Transcript: Couch Talk with Kadambari Murali

Couch Talk Episode 82 (play)

Guest: Kadambari Murali (Former Editor-in-Chief, Sports Illustrated India)

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is Kadambari Murali, who is the ex-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated India and former national sports editor of Hindustan Times. She talks about the ongoing spot fixing controversy, the SI cover story from 2011 that explored the nexus between bookies and players in India, the vulnerability of cricketers and the access to them, the role that BCCI must play in rooting out corruption in cricket; among other things.

Welcome to the show, Kadambari!

Kadambari Murali– Thank you! Happy to be here.

SJ– My pleasure.

As someone who covered cricket for more than a decade in various capacities, the happenings of the last 10-12 days, with players from Rajasthan Royals being arrested, and now, one of the main guys on the Chennai Super Kings under custody, what are your initial thoughts on all that has happened?

KM– My initial thoughts was that at least something is happening. It is disappointing but not surprising. Since it all came out more than a decade ago, we know that there are problems. We know about match fixing, and later, from 2010 that spot fixing has been an issue. Unfortunately, the officials have chosen to either generally look the other way when it comes to implementing regulations, restricting access to players or having rules that can make it more difficult for players, especially in South Asia to be accessed by shady characters. Even from the perspective of the government, I mention government because there is a lot of involvement of the government in South Asia, between government and organizations, in an individual capacity or an organizational capacity. Governments have been reluctant to criminalize [and make] laws against fixing.

One of the things that police told us at that time was that the bookies can only be charged under the gambling act which is not really a deterrent. They said that for a lot of them it is a waste of time following up on leads.

SJ– Because there are no rules or laws of the lands…?

KM– ….for making it a criminal offence which will be a deterrent. I hope that is coming up right now, because what we are reading is that there will lbe aws, which will be a deterrent.

SJ– From your vast experience and professional opinion, why do you think that government officials or people in those organizations looked away? Is there a particular reason, or was it just, “Hey, it is a sport, we don’t have to worry about it.”?

KM– I don’t know about the government officials but from the BCCI perspective, they have a good thing going. It stems from arrogance, that, ‘when the matter arrives, we will deal with it.’ There is a strange reluctance on the part of the BCCI to professionalise the body. There is too much vote politics. They have too many problems. They are infighting. There is one day when people hate each other, the next day they are friends. They are much too large a body to not be professionally run without interference. Those are two big words – ‘without interference’.

Unfortunately, you have situations like the one that has been in the conflict of interest in the IPL, with Mr Srinivasan. There have been other issues too – the Pune Warriors, Deccan Chargers, Kochi, Rajasthan…  The issues have been non-stop. In something that is 6 years old, that is a ridiculous state of affairs.

SJ– I want to go back to May 2011, when you were the editor of SI in India when the cover story (Download here) ‘Cricket In A Fix’ by Heena Pandit was published. It is quite prescient, that article, the last line says that ‘Change is the need of the hour, as is the accountability ensured by both the Indian cricket board and the Indian government. Otherwise, we run the risk of 2000-like situation (referring to the match fixing).’ From that perspective, is it disappointing to you that despite all the warnings, it had to come to this?

KM– It is disappointing for me, and it is shameful on the part of BCCI. There is no question about it. The 2011 story was a 6 month undercover investigation. It was a fabulous effort on the part of Heena. She went to all sorts of shady bookmakers’ meets and she went all over the country. We sat on the side lines while cops did raids. It was like being an embedded reporter. It wasn’t something that happened overnight.

The whole thing began because of taped recrodings on the phone of a bookiw. He played it back for us. it was the voice of a very well known India cricketer. He was basically berating the bookie for calling him directly, because the bookie was calling him to protest that- this is interesting- the particular spot fixing promise has not been done. The player basically was mad because the bookie had called him directly. The next day – and this was also on phone – the bookie got a call from an associate of the player, explaining why it hadn’t been done. A BCCI official that he named had warned the player in the dressing room before the match, he announced that he had heard something is going to happen and if it happens, there will be hell to pay. What we did is, when we got the name of the BCCI official, we called the official up. I said to him this-and-this happened, and wanted to find out if this was true. He said “Yes. I did go in and I did warn them.” That was fascinating for us, because it was confirmed by the BCCI official that something like this did happen, that information has been provided by an associate of the player who called the bookie the next day. The player’s voice was on the bookie’s phone.

