Bookies and Bathwater
By M J Akbar
In Third Eye - Byword
April 8, 2011
Would you be outraged if someone whispered that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had wagered Rs 1 crore on an Indian victory in the World Cup? The sententious answer is yes; the honest answer is no. Dhoni would have bet on India's side; he would have put money where his heart was, just as millions of other Indians did-in fact, those who bet on form must be kicking themselves now. We do not object to betting, even if it is illegal. We object to the unethical.
Betting and cheating do not share an umbilical cord. The silly moaning about bookies is as ludicrous a bit of humbug as any devised in the long and often hypocritical history of commerce. Cheats are dishonest because they are cheats, not because they are gamblers. The best solution to illegal gambling is to legalise it. India, instead, is double-faced. Why should horse racing be permitted as a gambling sport, but not cricket? Has any government prevented anyone from gambling during Diwali? It is perfectly legal to bet on the outcome of any aspect of a cricket Test in England: has that corrupted English cricketers? No. In fact, it may be more valid to say that illegal gambling induces corruption since those in charge of the business have to, perforce, either belong to or work with the underworld.
You might get a bizarre incident or two, but no systematic crime. The most famous case in my memory is that of an Australian fast bowler (still alive, honourably retired, but shall remain nameless in this column) during what has come to be known as the Botham series, thanks to the incredible feats Ian Botham engineered with both bat and ball. In one Test, England were in such a hopeless position that the odds on their victory climbed to 50-1. Our Australian pacer thought that they were too good to ignore, and placed a modest sum on Australia losing. Then Botham arrived and led England to a fairy tale win. The Australian collected from his bookie. Some eyebrows were raised, and a moustache or two possibly quivered, but no one accused the bowler of selling out.
Money and sport are natural partners, even though Victorian and post-Victorian England sponsored the classy fiction that honour was more, well, honourable, than cash. Cricket was unlawful in England till after the accession of Queen Victoria since the despotic Henry VIII banned all sport through an Act of Parliament in order to protect archery. The game survived because no law can ban anything which the people consider legitimate. Gambling was part of the fun, except when it reached ruinous proportions, or when it was hijacked by syndicates. The splendidly named and decorated Englishman, R. S. Rait Kerr CBE, DSO, MC, notes in The Laws of Cricket: Their History and Growth that stakes and gambling were "an essential factor in the development of cricket", and that the highest royalty offered rewards as high as 1,000 guineas for an important match long before 1750.
Where there is money, there will always arrive a pompous journalist, particularly if he can't get his hands on any. The Chelmsford Chronicle intoned in 1774: "This sport has too long been perverted from diversion and innocent pastime to excessive gaming and public dissipation. Cricket matches are now degenerated into business of importance. The increasing evil our magistracy ought to suppress in the Artillery Ground. It is confidently said that a set of idle fellows, or more properly, a gang of dextrous gamblers, are hired and maintained by a most noble lord, at so little expense as 1,000 pounds a year."
Noble lord, of course. Professional bookmakers did try and steal matches, then as now, but instead of sending them underground British legislators did the necessary spadework overground. In 1774, laws were introduced to regulate and clean up betting. The British refused to throw the baby out with the bathwater. MCC removed bookmakers from Lord's in 1820, and gradually both the sport and the flutter surrounding it found its true, and acceptable, levels.
Our present legislators, across party lines, believe that if they close their eyes, there will be no bathwater. It is the sort of bogus moral pose that pretends that prohibition is necessary in Gujarat because Mahatma Gandhi was born there. Every Gandhian value is abandoned, but we cultivate his most irrelevant dictum. If Gandhi were alive, the present state of corruption would probably have turned him into a despairing alcoholic.
Gandhi succeeded in mixing idealism and pragmatism in equal proportions. I daresay he would have approved legalised betting in 2011, with the provision that all its tax revenues be kept for poverty alleviation programmes. They could always be called the Mahendra Dhoni Garibi Hatao Yojana.