Prime Edition

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld

Ed Hawkins


Pages: 232 Rs. 345

The fix is in? Charting the path from Hansie to Mohali

Ed Hawkins’s book is a succinct, lucid introduction to the world of cricket gambling, and in fact does itself an injustice through its occasional sensationalism, writes Nakul Krishna

Nakul Krishna  9th Mar 2013

Former South African skipper Hansie Cronje, the center of the match-fixing scandal of 2000

d Hawkins is "a gambler and cricket fan". Like other fans, he has been troubled by how, in his aptly pulpy cliché, the "sound of leather on willow ... has been stifled by the thud of notes landing on the bookies' cash desk and the echo of gunfire". He wants to understand how corruption in cricket works, and sets out to investigate. The search takes him to – where else? – the subcontinent.

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy is not, as a whole, quite the espionage thriller the title promises. The material is there, and Hawkins is a good enough writer to pull off page after page of taut, tense writing. But the obscurity of his subject matter – the logistics of corruption – means he has a good deal of explaining to do.

It is well that Hawkins is a talented explainer. He is able to tell us, more simply and briefly than most writers manage, about how legal cricket betting works in Britain. His understanding holds him in good stead when he must confront the tangled web of illegal betting in India.  He is good at conveying the joy of gambling and gives every impression of knowing his cricket. He is as reliable a guide to bookmakers' slang as he is to the Byzantine structures of the international cricket bureaucracy.

The Indian system of betting, Hawkins says, "although vast and unregulated in terms of legality...does not tolerate chaos". He is understandably appalled that the system is so poorly understood by those in charge of cleaning up the game. The chief investigator of the International Cricket Council's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit, for example, was unaware that there was no market for betting on the precise timing of a no-ball. It stands to reason that no Indian bookie will accept such a bet: the odds are astronomical, and a willingness to bet on such a thing suggests insider information. What is really going on, says Hawkins, is an attempt to manipulate the number of runs scored in a six- or ten-over "bracket" – on which bookies do accept bets.

He is good at conveying the joy of gambling and gives every impression of knowing his cricket. He is as reliable a guide to bookmakers’ slang as he is to the Byzantine structures of the international cricket bureaucracy.

The book courts its share of controversy, and at its heart is the remarkable accusation that the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup at Mohali – between, let us remember, India and Pakistan – was played to a "script". This is backed up with anecdote, hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Nothing decisive, certainly nothing to back the wilder of the conspiracy theories in circulation. But Hawkins does give us enough to suggest that Haroon Lorgat of the ICC was being far too sanguine in declaring he had "no reason or evidence to require an investigation".

A book could be spun out from this alone, but Hawkins turns out to be a more imaginative journalist than that. Early in his investigations, Michael Holding, no mouse, tells him: "They're not people to get messed up with, man...It's serious crime stuff." Hawkins is never in any serious danger that we can tell, but it is clear enough that the project will take pluck and a good deal of resourcefulness. He does not reach the serious criminals – the subtitle too is a forgivable piece of hyperbole – but the glimpses he gives us of the mid-level bookmaker have their own interest.

awkins is a good listener, and has a sharp ear for the speech of his Indian sources. He is commendably self-aware about the privilege he is afforded in India as a white male Briton, and wholly free of condescension. As one bookmaker tells him, "All the world sees English people with a different view, Indian people are seen with a different view...If you contact someone they will respond to you, if I do it they won't."

He is not always well served by his editors. The book is riddled with typos and there is one point at which a whole paragraph appears to be missing. This is a shame, because there is more to this book than scandals and explanations. There is a winning description of a group of Muslim boys playing a game of tennis-ball cricket in Mumbai's Oval Maidan:

"The bat might be a piece of wood and the stumps bark found in the undergrowth around the edge....A bowler, lithe and graceful, charges in with the promise of a memorable action only to deliver a blatant chuck. ...

'Yes! Yes! You English person!' Hanif, who must be about 15, shouts to me. 'Come be umpire please, please?'

... Hanif gives me his mobile phone and sunglasses to hold as he returns to his run-up, whipping up the dust once more and delivering a blatant 'throw' ... It is fast...too fast for the batsman, who hits the ball straight up into the air to be caught by the wicketkeeper...There is much celebration. But I have my arm outstretched to denote a no-ball.

'No-ball? No, no, you are wrong!' Hanif laughs as everyone bar the batsman looks at me aghast.

'You are throwing it,' I say. 'Bowl properly.'

'Yes, you right. I am very sorry. I do it properly,' Hanif replies, shaking my hand. 'You are very fair to me.'"

Hawkins is not as rigid a moralist as this suggests. He writes sensibly of the pressures on international cricketers, pointing out, for instance, that Sri Lanka's cricket board, in serious debt after the World Cup, was unable to pay any of its employees, players, administrators, and janitors, for several months afterwards. And in the English county game, he observes that many players earn considerably less than the national median wage. Faced with the offer of "more than a third of his salary for bowling badly in one over" – "one measly over to boost a measly wage" – "it is no wonder that cricketers may say 'what is the harm?'"

It is a good question: what is the harm? Well, for one thing, it's just not cricket. But that answer, Hawkins is clear-sighted enough to see, has only ever had rhetorical force. He notes, more realistically, that it rarely ever stops at that measly over. Or, as the Middlesex spinner Ollie Rayner puts it, if you do it once, "They've got you by the balls". Indeed.

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