The good Muslim is leading the Indian side the only way he can—humbly, diligently. The acquiescent smile doesn’t leave his face even when Javed Miandad, arch-villain among arch-rivals, is smashing his bowlers for fun. Never the silent type, Miandad taunts the young captain. Allah is with us today, he chuckles. It’s Friday, see?
Mohammad Azharuddin responds, ‘Perhaps you’re forgetting that I, too, have Mohammad in my name.’ His whites virtually flutter with righteousness. Manoj Prabhakar induces an outside edge from Miandad. Our hero completes a leaping catch at first slip.
Like several beats in the 2016 Bollywood movie Azhar, starring Emraan Hashmi, this scene had no basis in reality. Prabhakar never dismissed Miandad in historical fact. People approach such films, even ones advertised as an ‘authorised’ biopic, looking for truth. It’s the fictions that end up being revelatory.
For Mohammad Azharuddin, the year 2000 started well. He’d rediscovered his form in the Test series against South Africa. At 37, time wasn’t on his side but it seemed like he could have a last hurrah on his own terms. Then everything went south.
India and South Africa played the fifth match of a One Day International series on 19 March 2000. On 7 April, the Delhi Police declared that it had recordings of phone conversations between South African captain Hansie Cronje and an Indian bookmaker called ‘Sanjay Chawla.’ (His real name is Sanjeev Chawla.) In less than a week, Cronje admitted to accepting money from bookies after being “tempted by Satan.” He had fed Chawla game trajectories—who would open the bowling, which batsmen would score slowly—in exchange for $140,000. His teammates Herschelle Gibbs, Nicky Boje, Pieter Strydom and Henry Williams were put in the dock for collusion. Overnight, the reputation of one of cricket’s strongest teams lay in tatters.
By June, Cronje had told the King Commission in South Africa that Azhar had introduced him to a bookie named M.K. Gupta and several others. Further, Cronje alleged that Azhar had routine dealings with bookmakers with whom he had fixed matches in the past.
The allegations shook Indian cricket to its core. By September, the Income Tax department had raided the homes of national team players and coach Kapil Dev. After the Central Bureau of Investigation released a comprehensive preliminary report in October, Azhar and another international player named Ajay Sharma were handed life bans by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Ajay Jadeja was banned for five years.
At the time, the match-fixing scandal transformed the way fans understood the influence of money and politics in the game, especially in India. The affair dominated national headlines that summer, and then again later in the year when the CBI published its report. “Increasingly, in the playing fields around the world,” the penultimate paragraph of the report pronounced gravely, “the music of sweetly timed strokes is being replaced by the harsh cacophony of ringing cell phones.”
Then, the men’s team embarked on the most successful period in its history. The memories they created helped plaster over the devastation of 2000. The ecosystem had received a jolt that should have led to corrective action. Instead, a sense of inevitability developed around corruption in cricket. Eventually, people began to see it as business as usual. 
In Hindi, ‘satta’ means ‘bet’ when pronounced with the hard ‘t.’ With the soft ‘t,’ ‘satta’ is ‘power’. The lives of the three people at the heart of the scandal—Azhar, Cronje and Chawla—became nakedly tied with power: with administrators more concerned with optics than accountability; with governments trying to restore the public’s faith in the sport; with cynical law enforcement agencies further thwarted by the lack of concrete legislation.
These are multi-tier stories, bursting with morally complex characters and dramatic potential.  They even made it to screen––but only as hagiographies. The ‘book’ in the word ‘bookmaker’ refers to a ledger. Now, the word carries the potential for world-building—he who writes the book controls the narrative. For Azhar, Cronje and Chawla, a variety of ‘bookmakers’ helped whitewash the story.
For the game itself, that job is already done. A vast number of Indian cricket fans, born just before or during the new millennium, have no idea how the news of the match-fixing scandal shook India. If you are such a reader, you might understand what it means to live through a gigantic shake-up that nonetheless leaves no impact on public memory. You’ve grown up in the age of news cycles designed for distraction. Here, then, are some stories about the first time such a thing happened to the generation before yours.
n 2008, Emraan Hashmi starred in the Hindi film Jannat. It was the story of how a small-time gambler and crook becomes a gangster’s favourite bookmaker. In the trailer for the film, Hashmi addressed the audience directly, his words intercut with scenes from his character Arjun’s life: Yeh betting hai yaa setting—is this betting or setting?
