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Who will bell the cat?

IT is now nearly a month since the issue of match-fixing was brought back into the limelight by the Delhi Police. And as the days go by, the allegations and mud-slinging reminds of the famous phrase from Alice in Wonderland: things are sure getting curiouser and curiouser.

Between the time when I last commented on the issue and the time of writing, more and more players and administrators are seemingly being pulled into the vortex. Four Indian players have been named by a magazine which set the ball rolling in 1997 with an investigative report; the four include Kapil Dev. Three Sri Lankan players are said to have been approached, this report being in a British paper. Though none of them accepted offers, there are suspicions raised that others did. And the Indian government has confirmed what any sensible person could have deduced long ago -- they knew fully well what the police were doing.

The ICC meeting in London -- called specifically to discuss this issue -- will probably be over by the time this article appears. And though I am not involved in match-fixing, I am willing to bet that nothing concrete will happen at this meeting. It will be a case of j'accuse and the ICC supreme Jagmohan Dalmiya will have a tough time defending claims that he has been making a bit on the side from TV contracts for cricket coverage. Other cricket board chiefs will also have their hands full defending their players; the Australian board is trying to cover up for its leniency toward Warne and Mark Waugh, the English board has to answer queries about Chris Lewis's charges and Sri Lanka and Pakistan have their share of defending to do as well. India may well have the least problem though the representative probably has the most to answer.

There is already a hint that everything will be swept under the carpet. There are reports that players who come forward with information on match fixing would get an amnesty. ICCC chief executive David Richards has been quoted as saying: "What we must do is get together all the people who have the best interests of cricket at heart and bring forward the evidence. We might have to do that in a discreet fashion...we might have to give amnesty to people to bring forward that information."

This is the best way to quieten things. The best way to keep any remaining time-bombs from exploding. The only way to keep kids from shouting that the emperors are all actually wearing no clothes. And Dalmiya is a master at manoeuvring things. It is useful to recall how he came to be head of this organisation in 1997.

When he first contested the post in July 1996, Dalmiya was backed by three full ICC members -- Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe -- and a majority of the 22 associate members. Full members have two votes against one for the associate members. Australia and England thwarted Dalmiya by citing ICC rules that a winning candidate needed the support of at least two-thirds of the full members - this meant six out of nine Test-playing nations. The West Indies and New Zealand backed this move. A similar battle was expected at the ICC meeting in June 1997.

But Dalmiya managed to engineer a compromise. An Australian would serve as vice-president from June 1999 and Australia was elected to follow India at the head of the ICC for the next three years. The horse-trading took place in Kuala Lumpur where the ICC tournament was played in 1997.

Dalmiya made it clear even then how he planned to use his term of office to spread a game. In his own words: "Cricket needs to break free of its shackles if it is to spread its wings." Noble sentiments, of course.

But then this is the same man who once proposed that each innings in a Test match have a time limit. Else, he suggested, there could be a limit on the number of overs which a team could bat. That this would bastardise the game which has given cricket its reputation and earned it the following of millions, albeit in a few countries, did not, apparently strike the man. It is akin to a brilliant proposal made a few years back that goalposts be widened to ensure that more goals are scored in World Cup soccer matches.

Dalmiya's plans were very simple then and are the same now -- to have one-day tournaments in every corner of the globe, sell the TV rights and make a lot of cash. This, he feels, will spread the game. One-day cricket was what he dreamt about when he said he wanted the game played all over the globe. Of course, he had the firm support of geniuses who come up with marketing ideas that border on the ridiculous -- like the one which resulted in each batsman dismissed during the 1997 triangular series in Australia have a particular piece of music accompany him back to the pavilion!

The man who pays the piper generally calls the tune and after the 1996 World Cup that yielded a $100 million financial bonanza, Dalmiya was probably seen as a dollar sign. There is a point at which money and art part ways and in the case of the ICC this was the definite split.

Unfortunately, at that point, nobody was willing to question his approach to "popularising" the game. Everybody was busy looking after their self interests. In the intervening years, nobody bothered to raise any questions as long as the game was generating money. That it has; the Indian board is said to be the wealthiest board of all. But the more the money, the more people want. The boards are no exception. The players, neither.

How can the cancer be stopped? Any general practitioner can tell you: cut it off at the root. But where is the root? That's a very good question. It has no answer right now, though there are plenty of hints as to where it lies. And who will come out with the remedy? In other words, let's ask the one question which needs must be asked: who will bell the cat?