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By Suresh Menon
It is facile to say that India lost to Sri Lanka because skipper Mohammad Azharuddin decided to field on winning the toss. It was a bad decision as it turned out – we are talking about the 1996 World Cup semifinal against Sri Lanka - but in the first seven overs of the match it had appeared to be a masterstroke. Sri Lanka lost the openers Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, both in great form, off successive deliveries from Javagal Srinath.
Eden Gardens started celebrating. Even some of the journalists in the press box joined in. Later, as India struggled, I briefly stepped outside the press box (which hangs high from the cantilever) to be greeted by a spectator who told me that the Indian captain had taken money to throw the match. This was before match-fixing was officially admitted to and before the likes of Hansie Cronje and Azharuddin confessed to under-performing for monetary considerations.
But it wasn’t an uncommon comment. Whenever India performed badly, the cry would go around: someone has taken money. It was as if the Indian fan could not believe his team might lose in the ordinary course of events. Skulduggery was the consolation of the disappointed fan.
India didn’t lose the game on the field – match referee Clive Lloyd handed it to Sri Lanka following crowd disturbances – but at 120 for eight, chasing 251, it was all over anyway. The Indian batsmen paid the price for playing the sweep shot too often against the spinners. Now Vinod Kambli, the unbeaten batsman, has gone on record to say that the match was fixed.
Nobody believes him because nobody wants to believe him. It was exactly the same about a decade ago when fingers were being pointed at Azharuddin and others, and everybody decided that it could not be true. We were naive then, we cannot be naive now.
True, Kambli’s credibility is not very high, and he has not substantiated his claims or named names or indeed explained his 15-year silence. Azharuddin has, naturally, rubbished Kambli’s claim, but then you would expect that wouldn’t you? Is Kambli’s case built on the one claim that Azharuddin changed his mind after the team had decided to bat first? To field first was apparently the team’s decision, something that has been substantiated by Sanjay Manjrekar who played the match and Ajit Wadekar, the Indian manager.
It is easy to understand the silence of men like Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble, upright men who can easily confirm or deny that portion of Kambli’s story. Fact is, they (and others like them) have been so badly affected by Azharuddin’s involvement with the bookies that they don’t want to seen to be backing him at this stage. Remember Kumble gave up a paying television deal when he discovered that he would have to share air time with a player accused of match-fixing.
And yet, and yet.
Shouldn’t the cricket board chase down every lead, every story just in case? A high percentage of calls made regarding bombs on aircraft, for example, are hoaxes. Yet, every call has to be checked out just in case. No one in authority sits back and says, “This is a hoax,” and refuses to take action. It could be disastrous. Likewise, if the police refused to check out every call, every distress signal, they could land up in a mess. That is why no policeman says, without checking, and simply on past record that a random call is a hoax.
The BCCI might not think Kambli is being honest. But supposing he is. Let us not dismiss him out of hand. At the very least, the BCCI owes it to its constituency to check out the call to convince all of us that it is indeed a hoax.