Indians love cricket, you bet
NEW DELHI - Over the next several weeks, cricket-crazy Indians will be glued to a dazzling extravaganza, the World Cup, which is under way in the West Indies. Equally frenzied will be the public gambling, termed locally as satta, that takes place on the sly as it has been banned by the government.
If one goes by the assessments of the police, illegal sport-betting amounts to well over US$5 billion a year in India. Some police officials say the annual volume could even be as high as $40 billion, depending on the state of the economy, especially the stock exchange and real-estate prices, which can generate massive windfall gains for potential punters.
Betting volumes during a crucial one-day international cricket match, one that could involve India and Pakistan, can exceed $250 million. Betting estimates for the World Cup, which will see 51 matches played, is more than $4 billion.
In the subcontinent (including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now an emerging Bangladesh), cricket is a mania that borders on religious fervor.
Strangely, Indian and Pakistani punters end up backing each other if one of the teams is knocked out. That is, if India loses, Indians tend to back Pakistan against a team such as Australia, which is considered an outsider.
Thus, despite a police crackdown, satta remains one of the most organized gaming forums in India. If there is a lull in the world of cricket, bets may be placed on election results, even for an international high-profile one such as in the United States, or the arrival date of the monsoons as officially announced. According to reports, more than Rs4 billion ($90 million) in bets were placed on predictions for the recent Punjab elections.
The means have become high-tech with the help of computers, mobile telephones and the Internet, with top underworld dons such as Dawood Ibrahim and others from Mumbai heavily involved in the trade during various times.
Though the Reserve Bank of India has blocked credit-card payments on websites that it believes are fronts for gambling, many illegal Internet forums continue to be operated by prominent bookies that act as intermediaries and are just a search engine away. Punters set up an account with these sites, and instruct them to make bets on their behalf for a fee. Illegal hawala money-transferring channels are also used.
Traditionally, satta is at its busiest in India during cricket matches, where bets are placed on every aspect of the game: which team will win, whether a batsman will score a century, who will win the toss, whether a wicket will fall on the first ball, etc.
The odds are mercurial and followed as closely as the stock markets.
Favorite bets on star cricketers are a first-ball dismissal, a half-century as well as a century, with further limits being set on the number of balls faced.
Such is the size of the industry that there have been allegations - as well as confessions by top cricketers - of players having been paid huge amounts to cater to the dictates of a bet.
The former captain of South Africa, Hansie Cronje, is one famous culprit. He confessed to being paid thousands of dollars by bookies. Allegations have been made against such top world cricketers as Ajay Jadeja Mohammed Azharrudin, a former India team captain, Salim Malik of Pakistan and Shane Warne of Australia, the world record holder in test wickets taken.
Though Indians would like to believe that their team will emerge victorious, according to Ladbrokes, the well-known UK-based betting agency, Australia is at the top on the betting meter (2/1), followed closely by South Africa (4/1), then Sri Lanka (7/1) and England priced at 8/1 for the current World Cup. India is trailing at joint fourth with England. Usually, Indian bookies follow the pattern of international bookmakers.
India unexpectedly won the World Cup in 1983 and reached the final in 2003. In a country starved of sports heroes, Indian fans only expect the best performance.
New methods are continually devised to persuade clients to place bets, as well as to circumvent the police. With mobile phones and e-mails under the threat of being monitored, some operators offer big clients "free home delivery" service. Errand boys fan out with specially designed chits of paper with a list of the various bets on offer. Each client has a code known orally to the operator. The client then ticks off his odds according to his preference, or places fresh bets if he wants to.
"This process involves more cost, but since there are no electronic records, it is completely foolproof," said a police official.
The other method of placing bets is through short messaging service (SMS) over a mobile phone. "However, people want to be completely safe and do not like to use even SMS as it leaves the record of the cell number," the official said.
One breed of people very apprehensive about cricket is politicians at election time. Attendance at rallies simply dwindles, although this problem is alleviated by the installation of huge TV screens at venues to keep voters interested. A few years back a very high-profile nationwide tour by senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani was widely ignored because of a cricket tournament. Advani's rath (a specially turned-out mobile van with state-of-the-art comforts and technology) was then fitted with TV screens that telecast the matches live, which drew the crowds.
This year, the crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh next month are going to overlap with the 2007 World Cup. All political parties are ensuring that mobile vans in which leaders travel to the hinterland are fitted with TV screens. Venues are likewise being equipped with live radio commentary or TV.
According to estimates, India loses more than 2% of its gross domestic product, or more than $10 billion, to the bulk of the working population watching cricket on TV.
India boasts the world's third-biggest cable and satellite subscriber base, which stands at close to 70 million homes, up from 42 million in 2003 when the previous World Cup took place. Cricket updates on mobile phones that number more than 170 million users will be another big forum.
Indian media buyers estimate rates for a 30-second ad spot during the World Cup range from Rs125,000 to Rs300,000 ($2,820-$6,770). This compares to the top television program, a quiz show, hosted by top Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. The Indian advertising market stands around $4 billion a year.
According to estimates, Sony Corp, which owns the broadcast rights in India, is set to earn more than $100 million in advertising revenue. Sony reportedly paid more than Rs2.5 billion to purchase the rights from the International Cricket Council in 2002.
It is going to be one big party in India and the rest of the subcontinent over the next month and a half.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.
Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.