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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 26, June 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Legacies

Saturday 15 June 2013, by Uttam Sen

If there ever was a colonial legacy it is cricket. But as with most other inheritances of loss, the English gentleman’s game has moved on from the initiation of the Indian counterpart to the creativity of the “player” and “professional”, well beyond the cricket field. Anyone with a passion for the game has a sense of what will transpire in the middle. But those whose fervour stems from more visceral foundations are translating their zeal into the fulfilment of their deepest inner urges. The potboiler composite of sex-money-mafia on the sidelines threatens to turn into the main show and append the media box office as well.

Some might incidentally wonder whether gizmos are any substitute for commitment. The prohibitive cloak-and-dagger stratagems played out between (some) players and bookmakers are illegal currency, but if the collusion did not involve two parties pre-determining a precise part of the cricketing action, outright wrongdoing would have been averted. (Legalising betting is one of the mooted solutions.) People make predictions just as much on instinctive whims and fancies as the harmless preference for showing off real or imagined expertise. The vast majority of aficionados follows the sport as recreation or plain fun and can take occasional make-believe in stride. But when the unaware or uninformed (on cricket) rule the roost, apparently the case with the spot-fixing/betting syndicates, advance management sustained by a certain degree of compulsion becomes inevitable. Hence the flavour of melodramatic intrigue and espionage.

On a lighter note, an avid fan in Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata or Mumbai would have made mincemeat of the bookie and provided perfectly sound forecasts based on an understanding of players and playing conditions, with considerably less fuss, either about money or technology. Perhaps the finance and know-how overkill is a sign of the times. Less innocently, the nexuses and their enforcing capabilities, admittedly boosted by modern telecommuni-cations, are the enabling agencies. Backdoor hook-ups with officialdom complete the picture. Income based on their choices, rather than the “glorious uncertainties” of the game, is the raison d’être of their endeavours and could well sound cricket’s death-knell as a spectator sport if it becomes overly transparent or predictable. The betting industry thrives among total cricketing illiterates in the lanes and by-lanes of not just India but the subcontinent, according to some accounts, with South Asian non-residents worldwide. The turnover in a single match can run into thousands of crores of rupees.

The institution of cricket remains, however, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. Redemption might lie in the knowledge that over-extension can kill the golden goose. Without those honest-to-God cricketing buffs the core of enthusiasm would be gone and with that the big money. The causal agents would recognise that their ingenuity cuts both ways. We among the laity still cannot tell when cricket is pre-determined; the game can also lose credibility for the wrong reasons, for example, when purely human fallibility on the part of sportsmen is misconstrued as fixing. Even vested interests would have a stake in restoring some of the game’s legitimacy!

But if the straight cricketing paradigm could rest here for a moment, an allied legacy promises to be a gain in the long run, as the common denominator of dealing with turpitude. Cricket came to India with the East India Company in the late 18th century. Around that time a maverick tradesman by the name of James Augustus Hickey ran into the British establishment in Calcutta as he sought to gain his spurs through what passes semantically as the gutter press namely, newspapers that go to town on “crime, sex and famous people”. His gossipy broadsheet found a stealthy backer in a member of the Governor-General’s Council, a certain Sir Philip Francis, who apart from being the mystery behind the probing Letters of Junius, is believed to have ghost-written in Hickey’s Bengal Gazette to expedite the impeachment of Sir Warren Hastings. Hickey himself suffered persecution, imprisonment and bankruptcy. That juncture, nonetheless, was the moment of truth for the East India Company and London assumed direct control.

The locus of colonial authority is not so much the issue here as the journalistic intercession instrumental in plumbing the depths of Indian governance in the House of Commons. Discourse on land ownership, control, productivity et al. is often pegged from that era. Better still, the Right To Information Act, that became the legal tender in 2005 emerged as the centre-piece of citizens’ intervention that should, inter alia, eventually reach food to every individual. The bottom-line of all screaming headlines is exploitation. The aspiring slumdog millionaire mirrors dispossession and broken entitlements at each turn from his scrounging the fast buck at satta dens to providing muscle power for gangland. Reparations from the starting point of food and education appears the way to go. Much of the transparency that made information on the spot-fixing scandal available was the RTI. The proverbial can of worms opened with the spotlight on an emotionally-charged cricketer, widely believed to be a red herring. The redoubtable Greg Chappell had put his outswing bowling during a South African tour on a par with that of Dennis Lillee shortly before the scandal broke. His humiliation snow-balled into a collective embarrassment, arguably through the exercise of new-found powers of investigation into the trail of evidence blazed by disclosures. The establishment concerned has quite conceivably not got to grips with this particular bargain.

It often takes an enfant terrible to rock the status quo underpinned by the superior disdain of cabals, whose smugness about their preset arrangements, much like a fixed match, can at times backfire. The subject’s reckless volatility confounds them, as one legacy of prising out accountability flows into the next. Change in the end could turn out to be incremental but controversy has the tendency of recalling the big picture.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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