World Cup Cricket Gambling in India

India's black economy is huge, estimated to be much more than the country's national income. Quite a bit of the unaccounted wealth is stashed in foreign accounts, held as cash, gold, benami (false ownership) properties, stocks and more.

Some of this money is being poured into the massive illegal gambling or satta as locally referred accompanying the 10th Cricket World Cup being jointly hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which has been underway since Feb. 19 and is scheduled to run into early April. The sport, which features 14 national teams competing for the cup, is followed passionately by hundreds of millions of people across the world, but obsessively in the subcontinent.

Driven in considerable measure by the cricket games, India's satta market is flourishing despite stringent efforts by cricket administrators, police vigilance and crackdowns. It remains one of the most organized gaming forums in India, with millions, some say billions of dollars changing hands on a continuous basis.

According to police assessments, illegal betting on cricket in India amounts to well over US$5 billion annually, also bringing about a money laundering business to foreign banks and accounts. Some police officials say the yearly volume could be as high as US$20 billion, depending on the state of the economy, especially the stock markets and real-estate speculation, which can generate massive windfall gains for potential punters.

Usually, satta is at its busiest during cricket matches, when bets are placed on every aspect of the game and betting volumes during key one-day international matches (as opposed to the five-day ones), and which involve rivals India and Pakistan, sometimes exceed US$500 million.

In the face of widespread, intensive tapping of cell phones and the Internet by authorities, the bets can also be placed on word of mouth and secret codes within closed circles while the operation runs on "trust" and "cash transactions."

"The India-England league cricket match this Sunday that ended in a tie has meant huge profits to those who bet on such an unlikely finish," one bookie who runs his business from New Delhi's Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh, two well-known hubs, told Asia Sentinel.

In the 10 days since the World Cup matches have begun, the Delhi police have busted five betting rackets in the national capital itself. "The rate of the odds between the two teams originated from outside India," a senior police official told reporters. "After the match was over, profit and loss was calculated by software known as 'Back 'N' Lay PRO.' The rates kept fluctuating. A laptop was used for data entry."

Although the Federal Reserve Bank of India has blocked credit-card payments on websites it believes are fronts for gambling, many illegal Internet forums continue to be operated by prominent bookies. Punters set up accounts with these sites and instruct them to make bets on their behalf for a fee. Illegal money laundering channels referred to as hawala are also used. With mobile phones and e-mails under threat of being monitored by the police, some operators offer big clients "free home delivery" services using young boys as runners.

As with India's stock market, which has often been referred to as a casino, the aim of the gamblers is to make quick returns. Some are in it for the thrill. But, mostly it is serious business that involves big money that sometimes prompts seamier aspects such as match fixing, spot fixing, corruption and tainted players being bribed by bookies or others even threatened by betting cartels that try to rig the odds.

Bets are placed on scores by individual players such as cricketing stars Sachin Tendulkar or Virendra Sehwag on the possibility of their scoring a particular number of runs, getting out on first ball, run out and more. A faceoff between traditional rivals India and Pakistan can send the satta market into a tizzy.

New concepts to escape detection include spot-fixing that involves nuances such as a bowler delivering no balls, which authorities cannot track easily and which also provides scope for players to earn side money to suit the odds and, in a worst-case scenario, rig a match.

In recent years, the betting process has turned high-tech and global with the help of coded interactions via computers, mobile telephones and the Internet, with rich non-resident Indians and top underworld dons heavily involved in the trade. Betting scandals over the last decade have particularly involved South African, Indian and Pakistani cricket players, some of whom have been banned and faced court proceedings.

In the latest instance of spot fixing exposed in the last couple of months, three Pakistani players, including former captain Salman Butt have been found guilty and banned from the game. The most famous case involved the former captain of South Africa Hansie Cronje, an iconic player for his country, who later died under mysterious circumstances in an air crash.

In another instance, the former coach of the Pakistani team Bob Woolmer, known to be strict with players allegedly dealing with the shady betting mafia, was found dead under mysterious circumstances inside his hotel room. There was suspicion that a Woolmer was done to death by a betting syndicate that lost a lot of money after Pakistan suffered a shocking defeat by minnows Ireland during the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies.

While cricket remains the most popular gaming forum in India, various permutations get thrown up during off season or other big events such as election results. For example, during national elections in India big money can ride on party positions and candidate for prime minister, given era of coalition politics in India.

In July 2009, reports suggested that powerful betting syndicates tried to influence a crucial vote of confidence against the government over the India-United States nuclear deal amid allegations of huge amounts of money changing hands to buy fringe voters in the Lok Sabha.

There were indications to show that some independent members of parliament and smaller regional parties from the provinces of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh were approached by betting syndicates to support or vote against the government, depending on the favored odds.

While big money for horse-trading among parliamentarians is usual in Indian politics, it was the first time there was serious talk that bookies could be directly involved in determining the political future of the country. (In the end, the government survived the vote and the nuclear deal was approved.)

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com