It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...
- Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities
In cricket, the year 2000 was that period.
Most cricket journalists start as cricket lovers. Back in the 1970s and '80s, this meant watching every match we could at the stadium and later on TV, and playing tennis ball cricket in the gullies and neighbourhood parks all the days in between. There were also the magazines, read and then scissored beyond recognition for the photos, which then went on walls, doors, almirahs, scrapbooks (I must still have some of mine somewhere).
Reporting on the game was not a specific ambition, at least for me. Most of us just happened to find our way there.
In 2000, some of us 20-somethings found ourselves employed with Tehelka in New Delhi, and in Aniruddha Bahal's team. He headed the Tehelka Investigations Team, the acronym for which was the cause of much puerile humour. Like so many others, I'd heard of Aniruddha and read his reports on match fixing in Outlook but, of course, had no idea what these investigations involved. What it was, as it turned out, were hours of footage recorded by non-professionals (magical, to eyes that had never encountered spycams until then - who had?). There were all these familiar names and faces - cricketers and others - talking candidly, and in great detail, about how the sport we loved so much was, possibly, staged, scripted, being played out by actors, not cricketers.
It was devastating. I don't deny the thrill I felt at the time - the thrill of being part of, as we were told over and over, a pathbreaking episode in Indian (and cricket) journalism. But still, it was heartbreaking. Names we had worshipped, people whose pictures were on the walls of my room in Kolkata were, apparently, cheats. It was, verily, the winter of despair as we went through the tapes and pieced the story together.
I won't go into the details of the investigation - there's a book with all the gory details, called Fallen Heroes, released by the Tehelka team. I recently also found on YouTube the entire film we had put together. But, importantly, through it all we could also sense the spring of hope. Apparently, cheating in cricket was going on forever, but now things would change. And for a long time, that seemed to be the case.
But here we are, more than a decade later. Are matches being fixed still? Maybe, maybe not. Spots are certainly being fixed, and that's not a lesser concern. Of course, now there's no sense of incredulity when we receive news of players fixing games or moments within games, but you wonder what sort of greed makes rich, young men grab relatively smaller amounts of money when they know that if they keep to the straight and narrow, they can make piles of cash over the next many years.
I don't know if S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan are cheats. Everything that's come out so far from police statements and 'sources' suggests as much. One way or the other, not many people will be surprised if they are.
The issue now is not if the three Rajasthan Royals players in question are just a few rotten apples who are sullying the sport. And the Indian Premier League is not the big problem -other domestic cricket tournaments would, no doubt, like to be as big and lucrative as the IPL, but just haven't made it. To an extent it's true that IPL-like tournaments make it easier for cricketers to be corrupt, but it's not fair to say that fixing - spot or match - exists because of the IPL. Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were not playing an IPL match, and the IPL wasn't even on anyone's mind in 2000.
It's also true that cricket's anti-corruption officials - whether they are on the ball or asleep at the wheel - can do only so much. Who does the onus lie with then? Could it be the public? It's not wrong to say that we, the Indian cricket-loving public, have been too forgiving in the past. That's reflected in how we have allowed tainted cricketers to return to public life and now, in the IPL, we continue to fill up the stands, almost saying that it doesn't matter if the game is scripted, we still love it.
I have no idea what the way forward is, because nothing short of round-the-clock vigilance could work, and that is a non-solution. But maybe we could start, not by shunning cricket, but by forcing cheats to live the rest of their lives in shame, in obscurity; make them realise, on a daily basis, that they have not been forgiven. Who knows, in the absence of another logical solution, it could be a start. It's not something we tried in 2000, after all.