Rajasthan episode leaves cricket battling trust deficit
The supposed involvement of S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan in accepting money from bookmakers for conceding a pre-determined quantum of runs in a specific over will have come as a huge blow to Rajasthan Royals, who under Rahul Dravid have attempted to play cricket in the manner in which it must be, as indeed to the cricketing fraternity that is just about coming to terms with the made-to-order no-balls sent down by Pakistan's fast bowlers in England two years back.
Just as cricket has survived numerous scandals in the past, so it will the alleged spot-fixing saga that exploded in our faces with the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League seemingly headed for a smooth climax. The supposed involvement of S Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan in accepting money from bookmakers for conceding a pre-determined quantum of runs in a specific over will have come as a huge blow to Rajasthan Royals, who under Rahul Dravid have attempted to play cricket in the manner in which it must be, as indeed to the cricketing fraternity that is just about coming to terms with the made-to-order no-balls sent down by Pakistan's fast bowlers in England two years back. But cricket will go on, as it should. Only, at least in the immediate future, every poor delivery will be discussed and dissected, every dropped catch looked at with tinted glasses, every ungainly stroke viewed with scepticism and cynicism.
Why, oh why, Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan succumbed to greed when they were already making enough money legally, only they can answer. Cricket could so easily have done without this latest unsavoury episode that has seen one international player and two other first-class cricketers arrested - yes, arrested - by the Delhi Police, who have quite an impressive history of 'accidentally' stumbling upon big-name cricketers yielding to the lure of the lucre.
It was impossible, when television channels proclaimed through 'Breaking News' headers that Sreesanth had been arrested, not to turn the clock back some 13 years and recall the same Delhi Police blow the lid off Hansie Cronje's involvement with illegal bookmakers. Where Sreesanth's alleged involvement has triggered little more than a weary resignation, when Cronje's name first came up in match-fixing - no less - it was accompanied by a sense of disbelief and incredulity, the first thought being that the Delhi Police had bitten off more than it could chew.
Cronje, as is to be expected, initially steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, and it wasn't hard to believe him. South Africa's respected captain, with an impeccable on-field record - an inspirational leader, a charismatic personality to whom captaincy came young, but who handled the responsibility with aplomb and grace, and did his bit to raise South Africa's stock as a bustling cricketing entity, robust and competitive despite being away from international cricket for more than two decades.
Cronje symbolised young, bold, revolutionary new South Africa, determined to shed the prototype and project itself as a country of equal opportunity. Apartheid, that distasteful word, was history; race and colour no longer mattered, and here was this young man, taking other young men under wing, instilling confidence and steel in hitherto reticent coloured cricketers, nurturing promising talent while walking tall as a leader of men far older than him.
In some ways, the Cronje story was too good to be true, and so it turned out when, finally, in a 3am telephonic confession, he spilled the beans to Ali Bacher, the man responsible for South Africa's return to the cricketing fold from international isolation. Among the first things Cronje told Bacher was that he had been 'less than honest'. An understatement, if ever there was one.
Cronje's confessions left a nation confused, outraged, disappointed, let down, hurt, angry, bemused, even deflated. The golden boy wasn't so golden, after all; he had managed to pull the wool over the eyes of his countrymen, an icon more human than the next man, more susceptible than anyone else had been proved to be on the cricket field.
As badly hit as new South Africa was, Cronje's dalliance with notoriety affected life beyond the Protean landscape. It spawned a series of probes and investigations resulting in bans of varying lengths for Mohammad Azharuddin, another unlikely leader of men, Manoj Prabhakar, Ajay Sharma and Ajay Jadeja, among others, in India, and a life ban on Salim Malik, the former Pakistan captain. Henry Williams and Herschelle Gibbs, two non-white South Africans who reached out for the carrot dangled in front of them by Cronje, were both suspended from international cricket for six months for agreeing to receive money for underperforming though neither actually kept his side of the bargain. Every cricket match was being viewed askance; that was the time when the very fabric of cricket was under threat, with the danger of disgruntled and disillusioned fans turning their backs on the game a very genuine possibility.
There was discontent in South Africa, there was, briefly, apathy and indifference in India. Cricket had lost the trust of its major stakeholders, the passionate fans who had stood by their team through thick and thin and who had every reason now to believe that they had been cheated by their heroes. To win back their trust was paramount. Cricket needed the patronage of the spectators, the support of the fans, the backing of the audiences. It was a long and arduous battle, but it was a battle that would be won over a period of time.
Fortunately for South Africa, in the immediacy of Hansiegate, they were playing Australia in two successive blocks of three One-Day Internationals, first at home and then away. Under Shaun Pollock, the new captain, they won the home series 2-1 and drew the series in Australia 1-1, the instant successes going some way towards restoring the faith and confidence of the fans. Those that chose to stay away from the cricket in the immediacy of Hansiegate returned gradually, determined to put the unsavoury chapter behind them and inspired by the honesty and integrity of Pollock's legion, even if it took them a lot more time to implicitly regain their trust.
India were fortunate in that they had a clutch of superstars with strong middle-class values who stood together as a unit, played together as a team and produced the near-impossible with that sensational series triumph against Australia in early 2001. In any case, Indian fans have always been a lot more forgiving; when they had the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Javagal Srinath to look up to, they realised quickly that a few bad apples didn't necessarily mean the entire lot was rotten.
That said, the Sreesanth-Chandila-Chavan episode couldn't have come at a worse time. Barring Tendulkar, all the rest in the list above have bid adieu to international cricket, though in Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India have a leader of unquestioned integrity and a strong sense of right and wrong. This latest sordid chapter is unlikely to wean the fan away from the sport, but how long cricket will continue to thrive in the face of such sustained blots is open to debate. And while it is convenient to blame the administration and the authorities alone for such player misdemeanours, it's worth reflecting on the character of individuals ready to succumb to the temptation of a quick buck, well aware that the path they have chosen to embrace is far from the morally and ethically correct one.