October 27, 1997
The Cricket Interview/R Mohan
'Malik overdid things and gave cricket a bad name'
When Outlook newsmagazine ran its story on betting and bribery in Indian cricket, one shocker for fans of Indian cricket worldwide was the naming of The Hindu's venerable cricket correspondent, R Mohan, as one of the journalists closely linked to bookmakers.
Almost immediately thereafter, Mohan's byline disappeared from the columns of the paper concerned. And the 'no smoke without fire' theory took effect, with popular perception being that Mohan had been sacked for his involvement in the shady underside of cricket.
Mohan for his part has been silent all along -- except for the articles he wrote for outside publications. We caught up with him at his Madras home, for an item-specific chat on some of the events that have rocked Indian cricket in recent times. Excerpts, of a telephone conversation with Prem Panicker:
It all began with Outlook. And the naming of you as one of the journalists who regularly hobnob with bookmakers. So just what are your relations with bookies?
It was absolutely stupid, that is the best I can say about that piece. It says I took calls from bookmakers and spoke to them about my reading of the game. What it does not say is that every day, I get calls -- from friends, from acquaintances, from fans who I don't even know -- all asking me questions about various aspects of the game. Do you, as a journalist, check out the antecedents of anyone who calls with a question? Surely not. Similarly, neither have I.
Even granting that you know someone is a bookie -- what do they ask? What do I think of the pitch, the teams, the state of the game, stuff like that. There are experts sitting in the television commentator's box and talking about precisely these factors -- and bookies tune in just like anyone else. You see a game on television, you hear what the commentators have to say, yet why do you read the match report in the paper next day? Because you like getting views from as many people as possible. Which is what fans do, which is what bookies do, which is what everybody does -- so what exactly is my crime in all of this?
Subsequent to that article, your byline disappeared from The Hindu. Did you quit? Or where you sacked?
Let me put it this way -- for decades, I've been doing cricket and only cricket and, for quite some time now, I had reached saturation point, I've been wanting a change. In an organisation like The Hindu, it is obviously difficult to move parallely. To shift, say, from sports to business, or news, or whatever. And I have been wanting to do something besides cricket. So well, I got a better job, I am now the Madras correspondent for Gulf News and I report for them on everything ranging from politics and business to sports, I am also the Indian correspondent for Cricketer International, UK, and for Wisden Cricketer's Almanac. I am my own boss, work from my own home -- the change couldn't have been better, all round.
From your personal experience, does betting, bribery and match-fixing exist in Indian cricket?
The problem is that we, all of us, tend to forget that these are two different issues. Does betting exist? Of course it does. And perhaps 99 per cent of India's 950 million population are guilty of it. Have you staked a bottle of beer or a pack of cigarettes on the outcome of a match? If you have, you are gambling -- the same as the guy who stakes a million on the same game. There is no law that says a little gambling is legal, but a lot of it is not. Gambling exists, period -- and everybody does it. You gamble when you buy stocks, you gamble when you put your money in a fixed deposit because how do you know if the bank will still be there, and in a position to pay you back, five years later?
The laws in this regard make no sense. I mean, I can walk into any racecourse in the land and bet a million on a particular race, and it is all entered in black and white and perfectly legal. But if I bet a rupee on a cricket match, I am guilty of a crime. Where is the sense in that? And again, if I go to Ladbrookes of London and bet on whether Sachin Tendulkar will score a century in the coming game, say, that is perfectly legal too. So, we have a situation where betting on one sport is legal, the other is not. Where betting on the same sport in one place is illegal, in the other, not. Where is the sense in all this?
If the government had any sense at all, they would legalise booking -- I mean, it is not going to go away, is it? And give licenses to bookies. And through these means, add maybe Rs 500 million, Rs 100 million to its treasury.
Which answers half my question. How about the other half? Match fixing? Bribery?
No. In all my time as cricket correspondent, I have not come across one single instance when it seemed, from available evidence, that a game was being thrown by an Indian team, then or now. And that I can state, categorically.
Have you come across any instance of match-fixing, irrespective of which team is involved? In the sense, is match-fixing a part of the game?
Yes, I have. Instances involving Pakistan, when Salim Malik was the captain.
Care to name one instance?
Sure. The 1994 Singer Cup tie between Australia and Pakistan. Australia batted first, and the target for Pakistan was around 165-odd. Pakistan, chasing, were 80-odd for one. You would think at this point that Pakistan would be heavily favoured to win -- but the bookies were posting heavy odds in favour of Pakistan losing. And the word going around in the press enclosure was that there would be a sudden collapse, and Pakistan would lose. And sure enough, once Aamir Sohail got out, Pakistan just folded, for about 127.
