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Licence to bet

By Rajeev D Pai
February 15, 2003 21:59 IST
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In spite of all that has happened over the last seven years since the betting scandal was first exposed in the Indian media, all the bad blood and the disgrace, the shadow of the mafia continues to loom over the game of cricket. And not so much because of corrupt players and officials as because of a section of the media that is sensationalist at best and corrupt at worst.

Even today, every single day, television channels and self-proclaimed leading newspapers continue to give their viewers and readers an update on the betting business and the rates for forthcoming matches.

Of course, these very same television channels and newspapers are also the first to cry foul every time the outcome of a game does not match 'expectations'.

This raises two important questions. The first relates to the credibility of these channels and newspapers. The second is: whose interests are these self-proclaimed leaders guarding? Is it the interest of the readers or that of the betting syndicates?

It is well known, at least among journalists, that some of these newspapers and channels charge monetary fees for featuring puff items (journalese for advertisements masquerading as news). In fact, there was a furore recently that one of India's major newspapers had floated a proposal to sell news space to some leading companies, the way they market advertising space to lesser mortals and firms.

Now, if you consider these facts together, that these news media charge money for certain reports and that they feature the betting sheets of some illegal gambling syndicates prominently every single day of a major tournament like the World Cup in the garb of news, what is the obvious conclusion that anyone with even a little intelligence can draw?

Yes, what you are thinking is exactly what I'm thinking. Could it be that these news organisations are acting as publicists for these criminal operations? Could this be a method for the betting mafia to inform prospective gamblers of their rates for the day? Could it be, then, that this is an indirect way of advertising a criminal business?

If it is indeed so, then doesn't this make these media organisations partners in crime? Can they continue to hide behind the fig leaf of journalistic licence? Why don't the police pick up some of these worthies for questioning? Is any real journalistic purpose served by putting out the same kind of report day after day after day? Why is it that this same enthusiasm, almost crusading zeal, for following an alleged story is not seen in the journalists and bosses of these organisations on issues of far greater sporting significance? Does freedom of the press also include the freedom to promote criminal activities?

Now, if Zimbabwe beats Pakistan in a World Cup game, as Bangladesh did in the 1999 edition of the tournament, of what earthly concern can it be to an Indian, except perhaps to celebrate Pakistan's downfall and the increased likelihood of India's passage to the next round? Yet, you will see these same newspapers and channels speculating about the possibility of match fixing, and sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the public at large.

Could it be, then, that such newspapers and television channels get upset simply because their clients, the betting mafias, lose a lot of money on such topsy-turvy games? Of course, their righteous indignation gets us gullible fools to send our blood pressures soaring imagining all manner of skulduggery on the cricket field and in the pavilion, without much evidence other than the losses suffered by criminal elements.

Yes, lots of people bet on the outcomes of matches. Some get it right, others don't. For instance, in bets placed with friends, I twice predicted the outcome of a game correctly, even the final score. In the Canada-Bangladesh match, I predicted after the Bangladeshis lost 5 wickets that they would not score more than 120 runs. And the Bangladesh innings ended exactly on 120. Likewise, in the India-Holland match, after the 40th over, I predicted that India would not cross 205. And the team ended on 204, even though more than an over was left to play. Does that mean I called up the teams in question and fixed the outcome for a bet of Rs 100? Then how come I lost the next four bets?

Yet, the super-smart newshounds of these leading, righteous organisations cannot see the simple truth that it's all a game of predictive ability allied with chance. So one leading Hindi television news channel went on after the second match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand about how a bookie in Delhi was offering odds on the Lankan innings ending below 272 runs or over 274. And, lo and behold! Sanath Jayasuriya's team scored exactly 272. The implication: maybe, just maybe, there was some hanky-panky. Quite obviously, the smartypants who filed that report had never learnt to question whatever information he was fed, especially by interested parties, nor had he ever placed a serious bet in his life.

Of course, these joker journalists and their criminal 'contacts' are well served by the government's stubborn refusal to allow legalized betting even while sanctioning sundry lotteries and opening ever more liquor outlets.

The original, noble idea behind banning all forms of gambling was to prevent poor people from burning up their meagre earnings in this highly addictive and mostly ruinous activity. But the poor still burn up their money in small matka dens, while others burn it in bigger operations, both run by criminals. And the police keep earning their medals by nabbing one bookie here and three there. While crores of rupees of unaccounted wealth, if we are to believe the accounts of these same journalists who faithfully report whatever they are fed, change hands every day. And the government gets not even a sniff.

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Rajeev D Pai