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June 13, 2000

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Down, and in the dumps

Harsha Bhogle

Over the weekend I was part of a three-way telephone conversation on the BBC World Service, with Tony Cozier in Arundel and Neil Manthorp who is reporting on the match-fixing trial in Capetown. It was interesting to see how greatly our views differed. I thought, and I made the point, that I was extremely jealous of what was happening in South Africa where the first three days had seen prominent players telling the truth, where bank managers were making statements and where the enquiry had a definite focus and a definite end in prospect.

Neilís view was different, far from it in fact. He believed the previous three days were the worst he had seen, that he, and South African cricket in general, was devastated and that he hoped he would not have to see something like this again. Tony was in the happiest position of all. Speaking in the best radio accent I have heard, he talked about the sunshine at Arundel and an amazing innings that Brian Lara was playing!

The concern in South Africa is understandable because a man they revered, and a man in whose religious belief they placed complete faith, looks increasingly like an arrogant criminal. They are passionate about their sport, and they do not like to lose and all this is a huge embarrassment to them.

But as a system they are fighting back very well even if the wily Dr. Bacher tries once again to deflect attention elsewhere. But give them credit. They took action on Cronje immediately, they didnít rush into an enquiry until they were sure it would deliver (for the exact opposite of an enquiry, read the Chandrachud report!), then they gave Judge King the powers of a provincial Supreme Court, and they dropped Herschelle Gibbs as soon as he admitted complicity.

They are moving on in South Africa and sooner than later, they will be able to put it behind them. Will we? Having been in Dhaka, trying to put a cheerful face to an Indian performance (at such times I try to convince myself that in a different way I represent India myself), I hadnít read the tehelka transcripts. I now have, and in spite of having been on the circuit for a while, I am staggered. Rumour doesnít go straight into the out tray these days and if what the cricketers say about each other is even partly true, I donít know what team spirit means any more! I also know that we are not going to get anywhere on our enquiry for a long time.

I am a bit concerned with the Bacher revelations as well. The man he quotes for the source of his information, Majid Khan, has long had the reputation of being an upright man. I remember being part of a dinner time conversation in Toronto in 1997 (the regular pre-tournament dinner for the commentary team) and Asif Iqbal was talking about how straight Majid was. I do not remember his exact words but he clearly said something along the lines of Majid being so committed to going by the book, and so unwavering, that he could even sometimes become a bit too stubborn to work with. Now if indeed that is true, then his statement to Bacher, very quickly confirmed, must carry some weight.

And if that is indeed the case, there is now a question mark over Indiaís two finest moments in recent times; beating South Africa in a one-day series and beating Pakistan at the World Cup. So then, and here is an uncomfortable one, when was the last time India went out and knocked the stuffing out of the opposition? Australia in India, Sharjah and Dhaka in 1998?

As I read those transcripts and much more about this match-fixing affair, it suddenly struck me that I had been present at a few of those matches. Stray conversations that you do not assign too much importance to came treading back into my mind along with a query that I have faced more than once in the past weeks. ďDonít the expert commentators, with all their knowledge, know when batsmen are faking dismissals?Ē

But first to a few of those games. Pakistan v Sri Lanka at the SSC Ground in 1994. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the second row of the press box and Australia were struggling. I overheard a conversation about Australia winning the game and when I turned around, I was asked if I would put money on an Australian win. It is a pretty common conversation topic in the Press Box and my answer was what it has always been Ė that I donít bet on a matter of principle because I work very hard to earn it. But it surprised me that Australia were being talked about as winners. Of course, as we know, they did win and my mind went back to a similar game in Sharjah when the West Indies crashed out of a tournament for a very poor score; a little less than they needed to get the run-rate in their favour and again, it seemed like more than one person knew about it!

I was in New Zealand in 1995 and remember being shattered when India threw away a close match with some poor batting and I now hear Kiran More talking about a terrible collapse at the Khettarama Stadium in 1993, exactly a day after a similar collapse from Sri Lanka, and a last ball wicket for Manoj Prabhakar, had earned a win for India.

Do I feel silly? Not since I started doing television because my role there is clearly to stimulate the expert and not express strong personal opinion. But in defence of the commentators, it is difficult to stick your neck out on the basis of what you might have heard or a hunch that you might have. Remember, the network is responsible for what goes out as well and you know why commentators tend to be guarded.

I particularly remember a game in Toronto in 1997 when Sourav Ganguly took 5 for 16 against Pakistan. Ravi Shastri and I had just finished a commentary session where a couple of Pakistan batsmen had been dismissed hitting straight to the Indian fielders. We walked out together at the end of that session and I asked Ravi ďwhatís happening here?Ē 'I donít know' he said and he, to be fair to him, looked quite bewildered as well. A couple of spectators passing downstairs noticed us and shouted out ďaaj kitna liyaĒ. Now comments like those were common then, are even more common now, but a commentator cannot react to those for the source can be dubious.

Or consider the Pakistan v Bangladesh match at the World Cup. I wasnít at site but as the news came through, I must confess I had a crooked smile. Of course Kenya had beaten the West Indies (dear, dear did they after all?) so shock results werenít impossible but having seen Bangladesh play in India in 1998 and remembering that they hadnít won a single game on a tour of Ireland a little later, it did seem extremely strange at the moment. But such views have necessarily to stay in the private domain. It is called caution, not a cover-up !

A cover-up is what the BCCI did with the Chandrachud Commission and what the PCB did not with the Qayyum Commission. The Pakistanis have named players, have fined a few (the ones they have banned do not mean anything because they would not have played anyway!) and at least have officially admitted that something was on. They have a very impressive man in charge in Lt.Gen Tauqir Zia and while his manner may be more reminiscent of the army man that he is rather than a cricket administrator, there is concern rather than a casual attitude at the base of it. The Pakistani cricketers are relaxed, happy and they are talking cricket. For the Indian team, search for the opposites for those three expressions !

That is why South Africa will bounce back (in public respect, for their cricket never really dipped) and Pakistan are doing so quite spectacularly. After reading these transcripts, I fear we have a bit of time in the dumps. You need a Bacher or a Zia, and we donít have one !

Harsha Bhogle

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