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Cricket news - The fault is in the star
On a hot October afternoon in 2017, an Indian national - let us call him Gautam - landed at Harare International Airport. With his visa pre-arranged through the Harare Metropolitan Cricket Association it took little time to clear the immigration desk, and after collecting his luggage he was received by an official from the HMCA who was eager to hear his ideas.
Some 400 kilometres away in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe were preparing for a two-match Test series against the West Indies. While this rare case of the national team playing home Tests was a reason for cheer - two years later they have yet to play another - behind the scenes cricket in Zimbabwe was in a desperate state. Salaries to players and staff were regularly delayed, sometimes by months, and regional organisations like the HMCA were getting by on scraps. In this bleak environment, Gautam's suggestions for how they might create new streams of revenue sounded appealing.
One of them, which he laid out to other members of the HMCA administration over the course of an informal barbecue, was to finance a new Twenty20 league. If they could get it televised and attract some household names to participate, the financial input could be a lifeline for the HMCA.
Such exciting promises must have blurred the minds of any dubious officials, perhaps shutting out the urge for caution. Had they done some due diligence on Gautam, they would have seen his name among those investigated at Dhaka Gladiators in 2013, when the franchise's captain Mohammad Ashraful was banned for match-fixing in the Bangladesh Premier League. The tribunal who oversaw the process found Gautam not guilty, but both the ICC and the Bangladesh Cricket Board said they were "surprised and disappointed" with the outcome of the probe, which the ICC felt had been botched.
During his time in Harare, Gautam would explore another potential line of 'business' - more on that shortly - and test the waters further with regards to holding a T20 tournament. As part of a consortium, he managed to set up a conference call with a high-ranking Zimbabwe Cricket official about expanding the T20 league proposal into a concept that the governing body, who at the time were around USD 20-million in debt, could buy into.
Unfortunately for Gautam, but fortunately for the game, this is where his exploration of Zimbabwe ended. Listening to Gautam and his consortium during a Skype conference call, the ZC official became suspicious. The details of the proposed league were vague. It all sounded a bit too good to be true. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said at the end of the call. "I'll take this to my board and get back to you."
Instead he called the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit. Their response made his heart jump. "Do you know that one of the individuals you have just told us about has indirectly made an approach to your Test captain?"
Gautam had been busy during his time in Harare.
The story of these misadventures in Zimbabwe offer some crucial insights into cricket's biggest challenge in the week when the game lost its best all-format allrounder, Shakib Al Hasan, for a year. And those insights also suggest that Shakib got off lightly by not receiving a harsher ban.
True, Shakib was not found to have divulged any information to Deepak Aggarwal, the individual who made multiple approaches to the Bangladeshi cricketer, or to have contrived to fix any aspect of a match. At worst he expressed a certain intrigue by suggesting he wanted to meet Aggarwal. At best he shrugged the approaches off without reporting them to the ACU.
But the tale of Gautam shows us why it is so important for those within cricket, be they players or administrators or anyone else, to report these approaches.
Not long after Gautam left Zimbabwe, ACU officials were in the country to investigate the approach made to Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer, which came through an intermediary. Rajan Nayer was treasurer and marketing director of the HMCA. A tall, softly-spoken administrator who also owned a travel agency on the western side of Harare where the majority of the city's Asian population live, Nayer had been involved in cricket for decades and was warmly regarded by the players. When he called Cremer during the build-up to the West Indies Tests to sound him out about fixing, the mildly-mannered tone came across as a little apologetic.
After discussing the strange conversation with his coach, Heath Streak, the pair agreed that reporting the approach was the right thing to do, regardless of the apologetic, vague way in which it had been put across. It was one of three approaches put to Test captains that summer, but the only one that led to bans from the ICC. In 2018 Nayer was banned for 20 years by the ICC, while Enock Ikope, the chairman of the HMCA who sat on the ZC board, received a 10-year ban earlier this year for failing to report his engagements with Gautam.
Gautam's involvement in the case was known to the ICC, who were well aware of his checkered past in Bangladesh. But because he did not hold an official position in cricket, he was beyond their jurisdiction. Punishments could only be handed down to those within the game. "The frustrating thing," a source told me at the time, "is that while the Nayers of this world are banned, and rightly so, the real people behind these attempts to fix matches get away scot-free and are able to plot their next move."
This was also true in South Africa, where Gulam Bodi was last month sentenced to five years in prison. Bodi had already been banned from cricket, along with the six players who strongly considered his approaches. But the Indian businessmen who brought the original offer to Bodi were long gone, returning to the shadows from which they will inevitably re-appear at some point.
This is the ACU's lot at the moment. Because they can not discuss the details of cases, little is known of their workings. But a lot of high-quality investigation is going on behind the scenes, stitching together snippets of information. While some puzzles remain incomplete, scuppered by a lack of evidence and the inability to draw it out of the Dickensian characters who initiate the approaches, occasionally one of the pieces allows them to finish off another investigation and bring someone to justice.
The web of corrupt intent is extensive and intricate. Just months after Gautam's visit to Zimbabwe, but before his suggestion of starting a T20 league had emerged into the public domain, The Sun published details of a sting operation they had carried out. While the article led with news that two Indian businessmen had told their undercover reporters they could influence an Ashes Test, the men also boasted that they were setting up a new Zimbabwe Premier T20 League for the purposes of fixing.
The ICC would issue only a short statement in response to The Sun's revelations, with ACU chief Alex Marshall saying: "I am satisfied that there is no evidence to suggest any match has been corrupted by the individuals in the investigation nor is there any indication that any international players, administrators or coaches have been in contact with the alleged fixers."
But privately they were aware of attempts to set up the Zimbabwe league, and would have been able to link the two men from The Sun's video to Gautam and the other members of his consortium. With further intelligence in the bag, the ACU could continue operating within the domain of cricket, whilst doing their best to keep these suspicious individuals at arm's length from the game.
It is a simple reality - one not often acknowledged - that the game would not have nearly as much interest in it if there was no money being placed on its potential outcomes. That has been the case since cricket's very first days. For some viewers the spectacle itself is enough reason to tune in. For many others, there is no interest unless they have bet money on it. Whatever we might think of this, it is not going away. Betting is banned in India and yet the country remains the nexus of the cricket betting world.
Since the cricketers are the best entry point for those wishing to corrupt the sport and influence the betting market, and because the ACU's reach can only extend so far, responsibility for keeping the game clean rests upon those who are playing it. The Gautams and Aggarwals are out there. It is up to the Shakibs to not let them in.
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