WHAT A START? MATCH-FIXING TAKES GUARD.
It was a sultry hot summer evening of April when we landed in Dhaka, the entire contingent of the new born cricket portal CricketNext.com. As the Indian Airlines flight descended in awkward jerks from a cloudless sky, I reminisced with a peculiar sense of disbelief that fateful afternoon at the Oberoi hotel in Mumbai just a few weeks ago. Pallavi ( my wife ) and I had gone all prepared , with a heavily worked out business plan capturing projected eyeballs, competitor analysis, on-line ad revenues, off line events, web-casting potential, the break-even levels etc , to meet potential investors in our internet venture. The famous trio of venture capitalists included the crème de la crème of the cash-surplus jet-set. They were indeed a formidable combination; the reclusive, Indian stock-market Big Bull-II Ketan Parekh, telecom czar Vinay Maloo of Himachal Futuristic and the ultimate global entrepreneur the world of cricket had ever seen, Kerry Packer. The irrepressible media tycoon who showed the game of cricket the multiple colors of money. We were in august company.
At the meeting though there was only Maloo and Parekh. We had met James Packer , Kerry’s son earlier in Delhi, and he had elicited interest despite maintaining a stoic immobile face. This was our litmus test, and we waited excitably , chewing our nails , looking forward to the vast expanse that was the Arabian sea. We were all set for a marathon surgery of our financial plans, an extended number crunching exercise, confident with our impressive array of financial ratios and the future of the world wide web in our favor. Maloo and Parekh excused themselves, saying they would like a private confabulation before we began our formal presentation. We ordered cappuccinos and practiced deep breathing exercises but that was to be a short-lived effort . They returned within eight minutes to be precise. “ Ok, we are on. We will invest. Just make sure that you start with a bang.” That was the fastest deal this side of the Wild West.
Parekh’s words echoed deep in my mind, as with an acute sense of edgy energy we fastened our seat belts, all ready to create a historic feat in brand-building; the first dot com to sponsor the world’s unique Asia XI versus Rest of World XI match , featuring elite cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Mark Waugh, Ajay Jadeja, Sourav Ganguly, Sanath Jayasuria, Michael Bevan, Anil Kumble et al. The Asia XI was led by Pakistan’s Wasim Akram, and for the first time ever, Pakistani and Indian players wore the same colors and had a common goal. It was quite honestly an unrivalled and bold experiment. CricketNext.com was creating a history of unparalleled sorts.
But from the moment we landed , my editorial team suddenly went into a huddle , and it seemed like a calamitous downpour was on it’s way. Hansie Cronje , the South African captain had been identified as being in a secret conversation with dubious bookies and the Delhi police suspected a betting and massive match-fixing scandal. By the time we had even reached the hotel, the mood had changed from breathless expectancy of our big inaugural world-wide match to one of growing anxiety with the likely ramifications of the betting detraction. The world of cricket had been hit by the unexpected, shattering news of gigantic proportions; match-fixing. And one of the most elegant cricketers of our times was in the fish-net. And would you believe it, but the suspicious bookie entrapping Cronje was someone called Sanjay! Indeed, a summer week of co-incidences! It was in this bewildering back-drop that our big-bang match exploded into the international scene.
The match played on April 8th 2000 itself, was the ultimate thriller. Bevan scored an incredible 185 runs in 132 balls, but the Rest of World XI still fell short by a mere 1 run chasing 320.. As it turned out, the CricketNext.Com match was a precursor to Bangladesh attaining official Test playing status. The huge financial investment we made in the ICC Cricket Week helped us achieve a rare milestone, still unmatched, based on my limited research; Cricketnext.com received an official postage stamp in it’s honor by the government of Bangladesh , the first dot com in the world to receive the prestigious privelege , thus also giving our fledgling internet company a haloed status in that country.. And we were not even two months young.
I met the canny negotiator , the ICC President Jagmohan Dalmiya, who had engineered a profitable deal for ICC with novice-beginners like us at a hefty profit. But then those were dot com days, and so while we still felt as if we had struck a gold mine for throw-away crumbs, the ICC thought they had subsidized the sponsorship value for us new kids on the block. It was a win-win as the sad old cliché goes.
I asked Dalmiya if indeed match-fixing charges would be proven, and did he have an inkling about it’s dramatic expose. Dalmiya was remarkably honest. “ We know it is happening, that is no secret. But then it is difficult to track down the culprits”. “ Why” I asked him, feeling genuinely distressed. After all, one was converting a teenage fantasy now into our future business careers. I had reason to feel disconcerted. My wife, an intelligent hard-nosed business woman who always thought cricket was nothing but the revenge of Englishmen for all things fast-paced and a dubious way of extending their fallen legacy was getting astronomically agitated with the sordid disclosures. Dalmiya shrugged his shoulders; “ It is tough to find evidence. And usually there is no trail”. From his demeanor one sensed that he did not like my exasperating questioning. I kept shut thereafter.
The cricketers in the Sheraton lobby were looking shocked but were studiously non-committal. The South African cricketers , in particular, feigned ignorance and thought it was just media creativity gone into an unrestricted zone. One foreign cricketer thought it was a “ sub-continental conspiracy”. Tendulkar’s late sports agent Mark Mascarenhas and Dalmiya looked like inseparable buddies and neither looked really perturbed at the disquieting disclosures. The Bangladesh cricket officials were subservient to Dalmiya to an embarrassing degree. Despite the tectonic unmasking, I must admit that Dalmiya looked most unruffled and poised. “ We will see where the investigation leads”. One thing was apparent, the ICC President was fully aware that match-fixing was definitely happening in international cricket for quite some time. .
I was to later hear stories , at once sleazy , slimy and scurrilous ( my personal favorite alliteration) , that suddenly woke me up to the grim back-room realities of my preferred sport. I had launched CricketNext.com because of a childhood passion , but in creating a business enterprise around it, my love for it dissipated rapidly with each passing day, with every instance of gross malpractise , shady misconduct, player immaturity and side-deals that epitomized the game. Behind the façade of intrepid , combative and a professional cheerful bunch lay teams that were divided deeply and personal milestones, ballooning egos and power-play ruled. A few young journalists told me about the “senior cricketers” and their great fondness for extra-curricular activities when traveling ( Sri Lanka seems a real hot-spot) and it sounded quite freakish. “Why don’t you write about it”? I asked. “Are you crazy? We will be totally boycotted by the entire media fraternity”, I was told. “And the cricketers will never talk to us again.”
Although we were to sponsor another Rest of World versus Asia XI match in London for the ex-British PM John Major’s benefit for the Oval stadium in the English summer three months later , it was clear to me by then that the only way for us to mitigate the rising disillusionment with the game and the cricketers was to keep a safe distance away from getting too involved with their off-cricket field misdemeanors. The fact that our funding plans went hay-wire was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as the dot coms collapsed in an unstoppable hurricane sweep ( we just about survived) . There were too many intermediaries playing peculiar games; sports agents, media plants, TV channels, board officials, aggressive sponsors, retired cricketers and even inner camps within the team themselves. It was a different world out there, not visible on giant plasma screens. Frankly, one felt as handicapped as an opening batsman facing Malcolm Holding with no guards on; it was a trifle uneasy.
As subsequent events have since proven, it was a decision that we were not to regret.