‘Setting’ is a nudge-wink Indianism that can mean anything from a bribe to a mob hit to a discreet sexual relationship.  In Arjun’s case, ‘setting’ is a euphemism for match-fixing. But it also stands for the upward mobility Arjun values above all else.
His ascent is an allegory for the newly liberalised Indian economy’s adventures and blind spots. His moralising, penny-pinching father stands in for the highly regulated, centralised system that defined Indian economic planning for four decades after independence. Arjun’s girlfriend, arms stuffed with shopping bags, is meant to represent the untrammelled consumerism of 21st century India.
Increasingly, in the playing fields around the world, the music of sweetly timed strokes is being replaced by the harsh cacophony of ringing cell phones.
Much of Arjun’s characterisation and the film’s overall plot was reminiscent of the life of Sanjeev Chawla, the bookie who allegedly ran gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s international cricket betting syndicate. In June 2016, Chawla was arrested in London. Arguing against his extradition in connection with the match-fixing investigation, Chawla raised concerns about his safety in an Indian jail cell. In February 2020, Delhi Police’s Crime Branch managed to extradite him to India for interrogation. In September, the Supreme Court refused to cancel the bail that had been granted to Chawla by a trial court and confirmed by the Delhi High Court.
Beyond an outline, little is known about Chawla’s early life. He started out in his father’s textile store in the capital’s Jangpura market. Soon after, the family moved into a Noida bungalow. In 1996, Chawla applied for a work visa to the UK and purchased a flat in Delhi’s posh Greater Kailash area. He then began to flit in and out of India, allegedly meeting cricketers all the while. In 2005, while on Delhi Police’s ‘most wanted’ list, he became a UK citizen.
In Jannat, Chawla’s flight to the UK becomes Arjun’s move to South Africa. These globalised stories did not take place in a vacuum. They were among the more straightforward consequences of Indian cricket flexing its financial muscle in the 1990s under administrators like Jagmohan Dalmiya and I.S. Bindra. The cigarettes and cola-powered 1996 World Cup, jointly hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, was a milestone in the shift of cricket’s temporal power away from England, its traditional centre.
Decolonisation doesn’t play out amicably. The writer Mike Marqusee wrote that, in 1993, the English cricket board “had fought a bitter battle to stop the World Cup being held in the subcontinent, and it had lost.” Soon after, the board made the claim that the Asian countries were “cheating” by offering nations like Zimbabwe and the United Arab Emirates £100,000 each, far in excess of England’s own offer.
The TV rights were sold for a massive $14 million, while India’s ITC corporation, through its cigarette brand Wills, paid $12 million to secure title sponsorship—four times what Benson & Hedges paid for the 1992 edition. In February 1996, Harsha Bhogle wrote that reactions to ITC’s bid “ranged from insanity to corporate disbelief.” Money-wise, the game had changed forever. A quarter century on, we are on the eve of the fourteenth edition of the Indian Premier League, the BCCI’s franchise extravaganza that sold five-year broadcast rights to Star India for more than $2.5 billion in 2017.
Chawla was well-positioned to benefit from the early days of this windfall. Journalist and betting expert Ed Hawkins’s 2012 book Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld offers an eerily complete picture of how Chawla might have operated. To research the book, Hawkins travelled to India in the early 2010s and put himself out as a tipster. He discovered a well-oiled network of over 100,000 bookies.
He found bookies in their late twenties and thirties operating out of “control rooms” packed to the gills with phones and laptops. It confirmed the picture painted by the CBI’s October 2000 report. “The ‘Dibba’ is a phone with speaker facility,” we learn from the report. “The person operating the Dibba will normally have a mini exchange in which there are 10 to 12 incoming and around 100 outgoing lines. An operator will constantly receive the prevailing odds on the incoming lines from the big bookies. These odds are in turn passed constantly on to the other bookies/punters through the outgoing lines from the phone, using the speaker facility.”
Hawkins found a “vast and regulated” market that did not “tolerate chaos.” He didn't reach the guys at the top (the “serious crime people,” as player turned commentator Michael Holding put it), but he talked to enough middlemen to conclude that fixing was more than thriving on the subcontinent.
On the eve of the India-Pakistan semi-final of the 2011 World Cup, Hawkins received a text outlining the match trajectory from one of his Indian bookie contacts. It was uncannily close to how the game panned out eventually. The International Cricket Council’s Anti-Corruption Unit, formed as a response to the 2000 fixing scandal, felt that there was not enough there to merit an investigation.
