|July 22, 1997||
Indian cricketers to sue OutlookPrem Panicker
It was all building up towards an explosion -- and if the developments in Indian cricket on Tuesday are any indication, the fuse has been lit. Finally.
In fact, the latest episode in what is becoming the Great Indian Cricket Soap Opera began on Monday when the latest issue of Outlook hit the stands.
A blurb on the front page went "Exclusive: Latif confirms matchfixing charges".
You go Wow! This is it, and quickly turn to page 70, and read the headline: "Azhar, Jaddu used to call me".
Interest level suitably heightened to fever pitch, you then read the story, bylined Aniruddha Bahal and datelined London. Apparently, the reporter, who co-authored the original story a few weeks back that first put the allegations of betting and bribery in Indian cricket up front, had met former Pakistan wicketkeeper Rashid Latif in London.
And in a smoky pub, with his agent Saeed Younus in attendance, Latif apparently dropped his bombshell. We quote, from the story:
For appetisers: "Azharbhai, Jaddu, Raju, Sidhu and some other Indian players... mere ghar phone kiya harte the (used to telephone me at home) to find out how the pitch was. Whether it would aid batting or bowling, how strong the teams were and what the weather was like. They had to pass on the information to other people. I used to oblige generally as it was nothing wrong on my side."
So, appetite duly whetted by that appetiser, you read on. And discover that there is no main course to follow. Throughout the rest of that article, spanning three pages, there is not one single reference to any Indian player, leave alone the four named up front. Except this: "Kapil Dev was the biggest gambler of all. He loves Jaddu like a son. He built half his house. But I like Jaddu myself. I would like to protect him."
So then you go back to the beginning, to see just what there is. Azhar, Jaddu, Sidhu, Raju and some other players used to call Latif at home to find out about the pitch conditions and the weather...
A small question raises itself, here. If Latif could have precise information about the pitch and the weather in the stadium while he was sitting at home, who couldn't the four Indian players named, at least three of whom are senior enough, and experienced enough, to be able to judge these things for themselves?
Seeking elucidation, you call the Hotel Taj Samudra in Colombo, where the Indian team now playing the Asia Cup is billeted. And are informed that by BCCI diktat, the players -- not just the ones named, but all players -- are instructed not to talk to the media, about anything at all.
The team's administrative manager, Ratnakar Shetty, is the one fielding media questions, and he is quick to respond: "Rashid Latif has sent us a signed fax from London," he tells me, first up, "in which he has categorically stated that while speaking to the Outlook correspondent, he had merely named Azhar, Jadeja and Raju as being among his friends, and that he had not at any time made any allegation, or said anything, to suggest that these, or any other Indian players, have been involved in anything illegal."
The fax is addressed to former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin. Latif, Shetty adds, has said he is prepared to stand by this faxed statement any time he is required to do so.
In other words, a complete, total denial.
So what now, I ask.
"I spoke to Azhar, Jadeja and Sidhu a while ago, the captain and coach were also there and all three players categorically denied the allegations. While we were discussing the issue, we also got Latif's fax. For now, we have decided to remain focussed on what we came here to do, and that is to perform well in the Asia Cup. India has a crucial match coming up on Thursday against Bangladesh, it will decide who faces Sri Lanka on the final. So for now, our energies are focussed solely on that."
But what of the allegations themselves? Just a denial, that's it?
"No. The players named have indicated that they will seek the legal option," Shetty said. "You must understand that they cannot do anything right now. But they will be consulting with their lawyers after this tournament is over, and will then decide how best to counter what we all maintain is a totally baseless allegation."
The players may be busy with the Asia Cup, but can't the Board of Control for Cricket in India act on their behalf?
"Not directly, no, because if you look at that story, the four Indian players have been named -- that too in an innocuous context -- but nowhere has the BCCI been named. However, we had consultations with BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur and secretary J Y Lele, and have been informed that the BCCI is sending the team an official letter later tonight, reiterating total support to the players and pledging to back them in any legal action they choose to take."
Contacted at his office in Baroda, Lele confirms this. "Yes, the BCCI is fully behind the players in this. The Board believes they are being victimised for no reason, and the Board will support them in whatever way it is required by them."
Shetty, meanwhile, is more concerned about the impact on the Indian team. "Ever since the story broke, the boys have been angry, confused," he tells us. "They all know there is no truth in this, at the same time they can't understand why people are doing this to them. Look, in that story, there is not the least connection between the Indian players and the bookies. Not even the author of the article, let alone Latif, has made any such connections. But what is the impression sought to be given? That Azhar and Jadeja, who are named in the headline, had such a nexus, and that Raju and Sidhu were also part of it. Our point is, the story seeks to convey an impression without in any way substantiating it at any point!
"I fail to understand something," Shetty says, in response to further questioning. "If Outlook is so concerned about Indian cricket, if this story is meant to 'clean up Indian cricket', they why didn't they just take these allegations before the Justice Chandrachud committee of inquiry that is looking into the matter right at this moment?"
Perhaps, I argue, playing devil's advocate, it is because there has been some criticism that Justice Chandrachud's inquiry, being ad hoc in nature, has no legal powers and therefore nothing concrete is to be gained by going before it? After all, former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, who started the whole ball of wax rolling when he, in an earlier story in the same magazine, accused a current Indian star of offering him Rs 2.5 million to tank a match, did appear before the former chief justice but refused to divulge the name of the player.
"I see," says Shetty. "Then, if stating all this before a committee of inquiry is no use, then what is the use of printing and publishing such a sensationalist article, that too without any basis to it? Look, admitting that the magazine concerned is so worried about Indian cricket, is this what its contribution is? To make such startling -- and obviously baseless -- allegations when the Indian team is in a crucial stage of the season's first major tournament?"
Meanwhile, back in Bombay, former Supreme Court chief justice Y V Chandrachud on Tuesday quizzed former Indian cricketers Ajit Wadekar, Ashok Mankad and Dilip Vengsarkar, and current player Sanjay Manjrekar, as part of his ongoing inquiry into the allegations of betting and bribery in Indian cricket.
Briefing the media after the hearings, BCCI legal advisor U N Bannerjee, who was present during the hearing, said that Wadekar, whose reign as manager of the Indian side lasted for nearly three years, was the most forceful in informing the committee that there was no substance to the allegations. "Wadekar told Justice Chandrachud that Prabhakar had the knack of making all kinds of statements in the team dressing room, but the other players never bothered because it had all become a joke for them. Wadekar told Justice Chandrachud that such frivolous allegations, without any supporting evidence, did not even merit a hearing."
Bannerjee informed the media that former captain Vengsarkar, former manager Mankad and Manjrekar also answered the questions posed to them, and informed the committee that Indian cricketers were "clean as a whistle".
Justice Chandrachud, whose attention was drawn to the latest story in Outlook, has meanwhile decided to summon Azharuddin, Jadeja and Sidhu, whose names appear in the article, to testify before him.
Meanwhile Shetty, whose attention was drawn to the remaining portions of the Outlook article in which Latif, citing specific instances and matches, has named the likes of Salim Malik, Saeed Anwar, and Wasim Akram as among those who were heavily involved in betting and match fixing, retorted, "If Latif has named Pakistan players, it is up to the Pakistan board to take whatever action is required, and up to the concerned players to respond as they see fit. We are concerned with only one thing -- has the article named any instances when the four named Indian players were involved in any kind of illegal activity? No. So then what is the fuss about?"
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