. Everyone interrogated, including Sachin Tendulkar, maintained that the controversial decision not to enforce the follow-on was a collective decision. The decision was apparently arrived at during the lunch break on the fourth day.

The cbi has problems here. “Surely, there must be one person who must have taken the decision to influence the others,” says one official. What is suspicious is that the betting syndicate had already got wind of this move and huge sums were raked in. Many eyebrows were raised, yet the board did not ask the coach or the manager for an explanation, nor did the latter submit a report on it.“That is puzzling and we find there is something amiss there,” adds an official. But for want of any information or evidence to the contrary, the episode was given a quiet burial by the investigating agency.

Expectedly, the cbi has left its last and damning comments for the bcci. Although board president A.C. Muthiah might have taken exception to the cbi’s comments on November 2, it is true, as stated by the agency, that the thriving player-bookie nexus could not have continued for a decade if the board had not turned a blind eye to the goings-on. The selection of coaches, the arbitrary changes in managers and the absence of a clear policy of accountability and transparency in the game have only contributed to the plague of match-fixing spreading. At the very least, the board is guilty of criminal negligence. As a cbi officer involved in the six-month probe puts it, “After the 1983 Cup victory, the only other major tourney of consequence India won was in 1985. Isn’t that telling?”

But the cbi’s investigation is not quite over. A second report on the arbitrary manner in which telecast rights were granted to certain sports channels is on the anvil. Mark Mascarenhas and Jagmohan Dalmiya’s activities will come under scrutiny. Says a cbi official: “Our next report will be even more damning than the present one. The focus will be on officials of the bcci and some key sports event managers.”

Even the present cbi report has had its ripple effect across the cricketing world. The chief of the International Cricket Council’s anti-corruption cell, Paul Condon, has come calling. The Sri Lankan and Australian cricket boards have also begun re-examining the involvement of their players in match-fixing. The last word on the controversy is yet to be said. The churning hasn’t raked up all the poison yet.

Cover to cover

We started it. And now, three years after Outlook broke the biggest story in cricket history, as this sordid saga heads towards resolution and justice, we feel somewhat happy and infinitely sad. Every week, ever since we faintly sniffed cricket’s dark underbelly in early 1997, we have hoped against hope that all that we were hearing, seeing and uncovering was fiction, that we were, as officials and players have consistently accused us of, imagining things. Yet, we knew every week that our worst fears were true and we had a duty far beyond what is dictated by journalism, to attempt to clean up the finest game man ever invented. We had to go on, look the horror in the face.

Between April and July 1997, our correspondents chased the story across the world, from the mansions of Johannesburg to dingy Mumbai police stations. Then, literally two days before the July 30 issue went to press, we found Manoj Prabhakar. We printed what he had to say about Kapil Dev, along with our own meticulously-reported expose that named names (all of which have been confirmed by the cbi, including that of Mukesh Gupta; yes, we mentioned ‘MK’ in July 1997). There was furore: enraged denials, lawsuit threats and lawsuits; and then, because the lid just kept jumping off the boiling kettle, an inquiry committee comprising a former Supreme Court chief justice. Our correspondents went and testified. We were then compelled to write that the Chandrachud Committee looked suspiciously like a cover-up attempt. We were correct.

An encounter with Rashid Latif in a noisy bar in London led to the dark secrets of the Pakistani match-fixing cabal. The morning the Pakistanis came out to bat at the Eden Gardens in February 1999, Outlook printed excerpts from the Justice Qayyum report detailing the involvement of half the Pakistani team in the betting racket. As Pakistan plummeted to 26 for 6, a banner at the stadium read: “Thank you, Outlook” (We still lost the Test).

Then came Hansiegate. Again we were the first to name the Indian players involved in the MK betting racket along with Cronje. By this time, however, we were also getting information that Prabhakar, the original accuser, was not above board, that he was in it as deep as any other cricketer. On June 5, even as Prabhakar was taking his bow as India’s latest investigative journalist, we blew his cover. The decision wasn’t a difficult one; our loyalty, after all, was to the game we loved.

The cbi report brings to some sort of completion what we began; but only “some sort of completion”. Much remains to be done to clean Indian cricket’s Augean stables, especially in terms of the opaque functioning of the bcci. The cbi report mentions this. We hope things will change. And whatever the future of Indian cricket, we at Outlook will be there, as witnesses, analysers and lovers of this greatest game of all.

The faceless canary

In many ways, this elusive bania from Delhi proved to be the pivotal figure in the match-fixing probe. Mukesh Kumar Gupta alias MK alias John, who began life in the grimy bylanes of Mohalla Dassan in Old Delhi as a nondescript bank clerk and then was pitchforked into the glitzy world of power and money, provided the cbi with the momentum to move ahead.

It was a chance encounter with a few residents near his colony placing bets on a cricket match in 1984 that sucked him into what was later to become a magnificent obsession.

Determined to make it big, MK was willing to go to any length to attain his goal.