Two theories emerged from Hawkins’ conversations with his bookmaker contacts and a Pakistani spy. One, that a cabal of super-wealthy Indian businessmen pooled resources to bribe the Pakistan team and ensure that the Indians wouldn’t lose a semi-final at home. The second was wilder—the Indian government convinced its Pakistani counterpart to trade a cricket victory for MOUs to prop up the economy.
Both of these theories feel like they belong in a Hindi movie like Jannat. The basic ingredients—naked nationalism and entrepreneurial overreach with a side of hubris—are the same. A few glowing reviews apart, Hawkins’ book was never taken seriously by Indian fans or administrators. 
In Jannat, the first time we watch Arjun using his persuasion skills is when he approaches the Indian captain. The character is unnamed but only thinly disguised: high collar, tell-tale taveez, an amulet, around the neck, a taunt about his inadequate English.
A few years after Jannat, Hashmi would play the titular role in a movie based on the life of that captain.
he summer of 2000 put the BCCI in a spot about Azhar and Ajay Jadeja. Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, sports minister at the time, announced the CBI probe in parliament. In its turn, the CBI was unequivocal in its indictment: “Involvement of Azhar was more than others.” Azhar’s nice guy image now had a gaping hole. All the goodwill he had earned as a tongue-tied young prodigy, and then as India’s soft-spoken skipper, seemed to run out that year.
“Azhar was a throwback to innocent, gentlemanly cricketers from the 1950s and the 1960s. Never mind street-smart, he was not even seen as particularly smart,” said the journalist Sharda Ugra, who began writing about cricket in 1989, the year Azhar was first made captain.
“Maybe it was the Hyderabadi thing, that old-world charm. So you couldn’t imagine Azhar being involved in match-fixing. Even at the very end, when things got real bad, it was very difficult for his juniors, whether at Hyderabad or at the national level, to say or hear bad things about him.”
But there was also the matter of personal reputation. The late 1990s were a time of salacious reporting about Azhar’s private life. India’s new cable channels were hungry for eyeballs. Azhar’s 1996 divorce from his first wife Naureen and subsequent marriage to actor Sangeeta Bijlani kept the tabloids busy.
“Azhar was a throwback to innocent, gentlemanly cricketers from the 1950s and the 1960s. Never mind street-smart, he was not even seen as particularly smart.”
“People hated him for leaving his wife,” Ugra recalled. “And he got custody for both of his young sons, which was very unusual in those days for Indian divorces. In a very middle-class Indian way, people felt that this hitherto nice guy had broken up his own family, chasing this glamorous actress. His clothes, his high-collar style on the ground, his fondness for watches, everything became part of that new, almost villainous image.”
Azhar’s ostensible guilelessness was in play even in the immediate aftermath—it was in sharp contrast to Kapil Dev’s conduct, for instance.  Dev appeared on national television and broke down in front of journalist Karan Thapar, pleading innocence and emphasising his allegiance to the nation. “Kapil told Azhar, why don’t you go and cry on TV?” Ugra told me.  “They will believe whatever you say if you cry. But this guy was confused as usual. I don’t get why people are so quick to forgive Kapil but not Azhar.” 
It was politics that redeemed Azhar. His own return to public life was marked by a winning campaign for a Lok Sabha seat from Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad in 2009. In 2012, the Andhra Pradesh High Court reversed his cricket ban. For Azhar, then 49, the decision was more than symbolic. The prodigal could begin reclaiming his place in Indian cricket.
In November 2018, Azhar was given the honour of ringing the bell to mark the start of play at a Twenty20 International at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens. In 2019, he was elected president of the Hyderabad Cricket Association. In December that year, the North Stand of the city’s Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium was named after him.
The bell-ringing ceremony invited censure from some quarters. Former international Sanjay Manjrekar tweeted a copy of the CBI’s report, asking his followers to re-read “one of the most crucial documents in Indian cricket.” Another former player, Gautam Gambhir, now a member of parliament belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, called it “shocking.”
In the film Azhar, the viewer is constantly reminded that the protagonist’s grandfather dreamt of his grandson playing 100 Test matches for India. That final Test in March 2000 against South Africa in Bengaluru was his 99th.
In an interview with Scroll last year, Azhar put a sunny spin on this milestone, as he usually does. “I look at it this way: that nowadays if a player is a class act, and he reaches 99 Tests, he will be made to play the 100th,” he said. “So I don’t think this record of 99 Test matches that I hold is going to be broken. I look at things positively.”
