x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

How gambling made Pakistan's national game a disgrace

In the first of a two-part series investigating corruption in cricket, Tom Hussain reports on how gambling took such a grip on Pakistan's cricket scene.

LAHORE // Pakistanis' appetite for gambling and the criminal syndicates that profit from it threaten to transform the country's beloved cricket team into a national embarrassment.

In August the British tabloid The News of the World reported that at least three, and possibly as many as six, members of the Pakistani team had worked with bookmakers to rig passages of play during matches against England.

Cricket authorities are investigating this latest scandal but apparently neither the Pakistani authorities nor the International Cricket Council have done much to confront the criminal bookmaking syndicates that have corrupted the team.

Pakistan's betting industry and the apparent corruption that has grown with it have evolved over more than 30 years.

National team captains and star players, by dint of their collective ability to rig matches, are vital to a gambling industry that stretches from backstreet bookmakers in Lahore and Karachi to the corridors of political power in Islamabad, according to people familiar with the system.

In interviews with The National, officials with the government and the Pakistan Cricket Board and retired criminal bookmakers say the system thrives because no one wants to challenge such a powerful and lucrative industry .

They all spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of violent reprisals.

The sources said the roots of cricket corruption lie in a politically inspired decision in 1979 by General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, at the time Pakistan's military ruler, to legalise tote betting on horse races.

The decision was a paradox for General Haq, a devout Muslim who governed the country from 1977 to his death in a plane crash in 1988. During his administration, Pakistan adopted many strict Islamic laws.

The unlikely tote-betting decision was a sop for influential politician-racehorse owners. Among them was Syed Mardan Shah, who had supported the general's coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's prime minister at the time, the sources said.

The support of Mr Shah, popularly known by his hereditary title Pir Pagara, and other politician-racehorse owners was critical for General Haq's political success.

General Haq's regime defended its support for horse-race betting by calling it a raffle.

The legislation created lucrative opportunities for bookmakers, who flocked to the racecourses.

Under the system, racehorse owners received payment only when their horses finished in the top three in a race, the sources said. Popular enthusiasm for betting was exploited by the politician owners of the best thoroughbred horses.

The sources said the owners, working with race club stewards and jockeys, would introduce a horse of winning hereditary lineage and wait for it to establish a winning record.

Those horses would become favourites among punters, attracting heavy betting. In some races, these favourites would inexplicably falter, reaping a windfall for bookmakers and the owners who conspired with them.

The sources said that by the late 1980s, the ranks of bookmakers and their beneficiaries had swollen dramatically to include officials who could assist the burgeoning illicit trade and those who were supposed to be controlling it.

From their ranks emerged powerful bookmakers known by their childhood nicknames: Javed "Godha", Arif "Puppoo" and Nayyar "Bubloo", who, in 1990 and 1991, became the first bookmakers in Lahore to offer ordinary Pakistanis the chance to place bets in Pakistani rupees.

Previously, bets had to be placed through South Asian betting syndicates in London, and were thus inaccessible to most Pakistanis.

At this point, Pakistani bookmakers taking cricket wagers worked through bookmakers in Mumbai, who controlled cricket betting primarily because they set the odds. That grip on the industry would later loosen with the advent of online betting and odds-setting.

By 1994, another scandal demonstrated the influence the bookmakers have over players based in Lahore. Three Australian cricket players claimed they had each been offered bribes of about Dh757,000 by Salim Malik, Pakistan's captain, to fix a match.

Malik was at the time exonerated of the Australians' allegations by the Pakistan Cricket Board. No one from the PCB would comment for this story.

In 2000 a commission led by former Supreme Court judge Malik Mohammed Qayyum was formed to investigate corruption allegations against the team. The commission found Malik had engaged in match-fixing and banned him from the sport for life.

The Qayyum Commission also implicated Malik's successor as captain, Wasim Akram, but he was spared a lifetime ban because one of the witnesses had perjured himself.

The commission recommended that the personal finances of Akram be investigated, and banned him from ever captaining the Pakistan side. Pakistani authorities never acted on those recommendations, the sources said.

Ironically, the Qayyum Commission's efforts to clean up cricket coincided with the next big break for Pakistani bookmakers: the launch of online gambling by British bookmakers, most significantly that of Betfair.com in 2000. The online betting operations are perfectly legal and have no links whatsoever to the people who control the illegal gambling rampant in Pakistan. Pakistan punters use the websites to get odds on matches or passages of play.

The online availability of gambling odds for cricket matches weakened the control of bookmakers in Mumbai, the sources said.

Bubloo and his ilk were no longer forced to accept the low odds set by Indian bookmakers, and they could now choose to place bets with a wide range of independent wholesalers.

As a result, their profits soared, as did their ability to pay off players to rig passages of play, known internationally as spot-fixing, but referred to as "fancy" by the Pakistani bookmakers.

The introduction in 2003 of the shorter T20 version of cricket was the next boon for the syndicates, with its to-and-fro nature greatly increasing the number of gambling transactions.

Players have come to routinely command fees of more than Dh171,000 from the bookmakers. They also demand and receive perks such as a week's suite accommodation at resort hotels in Dubai, and credit cards with Dh50,000 limits for shopping sprees, the sources said.

thussain@thenational.ae