March issue 2004

By | Sports | Published 16 years ago

As the ball and bat swing in the stadium, so do the hopes of millions of fans and supporters. For a select band, however, it is not the spirit of the game that matters, but the fact that there are millions of dollars at stake.

Cricket is played differently in the world of bookies. Every public match has a secret place on the chessboard in the closed door business of the bookies. Razzaq, known as “Rajjaq bhai,” belongs to the betting under-world. Whether the match is in South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe or Australia, the thin bespectacled Gujrati speaking Rajjaq bhai can always be found in his apartment in Karachi. Sitting on the floor, chewing paan and chain smoking, his eyes are fixed on the TV sets showing live matches, while he carries on a telephonic conversation. He is talking to his “big bosses,” bookies in Mumbai and Dubai, while half a dozen employees, using colourful cellular phones write down the bets of clients, the majority of whom are from Karachi.

Ten years ago, Rajjaq bhai, was just a small-scale gambler on the streets. Now he owns two bungalows in Defence, property in Clifton, drives a luxury car, and has sent his only son to study in England. “Not long ago I used to play with thousands and now I have my own book, network and credibility,” he says proudly. A large chunk of the money he earned is from the match Pakistan and India played during last year’s World Cup, held in South Africa. “Everyone was betting for Pakistan, but I figured India would win, and I guessed right! I made millions,” he says. Now Pakistan and India are playing again and Rajjaq bhai believes fortune is knocking at his door once more.

“For us every match brings in money, but our business will blossom this spring,” he says in reference to the Pakistan — India matches. Rajjaq bhai is not the only bookie eagerly awaiting the series. There are over 100 main bookies like Rajjaq operating in the country, with hundreds of others, running small-scale businesses . Some operate under cover of ice cream parlours and real estate agencies; others from car showrooms and the more powerful ones from their homes.

Every bookie does business worth three to four million rupees on every match. Though betting and gambling is illegal in Pakistan, cricket crazy fans are expected to place bets worth billions of rupees in the Pakistan-India series.

The rules of betting are as complicated as those of the game. The rates of the match open before the skippers walk onto the ground to toss. Pakistani bookies get the rates from Mumbai and Dubai and telephone connections remain intact till the match finishes. The main bookie often supplies telephone connections to chotas (or trainees) to cut the cost of telephone bills to Mumbai and Dubai. Every bookie then dictates rates to his clients in the country. Though some record the bets of callers, the business is mostly run on word of mouth. The bookie keeps his commission from the rate originally generated from Mumbai and Dubai. The rates are quoted in paisas and are different for one-day international and Test matches. The weaker side or underdog is called a ‘lame horse’.

“In the west, rates do not change during the match. But here the rates change all the time. If the favourites lose a few wickets too quickly the rates for the team nosedive. So all day long the rates go up and down, as do the heartbeats of bookies and betters,” says Rajjaq.

“We do not fix the matches. That is done by a mafia which rules by the gun,” he says. The mafia is “international and works worldwide. Wherever cricket is played, either they or their agents are there.”

Bookies reveal that the mafia buys the services of three batsmen and two bowlers from one side to fix the match. This has recently been replaced by a new method of betting, “fancy fixing,” which is done in the first 15 overs or dying overs or on the total score of each team in one-day international matches.

Match-fixing and betting charges tainted the image of the game particularly in the subcontinent, starting in the early 1990s. Former Indian captain Azharuddin and Pakistan’s ex-skipper, Salim Malik, were banned for life. Several players were punished while others were exonerated for lack of evidence. Though the probe is long over, it has left its scars.

“Once a player is in the hands of the mafia, there is no way out. He will be blackmailed every time,” says one bookie. Big bookies have a nexus with the mafia of Mumbai, Karachi, Dubai and even South Africa, says a former police official involved in match fixing allegations in Pakistan.

The player, his siblings, and even bookies face dire consequences if they fail to deliver. The father of a Pakistani star cricketer was reportedly taken hostage by armed men in Lahore two months after Pakistan lost to South Africa after failing to chase the opposition’s 145 in Faisalabad, and that apparently turned the tables on the bookies.

In 1999, Pakistan lost two easy matches in a triangular series at Sharjah which infuriated then coach Javed Miandad so much that he allegedly accused some of the team players of betting. The situation worsened and two young players reportedly tried to beat him up with a cricket bat. Miandad eventually resigned a few weeks before the 1999 World Cup.

Players were often made to take oaths on the Holy Quran for not playing foul, while their telephone calls were tapped, and movements monitored.

“Hanif Cadburry,” an alleged bookie, was murdered in South Africa a few years ago, as he “betrayed” other members of the mafia over a bet worth millions of dollars.

“They are powerful and ruthless,” says the retired police official. Many cricket fans still believe in a conspiracy theory that the death of former disgraced South African captain, Hansie Cronje, was not an accident, but a conspiracy hatched by the ruthless bookie mafia. Cronje died in an air crash, just a few months after he confessed to having fixed cricket matches.

The betting game, even when not life-threatening, can prove devastating. Abdul Karim’s life is in tatters after he lost his small time real estate business after playing with high stakes. He now runs a paan shop in Karachi.

“I have lost three million rupees in the 1999 World Cup and another million in the last world cup. I always bet on the Pakistani team out of love but each time I was betrayed, I don’t know whether by luck, players, or the bookies,” he says. Even after losing most of his business, Karim still bets, but the stakes are now low, not more than 1000 to 2000 rupees a match.

“Now I know the winner in the long run is the bookie,” he says. But a bookie like Rajjaq bhai says luck is the deciding factor — a sales pitch to attract more and more clients. Who is the most powerful bookie in Pakistan? “Don’t ask. It is not good for me; it is not good for you either. Ask only about the bets!” he smiles and return to his business.