Even with all this, you could argue that the public had been primed in subtle ways for Azhar’s fall. But even the most prescient observer of global cricket could not have seen Cronje’s detailed confession coming.
The Family Man
he camera hovers over two nameless black boys in the South African countryside: one playing with a soccer ball, another is on horseback.
A third black boy is inside the house, watching Hansie Cronje bat. Only white people play this game, the boy’s uncle tells him. You should be watching soccer.
Cronje hits the next ball to the boundary and raises his bat to acknowledge a century. The boy cheers and hugs his father in a warm family moment.
The prologue of Hansie: A True Story betrays its hagiographic treatment. The former captain of the South African cricket team died in a helicopter crash in 2002. In Hansie’s projection of Cronje as “leader of men, symbol of racial harmony,” it is of a piece with his afterlife in popular media.
In the weeks and months that followed Cronje’s confession in April 2000, the Western media repositioned him as a noble Christian, almost helplessly mired in a murky world populated by shady Asian characters whispering into his ears. Richard Hobson, writing in The Times,  maintained that Cronje, “being a born-again Christian” could not possibly have transgressed legal and moral boundaries. He reminded readers about Asian cricketers like Salim Malik who had earlier been found guilty of accepting money from bookies.
A gossipy Guardian column went a step further: “Combative, tempestuous, God-fearing. He reads the Bible every day and proclaims a strict moral code: he won’t let players’ girlfriends stay at the team hotel because he thinks it is unseemly.”
In 2002, anthropologist Joan Wardrop wrote  that the coverage around ‘Hansiegate’ was driven by “a peculiarly Fundamentalist Christian frame of guilt and atonement.” Her paper made the link between Cronje’s narrative and patterns in Afrikaner society: his performance of guilt conformed to a set of idealised “Afrikaner collective notions of the self.”  He came from a community that glorified austerity, and his professed “love for money” was a sin –– but a familiar one. 
Williams and Gibbs, the two other players punished by the South African cricket board, were Coloured—the South African term for those with mixed-race parents. (In the dubious register of the erstwhile Hindi cricket magazine Cricket Samrat, Gibbs would often be described as shuddh ashwet— literally, “pure non-white.”)
Firdose Moonda, ESPN Cricinfo’s South Africa correspondent, recalled the loyalty Cronje inspired during the early days of his captaincy. “His popularity and the respect that he inspired in his fellow cricketers cut across racial lines,” Moonda told me. “But you also have to understand that apartheid happened fairly recently in South African history. For the initial five to ten years after South Africa was reintegrated into international sporting events, the national teams were entirely white, with very few exceptions if at all. Who could the people have rooted for?”
Cronje’s rise through the ranks followed quite naturally from his early education at Bloemfontein’s Grey College, where he was Head Boy. This was one of the 20-odd elite schools, Moonda explained, to which rich boys with sporting ambitions went in South Africa.
“I remember, my mother would watch Cronje taking his cap off before speaking at the post-match presentation and say, ‘What a gentleman!’”
The truth is that those early years of reintegration were marked by systemic racism in society and sport. It took till 1998 for the cricket team to have its first black player in spinner Paul Adams. Fast bowler Makhaya Ntini was the second. Last July, as the Black Lives Matter movement emerging from the United States gained momentum, Ntini told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that nobody knocked on his door to ask about dinner during his playing days. He said that his son Thando, who represented the country at the Under-19 World Cup in 2018, faced similar behaviour.
When fast bowler Lungi Ngidi expressed his support for Black Lives Matter, former players Pat Symcox and Boeta Dippenaar took him to task for not speaking up about attacks on white farmers in South Africa. 
The backdrop to all of this is Cricket South Africa’s affirmative action policy. At the domestic level, teams can field a maximum of five white players. The national team is required to field six coloured players, on an average, every season. It is also mandatory for two black players to feature in the starting eleven of an international game.
The quota system came under particular fire after the 2015 World Cup semi-final in Auckland. A less-than-fit Vernon Philander had to be drafted into the playing eleven at the cost of the in-form Kyle Abbott. Philander performed poorly in a last-over South African defeat that cemented the team’s reputation as “chokers” in knockout tournaments.
