Cricket World Cup: Illegal bookmakers still thriving

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MS Dhoni is run out in the Cricket World Cup semi-final between India and New Zealand

With India’s talismanic batsman MS Dhoni mere centimetres away from safety, a direct hit sends two bails flying into the air and ends a country’s hope of lifting the Cricket World Cup trophy.

The former captain’s dismissal plunges a nation into mourning – and one man into ecstasy.

Aryan, who has asked not to be identified by his real name, is a bookie in one of India’s most populous states.

The vast majority of his clients, largely local businessmen, had bet heavily on their team beating New Zealand at Manchester’s Old Trafford.

Their misfortune netted Aryan some 500,000 rupees – more than $7,000.

After a series of raids by police, two other bookies pulled out of interviews with the BBC, but Aryan agreed to talk via an internet call, using an anonymised account set up moments before making contact.

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Gamblers exchange cash for codes and tokens which they use to place wagers via mobile apps

His caution is unsurprising. Although hugely popular in all sectors of Indian society, sports betting is illegal in most of the country, thanks to a patchwork of state and national laws. This makes Aryan – who has worked in “the business” for 10 years, despite being in his 20s – a criminal.

His mood, however, is not one of a cowering fugitive.

The Cricket World Cup – the most anticipated tournament in India’s favourite sport – is “like a festival” for bookies, he says, and he doesn’t think the party will come to an end any time soon.

“I do feel scared sometimes that I might get caught,” Aryan admits, “but there is also this confidence that whatever happens, happens.

“We can always get bail in a few days. Some of my friends were caught during the last IPL [the Indian Premier League] and all got bail in 10 to 15 days and came back to this same business with double the energy.”

Close network

Neither India’s law ministry nor the Mumbai police responded to requests for comment on the claims made by Aryan, whose cocksure attitude is backed up by his confidence in the informal system that underpins the betting industry.

“I never take clients without reference,” he explains, when asked how an outsider would go about placing a bet.

“This business runs on goodwill. When you connect to one person and your dealings and money transactions with that person are honest, that person will refer you to other people.

“Slowly you have a network of people connected to you. First it’s five people, then 10, then 15 – that’s how you form your chain.”

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India’s bookmakers take bets via mobile phone apps

Besides, these days Aryan works mostly online, through a complex points system involving mobile apps and regularly redirected websites.

Going digital has shrunk the size of the average bet: in the days of in-person transactions, punters would put down as much as $200,000 each. But business is booming nonetheless.

Estimates of the size of India’s underground betting market are unreliable and range from about $45bn to an improbable $150bn.

News reports suggest that more than $190m worth of bets are placed on each one-day international match involving the Indian national cricket team.

Tempting rewards

Whatever the true figure, few would dispute that India’s sports betting industry is among the largest in the world, and certainly bigger than its legal equivalent in countries like the UK.

And although just a tiny percentage of Indian bookies are involved in corruption, the potential for large, untaxed rewards has proved too tempting for some.

Aryan won’t comment on whether professional cricketers or others close to the game have ever placed a bet with him, but the IPL’s problems with spot fixing – in which minor aspects of the game are deliberately tweaked – are well documented.

In 2013, players were accused of being involved in the practice, while in a separate case, the Mumbai police arrested a relative of an employee at the Indian cricket board for having links with bookies.

Subsequent committees headed by Indian judges found that several figures involved in the IPL were guilty of match-fixing and illegal betting.

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A committee of India’s Supreme Court suspended two teams from the IPL for match fixing

In 2016, India’s Supreme Court asked the country’s Law Commission to look into the pros and cons of decriminalising betting. Last year, it concluded that regulating a legalised industry would “effectively curb the menace of black-money generation”.

The Commission also recommended creating a network of licensed operators and a registration system for gamblers using existing IDs.

It cited arguments that legalisation would generate employment, protect vulnerable sections of society and free up law enforcement authorities who currently spend valuable resources on going after bookies.

Tax revenues

“Legalising betting will keep everything in the open,” says Siddhartha Upadhyay, a member of the governing body of the Sports Authority of India, and founder of the non-profit organisation Stairs, which nurtures sporting talent across the country.

“Everyone will know who is participating, who is not,” he says. “It can help reduce criminal activity to a great extent.

“I understand the government has to have a very strong tax structure and a very strong regulatory structure to do that. With today’s technological advancements, that should not be a big problem.”

Legalisation, Mr Upadhyay argues, would also generate tens of billions of US dollars in tax revenue each year.

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An estimated $9bn has been wagered on the Cricket World cup

“Around 60,000 crores (almost $9bn) have already been bet on this World Cup, and the World Cup is not over yet,” he claims.

This money raised from a levy on such wagers, he suggests, could be used to fund sports infrastructure in villages across the country, to the ultimate benefit of the national game.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), of which Mr Upadhyay is a co-chair, has also proposed a cap on the amount each individual would be able to bet, to protect addicted gamblers.

Another possible benefit of decriminalisation, according to FICCI, would be the power the Indian government would have to pick and choose events on which bets can be placed, perhaps boosting less popular sports in the country.

Age-old vice

Even if campaigners manage to overcome the political obstacles to legalising sports betting, cultural barriers will remain.

While references to gambling are found in centuries-old Indian texts – in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, a ruler loses his kingdom, his brothers, and his wife in a “‘game of dice” – the vice seldom meets with the authors’ approval.

But as Mr Upadhyay points out, cigarettes and alcohol are readily available in most Indian states, despite the fact that “Sikhism prohibits smoking, and almost every other religion discourages drinking”.

For the sake of his wife and young daughter, Aryan hopes he will, one day, be able to go legit and perhaps even open a betting shop on his local High Street.

But he predicts that in an attempt to avoid taxes on their winnings, speculators would still come to him with wads of cash.

Would he accept? He chuckles. “Yes. I like money.”

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