Updated: February 14, 2020 2:13:22 pm
At the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch Office at R K Puram, two constables of the Anti-Extortion Cell, Om Prakash and Ajit Singh, exchanged amused smiles as seasoned television commentators dropped their jaws watching Hansie Cronje toss the new ball to off-spinner Derek Crookes. This was the India-South Africa one-day international game at Nagpur. It was March 19, 2000; IPL wasn’t yet born. India wasn’t used to watching spinners bowl to opening batsmen. It was also the winter when a bunch of Delhi policemen became more insightful about the game than most top cricket pundits. While getting wiser, they would also get disillusioned.
Within 18 days, Inspector Ishwar Singh had filed a complaint with charges of match-fixing against Cronje, London-based businessman Sanjeev Chawla and four of his associates. It had details of how Chawla and Cronje fixed team scores, and mentioned the role of four other South African players, including Herschelle Gibbs. A couple of years later, Cronje died in a plane crash. Now, 18 years after he left the country, last month, a UK court ordered Chawla’s extradition.
Recalling the untimely death of the cricket fan inside him, Om Prakash, now 49 and a head constable, laments, “I loved Ajay Jadeja, but it all changed. I haven’t seen a game since 2000.”
Best of Express Premium
Nothing had prepared the two constables for the role they were to play in cricket’s coincidental unmasking — which started with their boss, Inspector Ishwar Singh, asking them to be part of an extortion investigation in early 2000. It was a textbook case of those times — a suspected Chhota Shakeel and
D Company operative from Dubai, Shaheen Haitheley, had threatened an Old Delhi businessman to cough up Rs 5 crore.
A background check of those in touch with Haitheley threw up a Bollywood name — Krishan Kumar, a failed actor and brother of late T-Series founder Gulshan Kumar. BSNL was roped in — whenever Kumar’s cellphone rang, a landline on the top floor of the Delhi Police’s R K Puram office too came alive.
Ishwar is tickled as he recalls those early days of phone-tapping. “It was all very primitive, nothing like the computers of today. We would strip the landline wires of their plastic cover and twist the metal wire inside tightly to a tape-recorder, that had those good old audio cassettes.”
Little did Ishwar or his men know then that this rudimentary contraption would connect them to cricket’s seedy betting syndicate that dealt in hundreds of crores, and lead them to a catch that they would boast about for years to come.
Om Prakash and Ajit continued to work in shifts, hanging onto every word that Krishan Kumar spoke on the phone. With no headway, the surveillance was extended. After Kumar’s Call Data Record analysis, it was decided to also closely observe his friends, Rajesh Kalra, Sunil Dara, and Man Mohan Khattar. The Crime Branch office was buzzing, the policemen were busy and the recorded cassettes were piling up.
On February 20, 2000, the Delhi Police got lucky. Kumar handed over his compromised phone to a London-based friend, Sanjeev Chawla, who had just landed in Mumbai and checked into Hotel Taj Mahal, that was also the base of the South African cricket team. Chawla was now being snooped on by proxy.
Meanwhile, the constables, programmed to look for extortion clues, were getting restless. One fine day, after another late-night vigil, Om Prakash bumped into DCP Pradeep Srivastava on the steps of the police headquarters. “I casually asked Om Prakash about the case. He said there was no terror angle, all he got to hear was ‘catch pakad liya’, ‘catch nahin pakda’, ‘out kiya’. I told him these could be code words, they might have been talking about money. He replied, ‘Nahin janaab, aap hi sun lijeye (No sir, you hear yourself)’,” recalls Srivastav who, after retiring as DG, Chandigarh, lives in Delhi’s Civil
When Srivastav heard the cassettes, he agreed with his junior. But what stuck in his mind was the unusual chatter. “There was someone speaking in chiseled accented English to someone who spoke tooti-phooti angrezi (broken English). The man speaking broken English was complaining… ‘You said you will do this but you didn’t’,” says Srivastav.