Abbott eventually walked away from international cricket to become a Kolpak player on the English county circuit. According to the Kolpak deal, players from countries that have a free trade agreement with the European Union are considered local (and not overseas) professionals. The kicker? They had to give up playing for their national teams. Talented cricketers like Morne Morkel and Duanne Olivier had taken the Kolpak route since. Now, after Britain officially exited the European Union this year, Kolpak contracts are off the table.
Moonda told me that a lot of black players coming through the system don’t get the socio-economic support they need, due to which they have to look for employment outside cricket. In other words, it isn’t as transformative as hoped. “Some things are slowly changing—of the six coaches we have at the franchise level, only Allan Donald is white. But overall, there is a lot of social healing to be done. South African cricket is falling apart.”
he divine comedy of international cricket rolls on. Cronje was banished to the inferno only to be redeemed in death. Sanjeev Chawla is out of purgatory, which is to say that he has been bailed from the custody of the Delhi Police. Last heard, he was claiming that every single international cricket match in the world is fixed. And after all these years, Azhar of the silken wrists  has been welcomed back to the paradise of the Indian cricket establishment. Over the last two decades, match-fixing scandals have come and gone.
The law continues to lack teeth. In 2013, the fast bowler Shantakumaran Sreesanth had been charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), a legislation better suited to prosecuting mob bosses and gangster sophisticates.  The broad interpretation of “organised crime” helps to prosecute offenders operating in under-legislated sectors.
But it is still a challenge to get a court to actually maintain charges. The Public Gambling Act, for instance, prescribes a fine of ₹200 or a maximum of three months’ imprisonment for a person found “owning or keeping or having charge of a gaming house.” The fine for patronising a gaming house is ₹100 or a month in prison.
In an interview with ESPN Cricinfo in June last year, Steve Richardson from the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) said, “I could actually deliver to the Indian police or the Indian government now at least eight names of people who are what I would term serial offenders, constantly approaching players to try and get them to fix matches. At the moment, with the lack of legislative framework in India, it is very limited what the police can do, and to that extent they have my great sympathy.”
The events of 2000 marked the passing of an era. Something was irrevocably altered in the psyche of a generation of Indian cricket fans. The initial shock was followed by world-weariness. Sab kuch fixed hai—everything is fixed—became a refrain. Vijay Lokapally, the former The Hindu and Sportstar correspondent, had been writing on cricket since 1986. “I lived cricket,” he told me. He used to collect player signatures on a miniature bat after every overseas tour. By 2000, he had over 50 autographed bats.
“After the Delhi Police held that press conference, I filed my copy as usual,” Lokapally said. “After I went home, I kept aside some 10-11 bats which were especially precious to me. I threw the rest in a large dustbin behind my house. I brought the bats I’d kept to office and there were fights among my colleagues as to who would keep which autographed bat.”
It didn’t matter as much to younger cricket-watchers. Karthik Krishnaswamy, now senior sub-editor at ESPN Cricinfo, was 13 years old in 2000. “I don’t think it changed the way I watched the game, or my interest levels, I think I was too young for all that,” he said. “I think the main thing that changed for me was getting used to the absence of Ajay Jadeja. It was only when I started reporting on cricket that I developed any concrete opinions on the whole betting thing. I still don't see it as morally indefensible.”
The novelist and cricket writer Siddhartha Vaidyanathan found it particularly hard to keep his emotions out of it. He was in college in 2000, a few years from starting his journalism career. “It was genuinely tough to imagine Cronje being involved with match-fixing,” he told me in a phone interview. “I remember, my mother would watch Cronje taking his cap off before speaking at the post-match presentation and say, ‘What a gentleman!’” 
Siddhartha went through a “cooling-off” period for a year or so, when his cricket-watching was intermittent at best. Later, while he was working at Wisden Cricinfo, he realised that a lot of his older colleagues would avoid discussing players like Azhar and Jadeja, even in strictly cricketing contexts. “It was an unwritten rule, they tended to be ignored.” While covering domestic cricket in the mid-2000s, he found despondent state-level cricketers second-guessing Ranji trophy games they had played in the 1990s. “They would wonder, ‘Was so-and-so Ranji match fixed or did we lose fair and square?’”
The life and politics of the country have inured today’s cricket-watchers. Fixing is just not a big deal any more. “People have stopped caring, Aditya,” Lokapally told me as a parting shot. “They see so much corruption around them in this country, with the police, with politicians, with businessmen, that they’re exhausted. And now, they’ve accepted it as a fact of life.”