Now Azharuddin stands accused

As inquiry widens and more players are implicated, South Africa begins to forgive
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The Independent Online

As the Indian police extended their investigations into the Hansie Cronje match fixing affair yesterday, England players and the former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin were suddenly brought into the frame. The latest revelations came as South Africans unexpectedly began to forgive their disgraced former captain.

Last night there were claims that unnamed England players had taken money to fix games. They came, apparently, from the former international all-rounder Chris Lewis, though like so many other allegations being made in the wake of Cronje's astonishing admission earlier last week, they had few sources.

The purported claims and counter-claims may or may not be true, but the number of them in the past five days has thrown into full view the difficulties faced by the International Cricket Council, the game's governing body.

Azharuddin has been mentioned several times before in casual bar-room conversations and, again, the ICC would like more concrete evidence. However, the Indian Board are clearly concerned. Their officials have convened a meeting for Tuesday, not, superficially at least, to talk of Azharuddin - who was obviously denying any wrong-doing last night - but to discuss why their team have been losing so much lately.

This would seem to fly in the face of the 3-2 one-day series victory against South Africa which started the present fuss. But at last it seems they will be aware that India have lost games they might have won.

Everybody at present is guilty until they have been proved innocent, and last night's developments were merely symbolic of a continuing knee-jerk reaction to Cronje's sensational confession last Tuesday. As soon as he conceded that he had accepted money from a bookmaker - though nobody knows what for - it became open season.

The ICC could only have regretted not taking action sooner, and their president Jagmohan Dalmiya and chief executive David Richards must be aware that their early indecision may have opened the floodgates.

If England players are involved - and though that seems highly unlikely then so did the Bible-bashing Cronje's involvement - the call for action by the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, clearly needs to be met. While the public have obviously not been unduly influenced by the week's proceedings, as evidenced by the full-house crowd at Cape Town on Friday for the match between South Africa and Australia, the game is obviously in crisis.

Meanwhile in a surge of public sympathy, which was almost as shocking as the original allegations of corrupt behaviour, it was being suggested that Cronje might yet play for his country again. Only a few days ago he looked washed up after admitting taking money from a bookmaker.

The independent inquiry prompted by his self-confessed "error of judgement" - he took $8,200, or 50,000 rand - is likely to start within a fortnight. Before that, it is probable that the ICC will accede to a request from the ECB for a summit conference of all the major cricketing nations.

They have constantly rejected calls for a global inquiry into match rigging and illegal betting involving players but such has been the opprobrium heaped on them last week that they recognise the need to do something. Imran Khan, the great former Pakistan all-rounder, joined in yesterday when he said: "I think it's so serious an issue that it's tempting to say that all international one-day cricket should be suspended while it is sorted out."

Bowing to that type of broadside, Richards has conceded that the game has been seriously hurt by the episode andLord MacLaurin's request for a summit "was under consideration". It is hard to see how they can avoid one.

South Africa, however, is in conciliatory mood towards the man who until five days ago was an exemplar of all that was good in cricket and society. "Support for Hansie is certainly growing," said Graham Abrahams, spokesman for Ngconde Balfour, the country's minister of sport. "It goes across all genders and races. It's recognised that like everybody else he has human frailties. The guy has made an important contribution and you can't throw everything overboard for one aberration."

Abrahams insisted that there would be no cover-up, despite the compassion towards Cronje. He said that the inquiry chairman would be chosen early this week and the inquiry convened within days to report by the end of May.

The supposition that Cronje took his money to ensure there was not a draw in the remarkable final Test of his side's series against England would be thoroughly investigated, said Abrahams.

In India, Ajay Raj Sharma, the New Delhi police commissioner, said he was looking for two Mr Bigs, one in India, one in South Africa in an operation he suspected might stretch round the globe. His detectives have been dispatched to the five cities where last month's one-day series internationals took place and those matches are all still under a cloud because the men have been told to continue to try to gather evidence.

He did not expect to name any more South African players in addition to the four already charged in absence - Cronje, Nicky Boje, Herschelle Gibbs and Pieter Strydom - or any Indian players. "But some facts may emerge about others," he said. "This case has shocked me. I could not imagine that there could be such goings on at this level." A week ago nor could most of world cricket. Now nobody doubts that Sharma and his men may have unearthed a cancer not in imminent prospect of being cured.

Additional reporting by Jean Macfarlane in New Delhi and Andy Colquhoun in Cape Town.