In search of the notorious bookie John

(As the unseemly spot-fixing scandal unravels, here is a personal recap of a few tumultuous days some 15 years ago when another reporter and I set in search of a Chennai bookie who was thought to have brought much shame to the glorious game of cricket. Save for minor exaggerations for the sake of effect, this is a true account)

It was a December morning of 1998. It must have been cold elsewhere. But in Chennai, it was warm as ever.

Walking into the newsroom, I, even as a young reporter with just a couple of years into the profession, could feel the crackle of excitement among my colleagues. That was because the coffee man had just come in. Otherwise, the day looked set to pan out in normal terms.

I am not a student of literature. If I had been, I would have realized that calm was just a literary foreshadowing of a storm that was to follow later in the form of a news break from Australia. Yes, it was the morning that the Australian Cricket Board (ACB), after being in denial for years, finally admitted that two of their cricketers, Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, had been paid to provide information to an Indian bookmaker during the Singer Cup in Sri Lanka in 1994.

The devil, as usual, was in the detail: The bookie was named as one ‘John’ from ‘Madras’. Sitting in my spartan desk, reading the news again and again of the murky happenings in the most noble of sports, I could feel a sense of unease knotting in my stomach. Which was understandable, it was time for my lunch.

That afternoon, after a press conference, a friend from another publication (who is no longer in journalism, he having moved on to academics) and me, while discussing the news break of the day, had a brainwave that is possible only when you are a wide-eyed enthusiastic young reporter, totally cut off from reality.

Our idea: Try and track this elusive John, after all he was from our very own city.

Our plan: Setting out on John’s trail in the most unobtrusive manner. The world will know, we decided amongst ourselves, only after we nail our quarry.

Cutting to the chase straightaway, the first two days of our secretive search was dispiriting. We kept hitting one wall after another in our noble quest. But we didn’t lose hope. We knew betting and gambling during cricket matches was going on among Marwaris/Seths in the Kelly’s and Sowcarpet areas. We knew one lucky break was what we needed to gain a toe-hold into the story. And, as it happened, it came in the form of distant acquaintance, who, on a phone call, confirmed to us the all-important news: ‘Guys, John is not a Marwari name’.

While we were gathering such vital information surreptitiously, the two of us also decided that a bit of field work in the Kelly’s and Sowcarpet areas could also provide us with some important leads.  So one afternoon we landed there, and —- call it beginner’s luck —- within fifteen minutes of our arrival itself we managed to zero in on a very good samosa shop manned by a laconic young fellow.

Crunching on the samosa delicately —- and totally casually so as to not raise any doubt that the two of us were on the hunt of a wanted bookie —- my friend, in what he thought to be Hindi, asked the young man at the shop, ‘bhai saab, yeh betting-shetting hai na? woh yehan kahan happen ho raha hai? (Where is this betting thing happening in this area?)

The young man looked at us a bit puzzled and said: ‘Enna solreengannu puriyaleenga. Naan pona vaaram thaan Devakottai-lendhu inga vandhu velaikku sendhenga.’ (I don’t understand what you are saying. I joined here from Devakottai last week).

With this attempt also kind leading us nowhere, we finally decided to approach this story from the angle of players. While debating long enough on which international cricketer can give us an interesting link on this story, we listed out a few names. While re-running our eyes on the list, we also realized we knew none of them to ask these sensitive questions. It was nerve-wracking. But luckily we had a Plan-B on which we could fall back: We thought we will speak to a Tamil Nadu player, who was a good friend at that time. Being an active player in the circuit, we were certain he could provide us with some insight, and if we were lucky, he could, in fact, put us in the thick of things.

But we weren’t lucky. Speaking to him, but we almost stumbled on to another big story, which could be roughly headlined as: TN player bemoans lack of fixing opportunities at State games.

Anyway, as uneasy days passed by, the case was finally cracked —- by the police, that is. It turned out that ‘John’ was the fictitious name of one Mukesh Gupta, and ‘Madras’ was apparently the fictitious name for Delhi, because that is where he was said to operate from.

Looking back, our attempts to unravel what was indeed a multi-million-dollar racket through our kindergarten-level snooping does come across stupid beyond belief. But you can’t blame us. Probably we were fired by a subconscious zeal. The subconscious zeal of watching Rajnikanth’s Priya in our formative years. In the film’s memorable climactic scene, Sridevi, who is holed up in a small room in a never-ending series of high-rise buildings in Singapore, is actually traced by Rajnikanth, without in anyway arousing the suspicion of others, by the investigative masterstroke of singing in Tamil.

Frankly, in comparison, ours was a search with Holmesian finesse.