Scandals are history as India reopen cricket's Eden

Letter From Delhi
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The Independent Online

India have just humbled Australia in a Test series here, stopping the antipodean juggernaut in their tracks, but the true victor is the game of cricket in the subcontinent. Suddenly it's as if the match-fixing scandal never happened.

India have just humbled Australia in a Test series here, stopping the antipodean juggernaut in their tracks, but the true victor is the game of cricket in the subcontinent. Suddenly it's as if the match-fixing scandal never happened.

Last Thursday, the fifth day of the Madras Test, after an afternoon of excruciating tension, India squeaked home by two wickets, the winning runs being scored by the sensation of the series, the 20-year-old Sikh off-spinner Harbhajan Singh. It was the conclusion of an amazing nine days which saw the game restored as if by divine intervention to India's pride and joy.

Why cricket, rather than any other activity, should have become the glue that binds this country together is a complicated question to answer. But it is, and has been for a very long time: one only had to see the outpouring of emotion in the newspapers that followed the death of Sir Donald Bradman to appreciate that for the subcontinent cricket is more than a passing fancy. But the match-fixing scandal that reached its climax last November looked set to kill off India's enthusiasm for the game.

The excitement of cricket as of any other sport is founded on the assumption that what you see is what you get: that the guys out on the strip are really doing their best to win. But a fatal shadow of doubt has been creeping over the Indian game ever since June 1997, when the press published the former India all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar's revelation that he had been offered 25 million rupees (more than £35,000) to sabotage a match against Pakistan. A succession of scandalous revelations, an investigation by a website during which Prabhakar was sent off to talk to cricket acquaintances equipped with a spy camera, and a report by the Central Bureau of Investigation condemning the former national captain Mohammad Azharuddin and four other stars, left India's disgusted cricket fans with the impression that their heroes were no worthier of respect than the scoundrels they elect to Parliament. Sometimes, when it suited them, they did their best; at other times, when the price was right, they were quite content to score slowly, to bowl wide, to get out playing silly strokes. For the fans it was a disastrous revelation, confirming their darkest suspicions.

The Indian authorities have sacked a couple of players, but have done nothing to extirpate the cancer of illegal betting that was at the root of the scandal. But for the optimists, and for those who can't bear the idea that their beloved sport is tainted beyond repair, the Test series just completed has given an injection of pride and hope. After the first Test against Australia in Bombay, when the home side were squelched inside three days, gloom was universal. But at Eden Gardens in Calcutta on Wednesday 14 March, something extraordinary happened. India were on their way to an even ruder whipping than at Bombay: their first-innings reply to Australia's 445 was a miserable 171, and they were forced to follow on. But then, in the cruel heat of Eden Gardens, while 25,000 fans roared their approval, the Indian team seemed to rediscover their faith. Vangipurappu Laxman and Rahul Dravid scored 281 and 180 respectively, India posted the extraordinary total of 657 for 7 declared, and went on to win by the same margin as their first innings total.

It is the extremes of India's performances in this series that takes one's breath away. Michael Atherton in South Africa or Pakistan might stubbornly ward off defeat, hour after hour; Graham Thorpe might graft stoically to snatch successive series wins in the gloaming. But to seize a lost game by the scruff and turn it around as violently as Laxman and Dravid did is cricketing heroics of a different kind.

By a strange coincidence, on the day that Laxman started clubbing McGrath and Gillespie around the Gardens as if they were beginners, in Delhi another man called Laxman was making news of a very different sort. The same website that had gone after the crooked cricketers on that day screened its sensational videotapes showing politicians hungrily taking bribes from reporters masquerading as arms merchants. The biggest catch was Bangaru Laxman, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whom they caught on camera taking a bribe of 100,000 rupees. That day, while Vangipurappu Laxman remained undefeated at the crease on 275, the political Laxman was forced to resign.

"A Tale of Two Laxmans" was how the papers put it. Here were the two Indias, the despicable and the magnificent; the real world, with all its squalor, and the ideal, which had recovered its power to captivate and enthrall. God was back in his heaven.