I seem to remember some talk of match-fixing in the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal. Wasim Akram announced on the morning of the game that he has a shoulder problem. But a lot of us knew he was not going to be playing, as much as 30 hours or more before the announcement. More fixing?
Not necessarily. In Akram's case, he does happen to have a very close friend who is one of the biggest bookmakers in that part of the world. They are very close, Wasim calls him bhai, that is the kind of relationship they have. Now Wasim tells his friend that he is having a shoulder problem and may not play. That friend takes advantage of the inside information, since he happens to be a bookie. It happens all the time, one of us hears from a friend working in a company about some development that could affect the price of its stocks, so we promptly buy, or sell, as indicated. The person who gave us the information gives it in casual, friendly conversation -- some people take advantage.
It does not mean that Akram was bought, and therefore didn't play. It means that Akram told someone something in good faith, and that person took advantage. One of the problems today is that there is an overdose of information -- the distance between players and the media, and even the fans, is no longer there. Everyone talks to everyone else about everything -- and sometimes, these kinds of situations arise.
In other words, barring Malik's aberration, you don't see much wrong in cricket in the sub-continent? But hasn't there been that one too many close finish? Games like Barbados, 120-odd to win and a total collapse -- couldn't be natural causes, surely? Not all the time?
No? What you realise when you watch cricket over a long period of time is that the last innings of a Test is always an unpredictable affair, the pressures are something else. I mean, in New Delhi last year, Australia needs 170-odd to win, it has a stellar batting lineup, and it loses. Ahmedabad, South Africa, one of the top teams of today, needs 170-odd against India, collapses. So by that logic, did the bookies buy the Australians? The South Africans? Just look what is happening right now -- Pakistan needs 146 to win and one burst by Pollock has reduced them to 76/6 (by the time this interview was written, Pakistan had in fact folded for 92 in its second innings, losing by 53 runs).
It's not as simplistic as saying the target is 140-odd, we have five, six good batsmen -- we tend to forget that the other side has four, five top quality bowlers, outstanding fielders, whatever. It's not like, if the target is small, the team batting last will invariably win -- the greatest wins in cricket have come when teams have bowled out the opposition for unimaginably low scores in the fourth innings.
Why then is there this miasma of skullduggery surrounding sub-continental cricket?
I would blame Salim Malik for that. At one stage he desperately needed money, and coincidentally, he was the captain of the side then. And he went overboard. And that has spawned a lot of today's troubles -- the Shane Warne-Tim May allegations. The Rashid Latif allegations. The Basit Ali-Rashid Latif walkout. Almost all of them can be traced back to the one period.
The Manoj Prabhakar allegation sparked the Justice Chandrachud commission of inquiry. It has now finished its sitting. Do you think it has done a good job?
Definitely. We are getting an official voice saying, once for all, that there is nothing wrong with Indian cricket. The game needs that.
Despite the fact that Justice Chandrachud did not speak to any bookies, any cops? Despite a perception that he spoke only to those who could tell him what he wanted to hear? Despite a feeling that this is a BCCI-sponsored whitewash job?
So you suppose a bookmaker is going to come before Chandrachud and say yeah, sure, these are the people who bet with me? And remember, betting is not an issue before the commission -- only match-fixing and bribery is. Same with the cops -- whether the ones who arrested Dhanuka, or anyone else -- do any of them have one item of proof against any Indian cricketer? The answer, simply, is no. Anyway -- I hear that there are about 3,000 bookmakers in Bombay alone. Can your cops round them all up? Sure, they pretty much know who they are, or at least a lot of them. But most of them are immune from arrest -- they pay their dues to the cops, and they survive.
And if you arrest a bookie, what happens? A day later, he is out on bail, and back in business. And it is the cops, who take money, who let them thrive -- so what is that cop's word worth? What is happening today, with betting and stuff, I would say it is merely another manifestation of the total degradation of India's moral fibre. It is pervasive, endemic, not restricted to cricket alone.
Whitewash, you asked. Well, no. But for the BCCI to appoint a commission, to lay this ghost once for all, makes sense. I mean, you are running a Rs 1,000 million company, here. Wouldn't you take some steps to protect it from harm, whether you are Tata Tea, or the BCCI?
Okay. From your perspective of years watching cricket, what is the single biggest problem with this team of ours?
Technical deficiencies. We are not breeding the kind of batsmen we used to have before, players with the technique to counter pace and spin on every kind of track. Thanks to so much of one day cricket, what we are getting, instead, are batsmen who do brilliantly on good tracks, but collapse if there is the slightest devil in the pitch. And bowlers who take wickets by the dozen if the pitch and conditions are conducive, but look less than ordinary if the game is being played on a shirtfront.