How on earth can you predict that the team batting first would make 337 runs? © BCCI

How on earth can you predict that the team batting first would make 337 runs? © BCCI

Those of us who report/write on cricket and who have been to Pune in a professional capacity are certain to have at least one favourite tale involving Pandurang Salgoankar. He is that kind of a person – somewhat diffident, somewhat defensive, somewhat disillusioned and, largely by his admission, somewhat ignored except when a game is round the corner.

Few who have met him, however, will have come away with the impression that he was anything but honest. You might have questioned the veracity of some his narratives, the rationale behind some of his arguments, the logic that drove some of his conclusions, but I haven’t come across a single individual who has questioned his integrity or his commitment. Until now, that is. Until the sting operation that was only going to end one way.

The Indian cricketing landscape is liberally dotted with Pandurang Salgoankars – those that gave it their all during their playing days and, for some reason or the other, could not make it to the highest level. Many of them have reconciled to their fate; some of them still carry vestiges of bitterness, if not grudges, and are yet to come to terms with the fact that time has left them behind forever. So when, once in a while when the spotlight is trained on them, they react passive-aggressively, happy to be the cynosure but not entirely sure how to handle being in the public glare.

Sarfraz was merely doing the obvious by taking the approach to the anti-corruption officials of the Pakistan Cricket Board. But for someone to have the audacity to target the captain – the head of the snake, if you want – is, to me, the scarier prospect. Beyond educating and the counselling the players, beyond putting checks and balances in place and beyond appealing to their conscience and basic goodness, what is it that officialdom can do to keep the sport safe without breaching privacy laws and intruding on personal space? That is a far more pressing challenge than a somewhat boastful curator obsessed with 337, even though that doesn’t absolve Salgaonkar of his foolish utterances, during a sting operation or otherwise.

I don’t know Pandurang Salgaonkar well enough to psycho-analyse him or to explain away what he did in the lead-up to the Pune One-Day International earlier this week. All I – we all — know is that he was deliberately put on the spot, and he buckled. Since ethics and morals are personal choices that cannot be imposed on anyone, we shall refrain from questioning the ethicality of the process that has now painted Salgaonkar as the villain of the nation. But when we set aside the outrage stemming from seeing a human make a human error, there does appear to be a certain levity to the entire episode that is in direct contrast to the shrill gravity in which the picture has been painted.

Had Salgoankar said many of the things he said in front of the entire media corps rather than two journalists allegedly masquerading as bookies, he might have drawn a grin and a gripe or two, without doubt. How on earth can you predict that the team batting first would make 337 runs? There is a finality about 337 that neither 325 nor 350 offer. How could one have sat through a press conference at which the chief curator says that the team batting first would post 337, and that that was a chase-able total, and not burst out laughing?

But when the same words are used in any context in front of two alleged ‘bookies’, they assume an entirely different meaning altogether. They are construed as providing insider information that the average Joe can’t access without resorting to underhand means. Only Salgaonkar can throw light on motive, and even whether he was paying total and complete attention to what was being said. He could well have been flighty and only heard what he wanted to hear – thus shutting out words like ’betting’ – but I can’t see that excuse holding water in a court of law. Or any disciplinary hearing that is imminent, what with governing bodies at all levels concerned quickly rising up in arms against the offender.

Salgaonkar has been dismissed for the time being, and barred from entering the MCA Stadium premises in his beloved Pune. He can’t really complain, not after being seen to be complicit in an illegal enterprise. He has an ailing wife in hospital to tend to, which will add further grist to the mill which will say that he needed the money, no matter where it came from, and how it came, too. It’s a Salgaonkar-sized mess, with potentially far-reaching ramifications. Are curators as vulnerable to approaches from books as are players? And are they easier to approach because the level of security that is draped around them, especially in the days and weeks leading up to a big match, is far, far less than a player?

For every Sarfraz, who promptly not just shot down the spot-fixing offer but also apprised the authorities of the approach, there still are several players who are happy to play along. © AFP

For every Sarfraz, who promptly not just shot down the spot-fixing offer but also apprised the authorities of the approach, there still are several players who are happy to play along. © AFP

Of course, as if to show that where there is a will, there is a way, comes news from the United Arab Emirates of an approach to a player. The captain, no less, of an international team, a tempestuous team, a storied team, a team that has exasperated on and off the park as much as it has excited and entranced on it. Sarfraz Ahmed, the Pakistan skipper across formats, was sought out by an individual with an offer of fixing during the ODI series against Sri Lanka ten days back, and he promptly reported the matter to the authorities, drawing widespread acclaim for his reaction to the initial action from the bookie.

The spot-fixing offer — which is what it was, those in the know are telling us — can be viewed as a desperate attempt to clutch at potential big-buck straws, but that will, of course, be a naïve and somewhat foolhardy way of looking at things. For every Sarfraz who promptly not just shot down the offer but also apprised the authorities of the approach, there still are several players who are happy to play along, be it taken in by greed or by the kick that stems from voluntarily being part in an illegitimate activity that carries with it serious sanctions.

Already this year, two former Pakistan internationals have been found guilty of spot-fixing during the Pakistan Super League. Both Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif are serving five-year bans after arranging dot-balls in return for money. Two others, Mohammad Irfan and Mohammad Nawaz, were fined and banned for not reporting fixing offers at various stages. All of this goes to show that even in this day and age when players are warned of the potential pitfalls that lie ahead, and of the unscrupulous elements that lie in wait ready to pounce on any perceived weakness, there is no airtight mechanism that can keep the sport insulated from corrupt practices.

Sarfraz was merely doing the obvious by taking the approach to the anti-corruption officials of the Pakistan Cricket Board. But for someone to have the audacity to target the captain – the head of the snake, if you want – is, to me, the scarier prospect. Beyond educating and the counselling the players, beyond putting checks and balances in place and beyond appealing to their conscience and basic goodness, what is it that officialdom can do to keep the sport safe without breaching privacy laws and intruding on personal space? That is a far more pressing challenge than a somewhat boastful curator obsessed with 337, even though that doesn’t absolve Salgaonkar of his foolish utterances, during a sting operation or otherwise.