A breakthrough came via yet another happenstance. A few days later, Srivastav was watching cricket at home when, during a game, South African skipper Hansie Cronje came to the commentary box. “That’s when it struck me, ‘Aawaz jaani pehchaani lag rahi hai (The voice sounds familiar)’.” The mystery of the man who spoke that chiseled English had been solved.
Inspector Ishwar got in touch with Doordarshan for the game tapes to compare the voices. In the coming days, Om Prakash’s ears would wait for the ‘chiseled English’ chatter to appear again. On March 14, 2000, it did. He would shout out to his senior in the next room. “Sir kuchch English mein hai (There is something in English)!”
Ishwar still recalls Chawla’s three words: “Hello, Hi Hansie!” And the reply: “Hello,
In the rukka (short note of complaint) filed by Ishwar, as part of the chargesheet, “Hello, Hi Hansie!” would figure
Almost overnight, for Om Prakash and Ajit, watching cricket became work itself. On most days, thanks to the phone calls, they would have prior information on the playing eleven, the toss or, say, that Crookes would bowl the first over. It was watching sports without the thrill of suspense. Sometimes, when the game wouldn’t go as per the pre-decided script, the landline in the R K Puram office would ring off the hook.
What was once whispered in hushed tones in the cricket circuit was now on page one of newspapers. As soon as the Delhi Police filed the FIR in the first week of March 2000, every cricket-playing nation had its eyes on India. The transcript of Cronje’s conversations with bookies went viral.
Cricket’s axis of evil — the player-punter-bookie nexus — was no longer a mere conspiracy theory. The rot, triggered by the proliferation of the game’s shorter version, coinciding with the broadcasting boom and the multi-fold escalation in mobile phone users, and aided by India’s weak anti-gambling law, ran deep. Anybody with a phone connection could have a syndicate of his own that was affiliated to big sharks abroad. Match-fixing had become the underworld’s new ATM.
The controversy triggered probes around the world and forced the International Cricket Council (ICC) to form an anti-corruption unit. Kings Commission in South Africa and the CBI investigation in India found the game’s leading lights, including Cronje, Gibbs, and Indian stars Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, guilty. All were banned, for varying periods.
As for Chawla, he took a flight out of the country on March 15, 2000, four days before the final ODI. Police officials knew he was on way to the airport, but could only watch helplessly. “The South Africans were still in India. Making an arrest would have meant naming the South African players he was in touch with and that might have meant a diplomatic issue. So we had to wait for the South Africans to leave,” says an investigator.
The South Africans left on March 20.
Eighteen years later, Chawla happens to be the only accused in this case who hasn’t been questioned by either the Delhi Police, CBI or Kings Commission; this despite figuring prominently in all the probe reports.
Arvind Kumar, then Operation Hansie’s foot soldier, now ACP, Crime Branch, first calls Chawla the pivot, thinks for a while and changes it to “sutradhar (main link)”. “Woh Mahabharat dekha tha na TV pe aapne, Chawla ‘Samay’ hai (You saw serial Mahabharat on TV, didn’t you? Chawla was the character ‘Samay’),” he says.
Anticipating his return, Ishwar smiles, “Maybe he can even name a few Indian players.”
The CBI report did talk about Chawla’s association with Indian players and his visits to the gym at Delhi’s Hotel Park Royal, the watering hole where the key characters of this saga allegedly hung around. Everybody, from alleged punters Kalra, Dara, Krishan Kumar to players Ajay Jadeja, Manoj Prabhakar, Nikhil Chopra, reportedly regularly bumped into each other at this Nehru Place haunt. Kalra, the report also says, called the then India offie Chopra, on Chawla’s insistence, before the Nagpur ODI (the Crookes game) to check if he was in the playing eleven. The CBI report, however, found nothing against Chopra.
In the almost two decades long lull, and the virtual closure of the case after Cronje’s death in 2002, most of the tainted cricketers have got rid of the ‘fixer’ tag. They are now talking heads, coaches and selectors, and the return of the ghost from the past could be unsettling.
