The fun has gone out of the game

THE West Indies won a nail-biter of a Test against Pakistan in the early hours (for me, that is) recently. Normally, given the way the game was poised overnight, I would have been awake, following the match on radio if possible, or else on IRC. I remember the high I was on after the Australia-Windies series last year, when some of the best cricket I have ever witnessed was played. But the adrenalin doesn't flow any more. The match-fixing scandal has taken care of that.

And given that a cricket fanatic like me has been affected this way, I wonder how many more people have been turned off the sport. There are many of us who have to watch the game -- those of us in the media, who have to describe it in either word or voice. My cricket watching has been borne entirely out of a fascination with the game. I have followed the game since the mid-60s, a period when Windies teams came into their own and realised their natural talent by beating the British lion in its own den. The social and political implications of those games are far greater than people realise. But even those factors have been reduced to dollars and cents these days.

Soon after Hansie Cronje made his now famous confession, there was a one-day series between Australia and South Africa which was shown live on Australian TV. These are two of the most combative teams in the game and they play the game hard. I was awake and at work during those hours and the television set was on. But every time I glanced at the idiot box, it flashed into my head that a stroke, a catch, an umpiring decision may have been purchased some time before the match. And I was reminded that I could be merely a person in a theatre who was watching a well-crafted play.

A simple bet like one that batsman X will be out for less than 10 can bring in millions, if the batsman in question is one of those high up in the world rankings. Nobody will be the wiser. I remember the way we used to bet using a one-rupee note while watching the Sharjah matches. The whole gang of journos would run to the Press Club, order a couple of beers and the rupee note would pass up and down. Simple bets, and nothing more than that one note would be needed as the one who won it would always ensure he lost it next time around by making an outrageous proposition. Even then, the presence of all those glamorous people in Sharjah raised suspicions in our minds about how the whole thing was funded. In fact, Sharjah was the one venue where I did not enjoy watching cricket. It was just 20 minutes drive from Dubai where I lived for a decade. I saw just one match in that entire period, an India-Pakistan tie which made me sick.

How sure can one be that cricket is a game still? Those of us who have watched WWF wrestling on TV know what a farce it is. In what way is cricket any different? How do you know for sure that batsman A did not agree before the match to snick a ball before he had broken his duck? Or are you one hundred per cent sure that the keeper was not told to drop any catch that came his way with the opposing team 10 runs away from victory? How many bowlers were told to ensure that donkey-drops formed a major part of their output? And could you be sure that the skipper himself was not ensuring a healthy total for his opponents by keeping a non-regular bowler on for a full quota of 10 or 12 overs?

Let's get down to specifics: if Kapil Dev is found guilty, will the records against his name be wiped out? They did it to Ben Johnson, remember? And if Azhar is found to be involved, will all his feats be erased from the record books? What about Akram? Ejaz? Inzamam? Cronje? Will the ICC stop organising these rubbishy one-day tournaments in all corners of the globe like the farce that has begun in Dhaka? Is anybody serious about making cricket a game once again?

The public must start boycotting the game en masse. Then there may be some hope for cricket. Else the charade will continue. Unless the factor of human error returns, the game of glorious uncertainties will be one of certainty. And folk like me will stay tuned out. For once the fun goes out of the game, what is left?