Seedy world of the Indian bookies

Under Mafia scrutiny, odds-makers and punters face many dangers

Illegal cricket betting in India is a shady and secretive affair. It's all done by telephone - often mobiles - to lessen the risks. Bookies who answer have little time for pleasantries during the game's frenzy. They simply relay the odds. Typically they might be 75/100 on a win. Meaningless to the uninitiated, and anyone else who might be eavesdropping. Even the sums staked have codes: one peti the shorthand for 100,000 rupees. And punters use a recognised codename to register the bet. It takes only a few seconds before the line goes dead.

Illegal cricket betting in India is a shady and secretive affair. It's all done by telephone - often mobiles - to lessen the risks. Bookies who answer have little time for pleasantries during the game's frenzy. They simply relay the odds. Typically they might be 75/100 on a win. Meaningless to the uninitiated, and anyone else who might be eavesdropping. Even the sums staked have codes: one peti the shorthand for 100,000 rupees. And punters use a recognised codename to register the bet. It takes only a few seconds before the line goes dead.

Winnings, or losses, are totted up and settled later in cash. Few on either side welsh on the deal. It's all done on trust. Which is ironic for an industry awash with allegations of match-fixing and bribery. Hansie Cronje and his team-mates are the latest to fall under suspicion of involvement with Indian bookies. The betting blizzard of £16m that greets India's biggest one-day fixtures makes the temptation toinfluence the outcome irresistible. Especially for big operators with hot-lines to an expatriate Mafia sheltering in Dubai.

Most, though, are small outfits operating in seedy back-streets like Delhi's Paharganj district. A warren of narrow streets crowded with cheap backpackers' hotels, it is perfect cover for illegal bookies. Clerks man banks of phones. Televisions carry matches live on satellite. But such unprepossessing settings mask a sharpness. "These guys have brains like computers," said one awed punter. "They work out odds and positions in a split-second."

New clients must win the bookie's trust. It's a slow process. Friends of established gamblers introduce new punters. Bets are accepted for the first three or four months with the person who made the introduction acting as guarantor. Not that problems occur often. "With the underworld involved, these guys get physical if you don't pay-up," said one Delhi sports editor. "It's a dangerous business."

Perhaps more difficult than paying up is keeping up with the fiendishly complex odds. Rates might start at 75/100, where Rs100 correctly placed on, say, India winning, would bring a return of Rs75.Crucially, though, the odds can fluctuate as the game progresses. Odds can vary wildly as much as 70 or 80 times a game. "Cricket betting is like eight hours of non-stop sex," said one Bangalore bookie, who takes up to 2,000 calls during a game. Punters place seven or eight bets throughout the match to increase winnings, or, more likely, mitigate losses. "The essential difference between betting on the race course and cricket betting is that if the horse has lost you lose your money. But in cricket you have a chance of recovering your money until the last ball."

For punter and bookie alike it can be helter-skelter ride. "I personally prefer horse racing because the risks in cricket are too great," said one bookie. "You might have done everything right as a bookie, but your outstandings [debts] kill you."

Literally, it seems. Bangalore bookies settle up within 24 hours, but punters run on credit waiting for the next game to make up losses. Delhi, by contrast, has a tradition of next-day settlements, while Bombay sets apart a day weekly to square the books. Despite the Mafia's watchful eye, outstanding bets are sometimes so huge that bookies go under. At least two dozen have gone bust in the last few years two years and half a dozen committed suicide.

With such intense pressure it is not surprising that many are prepared to use any means to improve their odds. Snippets of information become vital. "Punters bet on everything. Team line-ups, withdrawals, you name it, even before the match starts," said one cricket writer. "So apparently innocent information carries a value."

Pointers to pitch condition and the wicket are crucial to fixing the odds. Pradeep Magazine, cricket writer for the Indian Express, was offered an £80,000 south Delhi apartment to introduce a bookie to touringIndian team members. "The entire thing is illegal, so they have to get this information to set their odds somewhere. The bookie who approached me wanted information on the wicket and anything I could tell him as the match progressed."

Other Indian journalists and team officials are less scrupulous than Magazine, who blew the whistle. One leading cricket writer, sacked after an exposé, was constantly on his mobile phone to bookies during matches. The Indian cricket board even banned its players carrying mobile phones in grounds from 1996.

Manoj Prabhakar, a former Indian swing bowler and opening batsman, has been pushing for a clean-up. He rocked the Indian cricketing establishment when he revealed that he was offered £40,000 by two team-mates to "play below par" at the 1994 Singer Cup in Sri Lanka. He fears match-fixing will have a disastrous outcome. "With the Mafia involved, it's a dangerous business and someone's going to get killed."

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