Chawla, 51, a UK passport holder, currently in London with his wife and two sons, tried his best to stonewall India’s request. Westminster Magistrate’s Court judgment shows how he raised issues of passage of time, prison conditions in India, human rights and right to family life. The hearing also discussed Chawla’s wife’s health issues, and mentioned the family’s catering business and a restaurant let out on lease.
In his long career, Ishwar says, he has dealt with many suspects who run to court to avoid arrest. Back in 2000, Krishan Kumar too was a minor celebrity — with hit songs like Bewafa Sanam, Aacha sila diya tune mere pyaar ka, behind him, and those caterpillar-like eyebrows.
With policemen on his heels, Kumar first got himself admitted to Noida’s Kailash Hospital and later moved the High Court to get anticipatory bail. The Delhi Police went to the Supreme Court for cancellation of bail.
Fifty-six-year-old Ishwar, now an ACP in the Capital’s West District, remembers clearly the judge’s caustically funny observation. “R K Anand was Kumar’s lawyer. The judge told him, ‘Are you withdrawing the bail petition or should I pass an order? I was watching the match till 2 o’clock and wasting my time. If this isn’t match-fixing, what is?’ Ek minute mein bail plea uda di (He dismissed the bail plea in a minute), said go and surrender,” says Ishwar, laughing heartily.
Srivastav too has one vivid memory from the episode. It was a line he heard in the Chawla-Cronje cassettes, after a game where apparently Gibbs was to score less than 20 runs but went on to make much more, thanks to several chances gifted by Indian fielders. “I still remember Hansie’s reply, ‘If your b…..ds can’t join their two hands, then what do I do?’,” Srivastav recalls, cracking up.
There was another, lesser-known character in this story: an Indian-origin restaurateur from Johannesburg who was “the best friend” of every Indian cricketer who stepped onto South African soil, a charismatic wheeler-dealer with that unforgettably dramatic name — Hamid Banjo Cassim.
Touring Indian cricketers have a rather endearing nickname for men like Banjo. They are called “Mamu”, the quintessential maternal uncles who spoil nephews during visits. These fans-turned-hangers-on-turned-groupies take a time-tested route to the heart of cricketers — via the stomach.
On long tours, the easiest way to break the ice with India’s cricketers is by arranging vegetarian food for home-sick players. If indulged, “Mamus” can be banked on for free SIMs and even all-paid shopping trips. In return, they ask for free match-day passes, selfies, signed memorabilia, and sometimes, a pound-and-a-half of flesh.
A giant of a man, Banjo was a school dropout and a failed entrepreneur. The father of three had a candy shop called Sweet Junction in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg area, famous for a halal restaurant that served spicy curries.
Among the ’90s South African players, he was the “biltong” man, someone who never tired of providing them the strictly carnivore nation’s favourite snack, those dried and seasoned meat strips. He was more than a “Mamu” for the South Africans, especially Cronje. Records show he called the Porteas skipper 180 times in six months.
Indian cricketers from the 1996 tour remember Banjo for his extraordinary biryani delivery to the dressing room, lifted to the balcony from the grass banks by a rope. You could always trust Banjo to make things happen.
He told the Kings Commission that Kapil Dev was a good friend, close enough to introduce him to his wife. He wasn’t lying, Kapil told the CBI about how he knew “Hamid Mamu” very well.
Banjo also flaunted how he arranged South African players for some friendly games that Kapil organised in India and how once, while driving the Indian star late one night in Johannesburg, he pranked his nephew. The young boy stood stunned at the counter of his truck shop seeing Kapil walk in and ask for a drink.
During the Kings Commission hearing, Banjo also said he had arranged SIM cards and phones for Bollywood stars when they visited South Africa. One pay-on-go SIM he provided to Amisha Patel — that era’s next big thing after her 2000 blockbuster Kaho Na Pyaar Hai — was later used by Banjo to make calls to Chawla. Banjo also proudly told the Commission he had asked South African star Lance Klusener to arrange tickets for Patel for a Test at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium.
