Zero tolerance, or charade

Nearly a century has passed since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight players from the Chicago White Sox were accused of accepting $5000 each to lose baseball's World Series. The biggest of those names was "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who still has the third-highest batting average in the game's history. A year after the scandal, Jackson was hounded out of the game.

Updated: May 19, 2013 13:02 IST
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Nearly a century has passed since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight players from the Chicago White Sox were accused of accepting $5000 each to lose baseball's World Series. The biggest of those names was "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who still has the third-highest batting average in the game's history. A year after the scandal, Jackson was hounded out of the game.

There is a wretched story from his final years, of Ty Cobb - another baseball legend - and a sportswriter dropping by the liquor store that he ran in South Carolina. With Jackson showing no sign of recognition, Cobb felt compelled to ask: "Don't you know me, Joe?" "Sure I know you, Ty, but I wasn't sure you wanted to know me" was the reply. "A lot of them don't."

Though his guilt was never established beyond doubt - decades on, the others would say that he never attended the meetings, and that his name was dragged in only to lend the sordid enterprise some gravitas - Jackson, whose hitting inspired Babe Ruth, remains outside the Hall of Fame. His name and career are accompanied by an asterisk, and remain probably the biggest deterrent to fixing in baseball.

Contrast that with cricket, where some of those whose names cropped up in fixing scandals of the past sit in parliament or TV studios. In a couple of cases, they're even involved in coaching, given access to young and impressionable minds. Forget exemplary punishment, cricket has taken forgiveness to an extreme.

The reactions to the latest fixing story have ranged from the hysterical to the sad, and perhaps the most amusing one came from Lalit Modi, the former IPL commissioner who misses no opportunity to suggest that India Cements is responsible for half the world's woes. "I was the target of underworld because I had zero tolerance on match-fixing," he said in a TV interview on Thursday. "But when I was in charge, the IPL never had an issue with match-fixing,"

If I wasn't falling off my chair laughing, that quote would probably have been greeted with an expletive. I spent over a month in South Africa during the second season of the IPL, and can safely say that there's never been a tournament where conditions were riper for fixing. There was no anti-corruption unit in place - at $1.2 million, it was considered "too expensive" for a tournament that otherwise spoke only of billions - and it's enough to say that the Fake IPL Player gave only a fleeting glimpse of the goings on.

I won't judge young men behaving badly. What I will judge is those who should have known better creating an environment where such behaviour thrived. It wasn't the parties that were the problem, it was those that attended them. With no sort of policing in place, the same scum who had targetted cricket a decade earlier were back in force.

You could spot them a mile away - the "agents" without clients, the "journalists" without bylines, the "fans" who didn't seem to have day jobs. And they were everywhere. Most worrying, the players they spent most time with were the ones most at risk - young, gauche kids from small towns whose eyes were popping out of their heads as they were dragged into fancy nightclubs and strip joints.

Fixers operate in ways far more subtle than most people think. In Durban in 2006-07, an Indian family that we had befriended at a game invited a colleague and I to dinner. After being wined and dined for two hours, we sat by the pool and talked about our impressions of South Africa. There was absolutely no suggestion of anything being amiss until we were about to leave.

"You know, you should really meet my friend in London," said the man of the house. "He's really into cricket. He bets on pretty much every game." That was the end of the conversation. To this day, I don't know if his friend was a fixer. What I do know is that I felt like a lamb that had been fattened for slaughter.

They start early, this lot. Friends who have covered Under-19 World Cups have spoken of alleged agents who turn up with expensive gear and other goodies for the cricketers. And these days, if you want to talk to one, you have to go through an "agent" who knows as much about representing a player as I do about string theory. In most cases, their get-rich-quick methods are as deplorable as a Ponzi scheme.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India will get much criticism in the coming days for not having a mentoring programme in place, as was originally promised when the IPL came into being. But the three men caught are not teenagers. The youngest, Ankeet Chavan, is 27. They knew what they were doing, and it's a bit rich to expect a sporting body to police the movements of more than 200 players.

What they should be blamed for is an utterly flawed auction system, one put in place by Modi and his original team. The huge gulf in earnings between uncapped players and those whose handful of caps allow them to be part of the auction creates a climate of resentment that is perfect for fixers to prey on.

Instead of valuation based on merit, it's created a situation where the prices of the few capped players are driven up to ridiculous levels. Some of these one or two-cap wonders have utterly mediocre Twenty20 skills, but take home million-dollar salaries, while those with far more ability find theirs capped at $60,000 on account of not having won the selection lottery.

Changing the system, and making the draft open to all - while allowing teams to renegotiate deals with players they want to retain - is one step towards keeping temptation away. But nothing you do can stop greed. Nearly 70 years after Jackson, Pete Rose, another legend of the baseball diamond, was railroaded out of the game for betting on his own team.

Exemplary punishment is unlikely in this case because India doesn't recognise legal betting. The concept of cheating or defrauding the public is thus a hazy one. In addition to keeping the parasites at bay - like journalists, all agents should be accredited only after thorough background checks are run - what the board can do is encourage zero tolerance. If there's even a whiff of fixing-corruption in someone's past, make sure that they get nowhere near the game in any form. TV channels that use them, or teams that let them coach, should be blacklisted and made an example of. If we don't want the game reduced to a charade, there is no other way.

The Jackson story spawned the most famous of manufactured quotes - the little boy outside the courthouse saying: "Say it ain't so, Joe". All these years later, there's no such incredulity. If you were in South Africa in 2009, you'll know that this was almost inevitable. If you encourage leeches, it's only a matter of time before they suck you dry.

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