What it also showed to me was that, one, the Indian player was approachable. Two, his associate called him up, and this is a known associate, known in the cricketing fraternity. Three, the BCCI official was aware that something was happening. We asked the concerned BCCI official, “So why didn’t you all do anything about it?” he said the problem is finding how to do it. He heard rumours, it is difficult to do more than that. He didn’t have any answer to my question on why there is not more regulations, why there are no effort to licence the agents or player managers as they like to be called.

SJ– You had mentioned that the information and the tape was given to the board and ICC’s anti-corruption authorities. Correct? Now, it is two years since that happened. What has come of the information that you provided?

KM– I have no idea what has come out of it. I do know that what the ACSU person who met with me that time, told me, and the request for those minutes of tape recordings came from them. It was an official request made to me on an email because I told them that I will need an official request for legal reasons, because we had to talk to our lawyers also. We handed over the recordings and I told him that these were what we believed were lead-ins, and we did not have the resources to deal with this, financial or otherwise, to pursue them further. But we told that these would provide information and basis for them to take it further. Informally, after the tape was handed over and I was walking out, we were talking about the name of the player involved, who started this all. I said that I am not sure I am going to talk about the name, but asked if he had a name in mind to go ahead. He gave me the exact name. I asked him, that if he has these players on the watch list- and he said he had a watch list to keep an eye on after getting information from journalists, officials and players etc., so they can see where they can go with them – I asked if they did anything with them? He said the problem with them is legal. To get proof of the matter is not easy, something that can stand up in court. They apparently have an informal watch list, I don’t know whether they have a formal watch-list. There are some players on the scanner.

My greatest disappointment is that even though I had shown to two absolute top BCCI officials, before it went to print, I offered to turn the tapes to them, but there was never a  [formal] request from the BCCI. There was never an interest. They knew about the story before it was going up. but, there was no interest in the tapes.

SJ– Can you name those BCCI officials here?

KM– No, I cannot name them because they asked me not to at that time, and I have not asked them if I can right now. I do feel that Mr. Rajiv Shukla- who I saw on TV after our story came as our story was being followed up by TV channels – he was on TV saying that if this is so why not give the tapes to them. But, I already asked them to take the tapes. The request has to come in writing for legal reasons. They all had my email address and my phone number. But I had also taken it past them, I had shown them the story before it went ot print.

SJ– You mentioned that both the cricket officials that you talked to, the ACSU official, and from the publication point of view, you couldn’t do the things you wanted to do because you didn’t have the financial resources or law enforcement resources. Even the BCCI president, Mr N. Srinivasan mentioned in one of the press conferences that they don’t have the powers that law enforcement agencies have to curb this problem. Is it time that the cricket board and authorities outsource the work of policing cricket to actual law enforcement agencies?

KM– I think there is a danger in law enforcement being involved in cricket. However, BCCI, as a body, has immense financial resources. I don’t think it is like what they are doing as they are doing right now in the last stage of the IPL during the spot fixing scandal. Now, they have security officers with each team. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to expect that kind of security.. i think there are things that the BCCI can do, that they have not done, in the last ten years. As the incident with the BCCI official telling players concerned to lay off shows that they are aware that things are not above board.

If you took this latest spot fixing scandal and the entire embarrassment and shame, the whole threat to … (what threat, now? It has happened) damage to the reputation of Indian cricket, and then you suddenly say that you will regulate player agents. What stopped them from doing this all this time? They have massive resources. They have financial resources, they have resources to stand up to the government when they feel like. It is not like they are a body without power. You can’t pick and choose when to be a powerful body or not. It is not something of convenience.

Mr. Srinivasan is kind of omnipotent when it comes to the BCCI because so far, he has done what he wanted. So did Mr. (Jagmohan) Dalmiya. It is not like it is just [Srinivasan].

SJ– I want to know from the point of view of the players. I have talked to player managers and they have all said that Indian players are immune to this because they make a lot more money. Players from Pakistan are ones who do not play as many matches, they are not a part of the IPL, so they are more vulnerable.

KM– That is crap.

SJ– Exactly. That was proved to be extremely un-true.

KM– Forget this particular scandal. Forget that this is cricket or any sport. Even otherwise, if you have corruption only being done by people who didn’t have any money, then you wouldn’t have corruption in this world. If someone is being morally or ethically corrupt, I don’t think it has anything to do with how much money one has, or does not. But yes, I think that ‘Indian players are not vulnerable to this’ is wrong. It was also proven wrong many years ago.