That trait perhaps explains how in less than eight years he made the shift from a ramshackle house in the inner folds of Old Delhi’s Ballimaran to the filthy opulence of New Delhi’s upmarket Defence Colony. Soon, he had built up the swanky jewellery showroom, ams Jewellers.

Having endeared himself first to Ajay Sharma and then “ensnaring” Manoj Prabhakar and Mohammed Azharuddin, MK, a quick learner in “real commerce”, began befriending foreign players. Martin Crowe, Hansie Cronje, Dean Jones and Brian Lara were four of nine he claimed to have met and offered money to. “The money was easy and the risk minimal,” was what he told the cbi during interrogation, on why he expanded his sphere of operations.

But why did MK surface and then, in the words of a cbi officer, “sing like a canary”? He had been on the run since Hansie Cronje told the King Commission in June this year that MK offered him $30,000 in a hotel room in Kanpur. It was when the cbi was busy collecting details of his financial dealings and other businesses and on the verge of issuing a red alert that MK came in from the cold.

“What choice did he have? He had a flourishing business and a huge family. Could he have given it all away?” asks cbi joint director R.N. Sawani, in charge of the match-fixing probe. Getting him to talk on the murky dealings of cricket and the scourge of corruption was no easy task. But finally, when told that his properties would be confiscated, his bank accounts frozen and that he would be sent to jail, MK cracked.

Over three sittings across 11 hours, MK spoke about a world everyone knew existed but didn’t know how it operated. But though widely perceived as the one who prised open the can of worms that is match-fixing in India, MK still basks in anonymity. When asked to meet Shamila Batohi—the King Commission’s chief prosecutor—on her recent trip to the capital, he refused. And while photographers have stalked his residence and jewellery shop, the man remains underground.

The sting In the tale

Finally, the cbi blew the whistle on the self-styled whistle-blower-cum-amateur ‘investigator’ of Indian cricket. And it did not take long—just short of two months—for the six-member crack team to call Manoj Prabhakar’s bluff. The knockout punch came in his third interrogation with the cbi where he was left with little option but to confess when confronted with the mounting evidence.

Listed by the investigating agency as one player who “contributed significantly to corrupting cricket in India and abroad”, it was Prabhakar’s extreme proximity with seven prominent bookies and punters that did him in.

“We were suspicious of his actions and talk soon after he named Kapil Dev,” says a senior official of the cbi’s Special Crimes unit. Yet, they gave him the benefit of doubt. In his first meeting with the cbi on May 24, he described at length the alleged Rs 25-lakh offer made by the former captain to play below par in a Singer Cup tournament in 1994. “He went off with a fervent plea to us to get to the bottom of the matter,” recounts an officer. And when he shook the cricket establishment with his spycam revelations, the former all-rounder was secure in the belief that he had tripped the Trojan Horse.

“When he came again, with the Tehelka tapes, he was more gung-ho, claiming he’d undertaken the exercise at great peril,” says a cbi official. That got the bureau thinking. Why did he take on this role unless he had an ulterior motive? Was the real reason to deflect attention from his own misdeeds?

Sending teams to the prominent betting centres in the country, the sleuths touched base with all big bookies and punters. Within a fortnight, and also after Delhi bookie Mukesh “MK” Gupta’s deposition, the cbi’s suspicions proved right. “This guy had taken the entire country for a ride. We began detailing the evidence against him meticulously,” reveals an officer.

Besides introducing cricketers like Aravinda De Silva, Salim Malik, Dean Jones, Brian Lara, Alec Stewart, Mark Waugh and Gus Logie to MK—for which he got handsome sums of money—Prabhakar, the cbi found, “did” a lot of matches. It started off in 1990 before India’s tour to England, where MK reportedly paid him Rs 40,000 as a goodwill gesture with the hope of building a fruitful future. Prabhakar is said to have performed below par in one of the Tests, which ended in a draw. On his return, he also got a Maruti Gypsy “with big tyres”. Then, says the cbi, Prabhakar gave information or helped “do” a Ranji quarter-final, the one-day series against Australia prior to the ’92 World Cup and the England tour of India in 1993—all for large considerations.

Prabhakar won’t forget in a hurry the afternoon of July 4, when he went to the cbi HQ for his third and final round of questioning. “There was a bounce in his step as if we were going to corroborate his findings,” says an official. But when confronted with the deluge of evidence against him, he did not know what hit him. It simply didn’t stop.

“We showed him recent cellphone printouts of calls to bookies and punters like Sanjeev Chawla, Rajesh Kalra, Sunil Dara and Rattan Mehta,” says an official. Prabhakar’s reply was pat: “I had to contact them for my investigation.” But he was speechless when asked why none of them figured in the “famous Tehelka tapes”. The barrage of questioning continued relentlessly. And to each query, an investigator recalls, Prabhakar tied himself into further knots. The bravado which he displayed in the first two encounters had vanished.

He implored the investigators to stop. “I did make a few mistakes. To clean up the muck, one has to enter muck,” he countered in defence. But that didn’t move the cbi sleuths. To them, he was like the others. Another Fallen Hero.

Care about freedom of the press? Support independent investigative journalism.

Donate now
Donate now