“The match is fixed.” These words have almost certainly been spoken by ardent cricket fans in their living rooms, at tea stalls, paan shops, perhaps even in Parliament. A dropped catch, a silly run-out, reckless batting or wayward bowling — everything that changes the outcome of a cricket match attracts the F-word. And perhaps for good reason. The dark clouds of match-fixing and, more recently, spot-fixing have hovered over the game of cricket for more than a decade now. And it is on these dark clouds and stormy conditions that Ed Hawkins’ latest book, Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy, is based.
Mr Hawkins, a British sports journalist, who was also named Sports Betting Writer of the Year by the Sports Journalists’ Association in England, clearly understands the nuances of betting. In this book, he meets bookies, punters, officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), International Cricket Council Anti-Corruption Unit members and players to get a deeper insight into the dark side of cricket. As he writes in the opening chapter, “I’ve met with India’s illegal bookmakers, stayed in their homes, eaten with their families, watched them take bets….”
It is clear that Hawkins has done a lot of research. He visited places like Bhopal, Mumbai, Delhi and small towns of Rajasthan to see how the betting syndicate in India works. In the process, he came across the names of 45 former and current international and domestic cricketers allegedly involved in betting and match-fixing. Unfortunately, none of these players has been named for legal reasons.
Despite not naming and shaming, Mr Hawkins brings his readers certain fascinating insights and anecdotes. The one match he is obsessed with is the World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan in Mohali in 2011. A few minutes before the match, a bookie emailed Mr Hawkins to say that “India will score over 260, three wickets will fall within the first 15 overs, Pakistan will cruise to 100, then lose two quick wickets, at 150 they will be five down and crumble and lose by a margin of over 20 runs.” India did score exactly 260 runs; Pakistan was 102-2 after 15 overs, then suddenly 106-4 and eventually lost the match by 29 runs. While the scripted match does make for an interesting read, the way Mr Hawkins describes this particular situation is disappointing. He is set to watch this game with a lady friend over tea when he shares the script with her; it is a little over the top.
Apart from that, the tone of the rest of the book is not so dramatic. Also, Mr Hawkins’ narrative style is gripping. The way he describes the time spent with a bookie who takes bets and manipulates the odds seems extraordinary and yet so simple. What’s even more fascinating is how organised the betting syndicate in India is. It does look like a scene from a Hollywood movie: two or three men along with the bookie are sitting with multiple laptops and mobile phones, taking bets on and managing crores of rupees. Mr Hawkins, to his credit, doesn’t paint the bookies and punters as brilliant people trying to make money through illegal means; he is astounded by the large sums of money exchanged on the basic principle of trust.
The case against the book can be that the author is trying to sensationalise a topic that is often discussed in hushed tones but is swept under the carpet. But Mr Hawkins has covered his tracks very well; no one can doubt his research and commitment to understand the murkier side of the sport. He meets former Indian Premier League commissioner Lalit Modi to understand if match-fixing was rife in the IPL. He also meets K Madhavan, the man who led the CBI inquiry into the 2000 match-fixing allegations, which resulted in the life ban of former Indian cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin. Mr Modi is candid; he says that spot-fixing in the game is rife. But as he pertinently points out, it’s almost impossible to prove. The same goes for Mr Madhavan, who says that it’s India’s obsession with money that has dirtied the game, but then again it is quite difficult to prove.
Overall, Mr Hawkins’ book gives us some exceptional insights into how the betting mafia actually works and how fixers try to get close to players and lure them with money. Will it alter your view and arouse suspicion that matches could be fixed? It actually depends on which side you are on. The cynics will, of course, think the game is tainted; the optimists will argue that it is still a clean sport, albeit with certain dark traits. What Mr Hawkins does quite emphatically is this: he tries to look at the issue from both sides and provides an overview of cricket’s underworld.
Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy
232 pages; ~345