SJ– You have been on tours and covered from close quarters the players, the cricket, been witness to a lot of things. Tell me how these players who are new on the scene, on for a couple of years, or veterans, are…. the vulnerability factor?

KM– I am going to say something first that all players, as far as I know, and I don’t know everything, I know that all players are obviously not corrupt. Some of them are, and this is my experience, are wonderful people, are really nice, who would be horrified if they were approached. I don’t know if they have been approached. However, all the players are insecure, irrespective of if they are great players or starting on their career. I have noticed this, and I am sure that other reporters who travrel with teams could tell you this. There is a basic insecurity to these players, and I am sure it is not just with them. Because sports has such a short shelf life. It depends on form and fitness, players get injured, something else can happen too. There are a lot of events that are not under your control. You are also constantly under pressure, with increasing media coverage of sports, to perform.

There is also the fact that they socially have problems. There obviously social adjustment issues for many of them because they have concentrated so much on cricket and their play and on getting to that stage that they have kind of isolated themselves like they live in a silo, that has isolated them from many things. They are vulnerable. They don’t have social adjustments that many other people have. They don’t have the same friend circle around them all the time. Some do that, some don’t.

In a lot of cases they are vulnerable because they come from extremely impoverished backgrounds, or background where they don’t have much. It is a whole different world for them. That has changed  because of the IPL also. It is glamourous. There is a lot of focus on it. They are introduced to parties, women all over them – you are a young man, you want to live it up, etc. it is a combination of several things that makes them vulnerable. It is the combination of vulnerability and insecurity irrespective of who the player is.

On tours abroad, the access to players is much easier than it is in India, because of simple things. They are home sick on long tours. They want home food, Indian food. And what they do, is that a lot of local resident Indians, through word of mouth, they come and meet them and promise them something as simple as food. Access becomes easy and that is the start of a relationship. Mostly, these are innocuous relationships. I know of this first hand, because when I was on tours, the players would  be getting together and I would get a call if I was in the same hotel, saying, “Do you want some khana?” What I am saying is that it is easy access.

Easy access brings me to another aspect that was mentioned in the SI story that a BCCI official told us. in the IPL season in South Africa, and during the Champions League event, there were a  lot of suspicious characters who were not welcome in India, from the Middle East, who were seen in player hotels in South Africa. I don’t know what came of that. It is just wheels within wheels.

SJ– I read that in the SI story as well as in other media outlets that the second season of IPL in South Africa was free-for-all, basically. That was the idea I got from reading the multiple sources. Since you were the editor and the 6 month investigation happened under your watch, give us a view on how this whole betting system is and how the approaches to the players are made. There are tons of terminologies thrown out – bookie, bookmakers, punters, Kingpins, and everything seeming to point towards D-Company. Give us a break down of this. And also how the approaches to a player are made.

KM– A player approach is made through someone who is close to the player, generally. If the player is approached directly. The smaller bookies just play the odds, generally. It is the larger bookies who try and fix these odds – it is what we have heard.

Who are these bookies? We had written this up – bookies are just individuals who might or might not have interest in the game. Their primary aim is to create a network of punters. If there are bigger bookies, they want to manipulate the game to maximize their profit. I was reading about Amit Singh, that is pretty rare from what we know.

SJ– Meaning, an ex-player turning into a bookie?

KM– Yes. Of course, you never know. For a condition, I am saying that I don’t know, but that is very rare. The big bookie – because it is always a network, it’s actually like a parallel world – the big bookie is called the Kingpin. He doesn’t take the bets himself, but he takes a cut from the rest of the bookies. The Kingpins often are well known, well off people, who can get in touch with players through mutual friends or acquaintances. They are often there at the parties and events that the players attend.

SJ– Does it go above the Kingpin?

KM– What we have heard is that the Kingpin provides a portion of what they earn to the Underworld. And this is what we heard from the cops, let me be specific about that, it is not something that we suddenly decided to put in. The Underworld, the cops believe, has Greater Kingpin, or Ganglord, like Dawood Ibrahim. Apparently, it is all controlled by criminal masterminds. That is where the problem lies.

