Indian bookies cashing in on World Cup fever

BOMBAY: They're swift. They're stealthy. 

They work round-the-clock out of cars, posh apartments and even five-star hotels as India’s excitement over cricket reaches fever pitch in a land where the game is almost a religion. 

Mobile phones tucked between head and shoulder and fingers flying over computer keyboards, bookmakers in India’s financial heart, Bombay, track the flood of bets as the national team battles it out in the World Cup in South Africa. 

Although illegal in India, betting has reached unprecedented levels in Bombay since the World Cup began two weeks ago, police told Reuters. 

“The whole atmosphere is so charged,” said Shridhar S. Vagal, joint commissioner of Bombay police. “It’s difficult to contain (because) bookies have become highly mobile.” 

Betting is also rampant across the country.  

But in Bombay, the stakes are much higher – at least 10 billion rupees (US$210 million) are bet on every match, said Vagal. 

Vagal estimated the city has more than 100,000 punters and more than 100 bookmakers for cricket alone. 

Careful not to stay in one place too long, the bookmakers use mobile phones in cars and vans. 

The bigger ones work out of posh apartments coding bets on computers. Some even check into five-star hotels to avoid suspicion. 

Some 25 bookmakers have been arrested in a crackdown over the past two weeks but the sweep hardly created a dent in the business: the maximum fine is just 1,000 rupees (US$21) and most of the arrested are released on bail, the officer said. 

Indian bookies hit the headlines three years ago when allegations of match-fixing shook the cricket world. 

Former South African captain Hansie Cronje, who died last year in a plane crash, admitted accepting US$130,000 in bribes from bookies to influence matches.  

After the scandal broke, Indian cricket authorities banned former captain Mohammad Azharuddin and Test batsman Ajay Sharma over match-fixing allegations after an independent inquiry into a federal police report on corruption in cricket. 

They deny any wrongdoing. 

Bombay police are particularly concerned about the power of the heads of organised crime gangs who have fled the country but run extortion and gambling rackets by “remote control”. 

“Big-time organised cricket betting is run and controlled by these gangsters based mainly in Dubai and Karachi,” said a senior Central Bureau of Investigation official. 

Besides raking in millions of rupees, the gangsters, some of whom are die-hard cricket fans, offer protection to big bookies. 

“You can’t even begin to imagine the kind of money we make,” said a bookie who did not wish to be named. “Gold and diamond merchants here think nothing of sinking a few million rupees in bets.” 

W.H. Khan, a 24-year-old software professional, bets with one of the city’s biggest bookies, a rich textile trader working out of buildings he owns in south Bombay with private guards to ensure strangers do not stray in when a match is on. 

To maintain a low profile in case his bookie is busted, Khan never bets more than 500 rupees a time. But he’s hooked. 

“It’s like an addiction. When you win it’s such a high.” – Reuters 

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