So when Chawla wanted to get introduced to Cronje in South Africa in January 2000, a month before their India tour, Banjo was the obvious go-between. Details discussed during the Kings Commission hearing show Chawla was received by Banjo and taken to his shop for a meal.
A day before South Africa’s tri-series ODI game against Zimbabwe on February 1, 2000, Banjo told the Commission, Chawla handed the South African skipper $15,000 at a Durban hotel in front of him. “Mr Cronje took that envelope and I was surprised. He (Chawla) said, ‘Keep this and I will talk to you at a later stage’,” Banjo said in his testimony.
During South Africa’s subsequent series in India, Chawla kept talking to Cronje and, when he didn’t take his calls, there was always Banjo who would mediate from Johannesburg. All through the hearing, the candy shop owner kept insisting that he was just a cricket enthusiast trying to be helpful. The advocates questioning him weren’t always convinced. Chawla’s return to India might add a new layer to this investigation.
This case has had a history of unexpected twists and turns. At every dead end, the Delhi Police have been lucky to find a new opening. DCP Srivastav has seen it first hand. The cold response of the government in the aftermath of the first FIR was disheartening for the team. “My immediate superior, Joint CP, Crime, Dr K K Paul, was very supportive. But no one else was ready to believe us. The government asked why the FIR was filed prematurely, without proper evidence, and how it doesn’t fall within the four walls of the law,” he says.
The Delhi Police saw this as a case of cheating, both Chawla and Cronje were booked under IPC Sections 420 and 120B, but legal opinion was different. According to the law, cheating can only be established if somebody loses and somebody gains. Legal luminaries would ask: Whose loss is it if a match is fixed? That even if the outcome of a game was pre-decided, the spectators didn’t know, they got their money’s worth. Don’t people pay to watch World Wrestling Entertainment, knowing those matches are fixed?
The Delhi Police tried to argue that the game wasn’t “fair”, which is what the fans pay for. “We did register a case of cheating but there was always this grave doubt about it being tenable or not,” says Srivastav.
And then came the turnaround. Another phone call, another accented voice. Srivastav was home for lunch when he was told by his helper that there was someone on line speaking “angrezi”. “I got on the line and heard English with a French accent. He was a reporter from a foreign agency. He said, ‘Deputy Commissioner, you must be a very happy man. Each bit that you alleged against Hansie has been confessed by him last night’,” recalls Srivastav, adding how he will remain eternally grateful to the South African skipper for “unburdening his conscience”.
Within minutes, the government’s tone changed. Srivastav’s voice has a crackle as he recalls, “On television was then NSA himself, Brajesh Mishra. He came on screen to say: ‘Satyamev jayate (Truth always prevails)… Whatever our officers were saying has been confirmed by Hansie himself’.”
Once again, the policemen gathered in front of the Crime Branch office television and exchanged amused smiles. It was a winter of crazy coincidences.
The importance of the Sanjeev Chawla case
#This remains the first and only case of a top international player, that too a national captain, caught on tape sharing match information with a member of an illegal betting syndicate. The Hansie Cronje-Sanjeev Chawla conversation triggered cricket’s biggest churning
#In wake of the Delhi Police revelations, the Ministry of Sports asked the CBI to probe match-fixing and related malpractices in Indian cricket. After a nearly five-month-long probe, where they grilled many who figured in the Cronje tapes and several other bookies and India players, the CBI filed an extensive report.
#Based on the CBI findings, the BCCI banned former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma for life. Another India regular, Ajay Jadeja, was banned for five months.
#The South African government constituted the now famous King’s Commission to look into allegations of corruption against its players. Based on this inquest, the South Africa cricket board banned Cronje for life. Herchelle Gibbs was banned for six months
#Following the case, the ICC formed its Anti-Corruption Unit
🗞 Subscribe Now: Get Express Premium to access our in-depth reporting, explainers and opinions 🗞️
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.