For instance, in Delhi, which is where I am from. Delhi has 112-113 official clubs under the DDCA. We have seen firsthand, and I have done years of reporting on Delhi cricket and I have colleagues too who have seen firsthand wads of cash being exchanged on the side lines. This is for club cricket matches, not even Ranji Trophy. These are local bookies. Maybe it is a business transaction and they chose to do it on the sidelines of a club game and exchange money. Who knows? But you have to assume, because it happens very often, that it is very odd to be sitting there. It is wads of cash.

The cops are aware, they maintain a watch.

SJ– The question comes – if everything is so easy, you don’t have to wait till a player makes a debut for India to actually establish connections. It seems that once you become a part of something extremely insignificantly small, you are trapped in it. So, how far back do you go to try and put a wall around cricket player?

KM– You have to educate the players. Obviously  you can control only so much of it. The things you can control, you must. From the time a player comes to the state, at the junior level, the players is in state reckoning, the players need protection and educated from when they are 15 years old. Say to them that these are the perils, this is what will happen, give them really strong examples and tell them “You don’t want to do this”. It is very important to establish a system where players are educated. If they still go on and do this, that is a small percentage you can’t control. It is important to do that education, it is important to tell them about financial management.

This happens in rookie camps in the NBA. It happens in other places where players are provided education and support. I think it is time they had a players union. I think players’ union do a hell of a lot for players from various countries in various sports. The BCCI has a strange reluctance to let players’ union be established. But BCCI has done stuffs for players. The administration has given them more money, more regularized, the state association has got a lot more money now, there is a lot more going into development. it is not like nothing is happening. But, alongside that, given the magnitude of this problem, and given that even if this is a small problem, given that there is a knowledge that it exists, they must do something to protect their assets. There must also be pressure from industry.

SJ– What do you mean by ‘industry’ here?

KM– By industry, I mean player sponsorship. For instance, there are a lot of sporting contracts in more professionally run sports and sports bodies, where players cannot do much. For example, they cannot accept food from outsiders, for instance because the sponsor does not want the player not to play because they have food poisoning, because they ate something that upset them. Or, the sponsor has a problem with the player going out, because they don’t know whether they will party all night, whether something can happen. There are rules about who can be with you, who can’t be with you. Your access in hotels restricted while you are on tour – it’s not like they want to vet your life, but because you are an investment. Players are an investment for everyone, especially the board, because the board makes its money off its players. Even if you look from that perspective, I believe the BCCI would understand that, because they like money.

SJ– In your point of view, the bare minimum of outcome from all this, the recent situation would be a player association, a proper player agent accreditation process where whoever is going to represent a player has to be vetted and all that, additional security around the players not only at the stadium but also where they are staying.

KM– At least while they are representing the country, yes. I think that it is important to have player education. I don’t know if the union will happen. It is unfortunate the way BCCI runs the cricketing country as is. It is a very scary organization to the players. Nobody wants to say anything against it, because it is a vindictive organization and it is proven at every level, if you can call it an organizational vindictive, yes, it is. Players are very scared of protesting or raising their voice, or even asking for something that should be their bare rights.

Many years ago, we had talked about having a hotline that a player could call and talk to someone, get counselling. They are under tremendous pressure. Can you imagine what people would think if an Indian player goes to a shrink in public knowledge, just to get some relief? But then, the problem with the concept with the line like the one there is supposedly in England, which the PCA runs, is that, in India, nothing is a secret. There are carefully placed leaks, there are other things. Players are scared of saying anything on many level, on many different fronts. The NCA does some stuff, they talk to players. However, a lot of it is jargon, something that the players don’t always understand. Some of them are a very young, younger in their years in many ways apart from cricket. There is a lot that can be done, things that can be controlled should  be done. There will always be a bad apple, but everyone is not a rotten apple. You need to make it more systemic endeavor to weed out corruption, and you make a start from there.

SJ– Tournaments like the IPL and other T20 tournaments that happen around the world, like the BBL, the risk to the player in terms of being exposed to people of questionable repute and further links, does that risk increase in such situations? Or, is it the same whether they are playing in an IPL tournament or for India?

KM– It absolutely increases. There is more restriction when you are playing for India and especially in India. When you are playing for India in India, the hotel access is restricted. It is not that easy to get to a team hotel in India. Yes, because it is in India, there are personal relationships, you have people who manage you or associates of you. People bring in people in. If a player manager or associate goes then they say that they are bringing someone in along with them. Then, the player tells the security to let them up. You sit and talk in the player’s room.

