Pakistani bookies rake in cash on England match
LAHORE, Pakistan – In a tiny room overlooking a slum, four men work a dozen or so phones, struggling to keep up with calls from Pakistanis placing illegal bets on a cricket match in England.
The men are small-time gangsters sitting on the lower rungs of something much larger: an underworld gambling operation that spans the cricket world and has been implicated in a match-fixing scandal engulfing Pakistan’s national team.
While there is little by way of evidence, these Lahore bookmakers and others close to the trade say notorious Indian crime lord Dawood Ibrahim sits atop the global syndicate. The United States accuses Ibrahim of supporting al-Qaida and funding attacks in India.
The bookmakers said fixing in the sport, especially by the Pakistani team, has been common for years.
Such is the variety of bets available on every aspect of the game – not just the outcome – a player can perform to order and not necessarily affect the result.
“Almost each match is fixed in some department,” said one of the bookies, who asked to be identified only as PK. He said neither he nor his customers had this information, suggesting that the fixing was orchestrated by higher-ups in the syndicate.
“It goes right to the top,” he said.
Business was brisk on a recent night during Pakistan’s disastrous tour of England.
Captain Salman Butt and bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were suspended by the International Cricket Council last week for allegedly being involved in “spot fixing” after a British tabloid newspaper sting uncovered evidence that some players were being secretly paid to deliver no-balls, akin to balks in baseball, at predetermined times.
An Associated Press reporting crew was given a rare invitation by the bookmakers to see them at work for a match Tuesday.
PK and fellow bookie Amer insisted that their real names not be used or their faces photographed or filmed because their work is illegal and comes amid warnings of a crackdown on illegal gambling by Pakistani authorities and the International Cricket Council.
The News of the World newspaper reports of spot fixing are being investigated by British police and the ICC’s anti-corruption unit, which was established in 2000 when the sport’s reputation was in tatters after revelations the former captains of South Africa, India and Pakistan had been involved in match-fixing.
The latest scandal has led to national shame in Pakistan, where the fortunes of the team had provided something positive amid terrorist attacks and this summer’s devastating floods.
Betting is illegal in this conservative Islamic country and in neighboring India. But as in prohibition-era America, a vast industry has risen to cater to the millions who like to gamble. The amounts of money involved dwarf the sums wagered on cricket in countries such as England and Australia, where betting is legal.
PK and Amer claim that millions of dollars are spent each year in payoffs to corrupt police and government officials so that the illegal gambling can continue. The pair said they had been raided once in 18 years – a bribe got them out of jail – and that they were unconcerned about talk of a crackdown.
The immense size of the industry in South Asia can be gauged by the pair’s business.
They said they each take in $20,000 to $30,000 in bets on a typical Twenty20 match from gamblers living in Lahore, a city of 8 million. With the duo estimating that there are around 1,000 other bookmakers of a similar size in the city, the total amount wagered could easily be in the millions.
William Hill, one of the largest gambling houses in Britain, said it took around $120,000 on the first Twenty20 match between England and Pakistan. It said that was more than normal, likely because the scandal had attracted publicity.
In Lahore, PK dresses in the baggy shirt and pajama trousers worn by most Pakistani men. Only his red eyes, the result of a hashish habit and hours sitting on the floor late into the night taking bets, and the ring tone on his phone give some hint to his background.
“It’s business, but it’s a bad business,” the recording of a Bollywood singer croons each time someone calls in a bet.
The pair work from the second floor of a house at the end of alley in a poor part of the city known for prostitution and crime. Neighboring buildings are home to cramped boarding houses and shoe and garment factories operating out of single rooms.
There is no furniture, except for two cushions, and the phones are strewn across a carpet emblazoned with red roses.
A new flat-screen TV with a sound system is fixed to the wall. A man with a long beard, nicknamed “Osama bin Laden” by PK and his crew, operates the computer for $25 a night – a large sum in a country where many people earn less than $100 a month.
He sits cross-legged in front of a website offering ball-by-ball odds on the game. Another two people are employed to help record bets.
The phones started ringing an hour before the match started and only stopped when it became clear England was destined to win.
Winnings and losses are squared a day or two after each match. It’s all cash transactions. Gamblers either send somebody to pick up winnings, or the bookies send an intermediary to collect.
“It all depends on trust. We know the people and recognize their voice. But if they don’t pay then we well we find them and they get clubbed,” Amer says as he jabs a finger at a large calculator and jots down a wager in a well-thumbed ledger.
PK and Amer say they each make around $800 a night. The rest of the profits go to the syndicate. Their books are open for every international cricket match as well as the domestic leagues in India and England.
The odds are continuously squawked into the room by speakerphone from a man in Karachi, changing with every twist and turn of the game. PK said the odds are set by the syndicate in London, then relayed by telephone to Dubai, then Mumbai – all three cities are alleged to be major hubs in the gambling underworld – before Karachi and then the rest of Pakistan.
Allegations that Ibrahim controls the betting trade have swirled for years, though as with everything regarding the man, it is hard to be sure where facts end and rumor begins. Indian officials allege he is living in Pakistan under the protection of the country’s security agencies.
PK and another bookmaker who asked not to be named said Ibrahim was involved, but declined to say how they knew. In 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department froze Ibrahim’s assets, saying they were “targeting ties between the criminal underworld and al-Qaida.”
When the match is over, the bookies quickly tally their takings and tidy away the phones. “Osama,” the Internet operator, finds Shakira’s “Waka Waka” on YouTube and plays it through the loudspeakers. PK takes a small lump of hash from a fold in his trousers and tosses it to another bookie to roll in a cigarette.
With India’s domestic competition due to start soon, the gang is in for some late nights.
“We are going to be too busy,” Amer says with a smile.
– Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.