It was the eve of the Champions Trophy group-stage match between India and Pakistan on 4 June 2017, and Mohammad Azharuddin, the former Indian captain and a legend of the game, was in Birmingham to do television expert duties for Aaj Tak and India Today. On 3 June, the day before the match, India Today did a special show, from opposite the Edgbaston Cricket Ground, on the high-octane clash, bringing on board multiple experts. Just as the show finished did it transpire that Azharuddin did not have tickets for the game the next day. As a former India international player who has captained India in three World Cups—1992, 1996 and 1999—it was odd that he would have to struggle for tickets. Another former player, surprised to hear this, suggested to the producers of the show and to the India Today crew that he would speak to the ICC and arrange tickets for Azharuddin. The problem, we all thought, was sorted. However, till late evening, Azhar did not have his tickets and when the player who had agreed to help was asked what happened, he looked uncomfortable. The truth was that the ICC had refused to entertain the request simply because it was Mohammad Azharuddin.
Despite being cleared by the Indian judiciary, the allegations of his involvement in wrongdoing continued to haunt him. It is improper to go into the morality of this issue. Rather, I won’t. Was the ICC being unfair? Was it a case of different parameters for different people? And could Azharuddin and some of the others, who were implicated at the turn of the millennium, ever consider this issue a completely closed chapter? These are questions, yes, but there are no real answers. Azharuddin—one of my favourite Indian batsmen of all time— had filed a case in 2001 against the ban imposed on him the previous year, and finally got a verdict in his favour in 2012. Ajay Jadeja, the former India batsman, too, has been cleared of the match-fixing taint and so has the wicketkeeper-batsman Nayan Mongia. Legally, the trio have won the battle. The question, then, is simple—have they been cleared because there is no conclusive proof or was the entire saga blown out of proportion by an evolving 24x7 media between 1997–2000? Why should cricketers suffer the outcome of an extreme media reaction? Or is it a case of truth being concealed forever?
Frankly, it might be a bit of both. The Hansie Cronje-scandal, for example, could not have occurred in isolation. Hansie’s confession is in black and white. The media exposés are a fact. Books, some of them painstakingly researched, exist and will forever be out in the public domain. Testimonies were recorded, investigations conducted and men were found guilty. Something was, indeed, going on and players were surely involved. They are the principal actors in this spectacle called cricket. A senior journalist in India lost his job in the process and a few others were questioned. It was murky. Credibility was at stake and the game was vulnerable in the absence of a preemptive mechanism. Authorities were caught by surprise; instead of taking the crisis head on and try and cleanse the rotten underbelly, they turned rabbits and closed their eyes, feigning ignorance.
Was it an overreaction of sorts—a real good story, as we understand today in the context of 24x7 media? To an extent, it perhaps was.
The news magazine exposé is a case in point. While it was spearheaded by some of India’s finest journalists and done with precision and passion, it was essential for the news magazine which broke the story of match-fixing in 1997 to be able to sustain the campaign at the time. One of the founders of the magazine, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, suggested that they needed a cover story that would completely take competition by surprise. The match-fixing exposé was a brilliant story. While the magazine had India’s worstkept secret on the cover, its singular rival had a story on Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president. The result was a no-brainer. The news magazine needed Manoj Prabhakar, the former Indian all-rounder, as much as Prabhakar needed an outlet to expose the rot. It was a marriage of convenience between the two parties. But then, did Justice Yeshwant Vishnu Chandrachud, the retired Chief Justice of India—who headed the one-man investigation commission instituted by the BCCI to investigate the match-fixing allegations—not treat Prabhakar’s testimony with the seriousness it deserved? Was a 30-minute meeting with Prabhakar good enough to get to the root of the problem? And by suggesting that Mongia disagreed with Prabhakar on the 1994 India–West Indies ODI in question, and hence there was no problem, did Justice Chandrachud approach the crisis rightly?
However much we try and probe, this will forever remain a grey area in the history of Indian cricket. Nothing except Cronje and his death is in black and white. Testimonies were changed, the truth concealed and cricket came out of the whole issue scarred and jolted.
Excerpted with permission from Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians: The On and Off the Field Story of Cricket in India and Beyond, Boria Majumdar, S&S India.