New Delhi: The betting scandal involving Pakistan cricketers in England has revived fears about the influence of shadowy underworld dons who have form in subverting the "gentlemen's game".
The middleman who gave undercover British reporters exact details of no-balls to be bowled by Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif during the Lord's Test against England said he worked for an "Indian party".
The alleged link to unidentified backers has not been spelt out, but cricket has in recent years become all too familiar with illegal betting and match-fixing rackets -- and South Asia sits at the heart of the web.
India, cricket's financial powerhouse, accounts for nearly 70 percent of the game's global revenues and is regarded as the hotbed for betting syndicates and match-fixers spreading across Asia and the Gulf.
India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which probed the explosive match-fixing scandal of 2000 that ensnared three international captains, alluded to the underworld's links to cricket.
"During the inquiry," the CBI report said, "it was learnt that the lure of easy money has gradually attracted the underworld into this racket". "It seems that it is only a matter of time before major organized gangs take direct control of this racket, a phenomenon that will have implications not only for cricket but for national security as a whole."
The CBI investigations and subsequent action from cricket bodies around the world led to life bans being imposed on three Test captains -- South African Hansie Cronje, Mohammad Azharuddin of India and Pakistan's Salim Malik.
Cronje, who admitted to having links with bookmakers but denied he was involved in match-fixing, was killed in a mysterious plane crash near Cape Town in 2002. When Pakistan's English coach Bob Woolmer died during the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, soon after his team crashed out in the first round, Jamaican police initially treated it as murder and pointed fingers at the underworld.
There is widespread suspicion in the cricketing world about the subsequent police account that Woolmer died of "natural causes", as suspicions around shady bookies refuse to die down. "We were treated like murderers and members of mafia," said Inzamam-ul Haq, Pakistan's captain at that time. "I never thought this would happen to me after a defeat in a cricket match."
Former Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Tauqir Zia, during whose tenure life bans were imposed on Malik and bowler Ata-ur-Rehman for their alleged involvement in match-fixing, warned of the danger to players' lives.
"It's a vicious circle," said Zia, a former army officer. "Once a player enters this circle, there is no exit door."
Geoff Lawson, Pakistan's coach in 2007-2008, said players may feel forced into corruption because of "extortion, threats and the well-being of their own family members".
"It would not surprise me if illegal bookmakers have told players that if they do not perform X and Y, their families will be kidnapped or harmed," the Australian told the Sydney Morning Herald last week.
Lawson recalled an incident when a Pakistan selector asked him to include a player because the selector had received a kidnap threat against his daughter if the player were dropped.
Notorious Indian gangster Dawood Ibrahim, wanted for 1993 bombings in Mumbai that killed more than 200 people, has long been suspected by police of being a match-fixing kingpin. Ibrahim, who Indian officials say lives in Pakistan, emerged out of hiding in 2005 when his daughter married the son of Pakistani batting great Javed Miandad in Karachi.
Another Pakistani legend, Wasim Akram, once claimed his father had been kidnapped after his team lost a Test match against South Africa from a winning position in 1997.
The body of a well-known Pakistani bookmaker, Hanif Kodvavi alias Hanif Cadbury, was found badly mutilated in Johannesburg in 1999 amid speculation he was killed for not paying out betting money.
In the current scandal, the International Cricket Council has barred Pakistan captain Salman Butt along with Aamer and Asif from playing any further matches until their cases are resolved. All three protest their innocence.