When did cricket’s tryst with match fixing begin?
While working with Tehelka back in 2000, I watched Dr Narottam Puri talk on hidden camera about the now widely known story about the toss between GR Viswanath and Asif Iqbal. A few journalists I have spoken to since say they knew the story. I didn’t. Of how Viswanath went to Puri after the toss and told him that he thought he had lost, but Iqbal had picked up the coin and congratulated him on winning it. “Since that day, this news started circulating that the toss was fixed,” Puri says, the incredulity in the doctor’s voice clear even two decades on. But it was a story that was told over drinks and dinner parties for years after.
Puri was talking to Manoj Prabhakar in the famous ‘Tehelka Tapes’ about Calcutta, 1979.
For my generation, that moment came in the Wills World Series match against West Indies in Kanpur: On this day, October 30, in 1994.
What a bizarre game it was!
To begin with, Prabhakar gave away 50 runs in six overs – huge for the time – and then there was that baffling brain freeze on Nayan Mongia’s part, when he opted to not run out Anderson Cummins and made to throw the ball to the non-striker’s end but didn’t, and ended up looking sheepish. Then there were three run outs in the Indian chase of 258, which was large for the time but not impossible. Indeed, when Prabhakar, who opened the innings and ended with a century, and Mongia got together for the sixth wicket, India needed 63 from 54 – very doable, even two-odd decades ago. But the next nine overs yielded just 16 runs. India still won the tournament, beating West Indies easily in the final in Calcutta.
Was it fixing? A lot has been said about it over the years, people have been penalised, there are theories and court verdicts – but, really, who knows for sure apart from the protagonists themselves? Whatever, it was about as blatant as ‘deliberate underperforming’ could get.
Now, 23 years on, when practically everyone involved has moved on, reinvented themselves in various ways, and the game itself has changed so much, it would seem that a lot is still the same. International cricketers are being caught doing skulduggery during Twenty20 leagues, a national team captain is being approached by shady people who the players actually know, a pitch curator is giving away information. All that in just the past few days …
If anything, like with doping, new and more inventive ways of manipulating the goings-on have cropped up. It is only speculation, but perhaps there are ways in which dubious people are having an influence on the outcome of matches, or specific passages of play, methods that the authorities haven’t wised up to yet – isn’t that how doping has worked?
One way or the other, recent evidence suggests that the menace of fixing (and fixers) continues to exist and perhaps even thrive. Meanwhile, the venue of that game of disgraceful incidents on October 30, 1994, Kanpur’s Green Park, looks set to be consigned to the trash heap of international cricket stadiums. According to CK Khanna, the BCCI’s acting president, Lucknow’s Ekana International Stadium will be the preferred venue for the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association going forward.
Makes sense too; Ekana is swank and new-agey, more suited to our times and the Indian Premier League. Yet, this sort of move is always a bit sad. Not that Green Park has ever really been green or even a park in more than name. In a country where most stadiums are named after powerful or well-known men, usually from the political world, Green Park, like Eden Gardens, stood out. Both these places are named after British ladies – a Ms Green, who went horse-riding there, and the Eden sisters of Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India from 1836 and 1842. Beyond that, really, the Park has been just another nondescript structure in a heavily polluted and populated – but historically important – city. The pitches, once upon a time, used to be drab and draw-y. Sure, we have had results there in the last three Tests played, including India’s 500th, and I’m sure statistically minded people will point to many remarkable performances at the venue, while people of older vintage will wax eloquent about Subhash Gupte’s 9 for 102 (v Windies in 1958) and Jasu Patel’s 9 for 69 almost exactly a year later against Australia.
Nostalgia aside, though, it really was just one more historic but largely uninspiring cricket stadium with – it has to be said – excellent food in the press box. And yet, it is something old and still functional that is being put to pasture – hard not to feel a little pang at the thought of it. Sure, Green Park will likely be used for other sports and even non-international cricket, but I will miss the occasional Test in Kanpur and, it will feel a little odd initially to travel to Lucknow instead. Not that Lucknow doesn’t have cricket history, it does, and the old University Stadium even hosted a Test as far back as in 1952, and later we had the KD Singh Babu Stadium. Still …
If there’s one thing of antiquity that I won’t be sad to see go, of course, it is corruption in cricket. Prabhakar is now 54 and Mongia is 47, their dubious performance exactly 23 years old. The menace is still there, though, despite the efforts of the game’s bosses to weed it out, and the occasional outcry of ‘legalise betting’ as the one-stop solution. If only there was a way to send it to the trash heap where the stage of its first (allegedly) major televised instance has been sentenced.