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India's cricket fortunes an odds on gamble

Indian fans rejoice in Johannesburg.  An estimated $20 billion will be placed in World Cup bets out of India.
Indian fans rejoice in Johannesburg. An estimated $20 billion will be placed in World Cup bets out of India.

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NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- Passions are high on the subcontinent as India's national cricket team storms to the semi-finals of the World Cup.

The nation is cricket mad and comes to a virtual standstill every time its players take to the field in the quest for the one-day trophy.

Streets empty. Shops close. Boisterous crowds gather around any television set, all which are tuned to live coverage of the matches being played in South Africa.

There's much cheer and there's much betting.

At a packed sports bar in the capital New Delhi, a ferocious exchange of money between hands takes place on virtually every delivery in a match.

"We are betting here right now on every ball- whether it's going to be a four, a six, a dot ball," lawyer Abhimanyu Mahajan explains.

But betting is no longer just a bit of fun between friends. It has transformed into an industry worth billions of dollars.

Yet, it is also illegal.

According to the Public Gambling Act, with the exception of horse racing, all betting is banned in India. Despite its legal status, betting on the cricket is rife.

Latest odds are even delivered on the country's media. On a daily segment on the AajTak news channel, reporter Shams Tahir Khan gives viewers the latest odds on every team still standing in the tournament.

In India, the world's second-largest population with over 1 billion people, more bets are placed than anywhere else, Khan says.

"I would say that in the World Cup up until now, bets worth $14 billion to $16 billion have already been made," he says.

Dark past

Former Indian skipper Azharuddin: Banned for life from the game.
Former Indian skipper Azharuddin: Banned for life from the game.

Police officials say those figures are exaggerated but concede that betting networks are big.

So big, in fact, that gambling has cast a dark shadow on the game.

It has been revealed bookies with underworld connections have in the past paid cricketers to play badly or to give weather and pitch information.

Former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje, who died last year in a plane crash, admitted three years ago that he accepted more than $100,000 dollars from a bookie to throw a match.

The scandal implicated several Indian players as well. Former Indian skipper Mohammed Azharuddin received a life-ban for match fixing along with three others.

Former Pakistan captain Salim Malik was also hit with a life ban for match fixing.

In another incident, Australians Mark Waugh and Shane Warne were fined in 1998 by the Australian Cricket Board for providing information to an Indian bookmaker during Australia's tour of Sri Lanka in 1994.

While cricket's governing body has taken steps to clean up the game, it seems the massive Indian betting industry is only growing fatter.

So, what does it take to be a bookie?

"All you need is a television set, a mobile phone, a pager and a piece of paper to note down bets," Khan says.

Bookies predict an Australia-India March 23 final, with the Aussies to prove victorious.
Bookies predict an Australia-India March 23 final, with the Aussies to prove victorious.

The risk: If you're caught, a maximum of six months in prison is the penalty. And that's something even the authorities admit fails outweigh the financial incentives.

"The punishment provided there in is so meager that it doesn't really function as a deterrent," U.K. Katna, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch), says.

Many punters argue that it makes more sense to allow betting and tax revenues.

"I think it's high time it is legalized. Because it goes on everywhere and it's better that the government recognizes this fact," Mohit Bansal, a chartered accountant, says as he watches India's latest exploits on the bar's big screen.

Insiders say the government should also recognize that those who make bets and their bookies are also the Indian cricket team's biggest fans.

A regulated betting industry could also provide a lucrative cash cow for the government -- something that could put smiles on many Indian faces regardless of the fortunes of their cricketing team.

-- CNN Correspondent Suhasini Haider contributed to this report.


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