But, during the IPL, a lot of those barriers are down. Because you have a lot more people for sponsor events, where a lot of other people are invited. It is a factor of what the IPL is. IPL is one, about entertainment. Two, about money. The money has a good side – a lot of players are making their livelihood through the IPL. It is a very important thing in that sense. That is also what I think Rahul Dravid meant when he said that the IPL has done good. It has done good also.

That is where control comes in. For instance, I was talking to a player in the first IPL. He said “I really don’t want to go down” in the hotel, to a team event that was happening. “But, mujhe jaana padta hai.” (But I have to go.) And they are very tired because the IPL matches are night matches, mostly. And they have to be up in the morning. It is a lot of travel. You have to be up very early to make a flight. If you are expected to party, then it is very tiring. It is OK for kids who have never seen this world. But, for a lot of other players, they don’t want too much of it.

Sometimes, they just have to do it because, sure, the sponsors will be happy with the kids being there, but they really want the big star names there to lend credence to the event. So, all kinds of barriers are down. But, definitely access is easier.

SJ– Let’s get to the current situation? Where do you think this is going?

KM– I have no idea. It is still going on, the chapter is not over.

SJ– Yes. There are unconfirmed police sources saying that there are more player names on the docket. It is not just the players, but also someone who was related to an IPL franchise is also under the hammer. So, it raises much, much bigger question about the whole enterprise.

KM– He was not related, he was controlling the franchise. He was there at all the auctions. It is an absolute rubbish press release from India Cements. Whether it was to satisfy its 99000 share holders or present them in a shareholder meeting, I don’t know. But that is rubbish. If Gurunath Meiyappan was not the CSK principal, call it what you may – CEO or Principal or honorary Principal, if he wasn’t that, then why was he in the dug out? Why was he raising the paddle during the IPL auction? Why was he a part of everything? Why was his picture taken with trophy with (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni after the IPL win? It is just ridiculous.

SJ– So, the situation in 2013 is significantly larger than 2000 India-South Africa players and the 2010 Pakistani players and the 2012 Indian domestic situation?

KM– It is definitely larger for India. There is a lot more coverage of cricket right now, and there is a lot more investment in cricket and cricketers. There are a lot of people who have not fixed stuff and who are around and who made huge investments – financial and otherwise – in cricket. There is a whole lot of livelihood that depends on the sport. It is a huge industry. And there are livelihoods of people who are not even from India. it is a much bigger sport than it was 13 years ago. India is a financial center of that sport. It is the heartbeat of that world. if you have corruption in India, and it is not taken care of, then you have a problem for world cricket. It is as simple of that.

SJ– It is a sad state of affairs.

KM– I have a quick point to make. We had some people named two years ago in the story, bookies. Tinku Mandi, Tinku Bansal, Bobby Jailroad, Sunilji, Baburam and someone called “Dr Saab” who was supposed to be a Kingpin. These are all bookies. I haven’t seen any of these names in the list of bookies that were reportedly caught by police authorities. So, I am wondering what happened to them. These list of names came to us form the cops. I am just wondering if these are the ones that are still to be caught, and what is happening with them. And most of them are property dealers, because cops believe that cash can easily be manipulated in the real estate business. I guess it will be tougher now with the laws that the government has put in. But, most of them are property dealers or jewellers.

SJ– Final question – where does this leave cricket? You said that it will affect world cricket, and that is true. But, how does it affect cricket in a  more general sense – In terms of people watching and playing the game, people administering the game…

KM– The best thing about sports to anyone who loves sports, and I love cricket, it taints the whole beauty of the game. The unexpectedness of the things that happens, the quirky things that happen, things that you cannot predict, the drama that happens in sports. If you take that unexpectedness out, or if you think every match was fixed, or spot-fixing has happened, and begin questioning, then cynicism creeps in, and cynicism kills the sport. It happened for a while in boxing. It happened in cricket 13 years ago, when people said they are not going to watch the sport for a while. I hope that does not happen, because there are more good men here than not. But it is time those good men stood up and were counted. To let something insidious grow by not doing enough to kill that menace, you are also in the wrong.

SJ– Alright!

Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Kadambari! It was an absolute pleasure talking to you.

KM– You are welcome! Glad to be here. Thank you.

SJ– Thank you.

KM– You are welcome. Bye bye!

Download the full episode here.


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabhiraman