History of cricket betting in Mumbai

As high profile players and businessmen admit to spot fixing and betting on matches during the Indian Premier League (IPL), a shocked nation is left wondering whom to trust.

S Sreesanth (right) is escorted in a police vehicle on his way to court in New Delhi on May 21, 2013. He and two others were allegedly involved in spot fixing matches. Pic/AFP

What we seem to forget though is that, gambling has been illegal in India only for 150 years or so, ever since the British government introduced the Public Gambling Act in 1867. Historical evidence shows that the ancient Indian kingdoms gambled regularly. Gambling during Diwali is still considered a harmless tradition by many Hindu families. The transformation into its current illegal form of cricket betting and spot fixing can be traced back to the 1960s.

Suresh Kalyanji Bhagat during his arrest in 2000. File pic

In the 1960s, punters would bet on the opening and closing rates of cotton transmitted to the Bombay Cotton Exchange in Sewree by the New York Cotton Exchange via tele-printers. On April 1, 1962, Kalyanji Bhagat, a grocery shop owner from Worli, floated the idea of declaring opening and closing rates on single digit numbers.

Ratan Khatri at the Mahalaxmi Race Course in 2005. File pic

The numbers would be written on pieces of paper and put in a big matka (pot). That is how the word matka became a part of gambling parlance. This gathering, held at Bhagat’s Vinod Mahal residence, inadvertently gave birth to the multi-crore Mumbai Matka of the twentieth century.

Kalyanji’s son Vinod Bhagat recalls, “Everyday, results were declared at noon and 2 pm. While there was a debate on whether the business is legitimate, the results were declared in front of hundreds of people, mostly punters. My father used to step down to the ground floor of Vinod Mahal exactly at 11:55 am. From the crowd, three people were called on the dais to pick up three cards.

Kalyanji Bhagat

The numbers on these cards were declared as the numbers of the day. The business was that crystal clear then.” Things have changed now, he adds, “Nowadays, since the bets are computerised, gauging profits is just a click away for matka operators. That’s the reason why no matka operator maintains transparency.” 

During Kalyanji’s time, the bazaar was called Worli Bazaar (named after the area from where it operated). In just six months, the business made huge profit.

Vinod Bhagat. File pic

The possibility of making a quick buck lured more punters into the business and several small time matka dens spread in the south and suburban areas of the city. The Worli Bazaar came to be known as the Main Bazaar, and a branch called Kalyan Bazaar was established. Apart from these two, several small time matka bazaars were run by Lakhubhai, Jayantibhai Jaipur, Manek Moochwala and Ratan Khatri. Khatri later became a big competitor for Bhagat.

Ratan Khatri came to Mumbai from Karachi, Pakistan. He started his business in August 1962. Khatri was then a high-profile, honest and reputable player in this business that had astounding odds. Just like Bhagat, Khatri too opened his numbers in the presence of business persons and illustrious personalities from the film industry, many of whom were ardent matka players. Khatri is also said to have ventured into Bollywood financing for some time. One such film is Rangeela Ratan, which he co-produced with Ramchandra Bhikubhai and even acted in. It is also widely believed that Premnath’s titular character in the film Dharmatma was loosely based on Khatri. Khatri, who now lives in Tardeo, is no longer involved in the matka business.

By the end of the 1960s, matka dens were widely spread in the city, its outskirts, in other parts of Maharashtra and in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Unemployed youth found jobs in matka dens, but at the same time, large numbers of middle class men got addicted to it, which ruined families. During the textile mills’ prosperous times, lakhs of mill workers got attracted to matka and bookies opened shops near the mills. That is how Central Mumbai became the hub of the gambling business.

At the height of the matka business in the 1980s and 1990s, over Rs 500 crore would be laid as bets every month. The business got a serious blow once the police began its crackdown after 1995. Till 1995, there used to be more than 2,000 big and medium-time bookies in the city and neighbouring towns, but now the number has reduced to below 300, according to sources. In the last few years, the average monthly turnover has remained around Rs 100 crore.

The Mumbai police’s massive crackdown on the matka dens forced dealers to shift their base to the city’s outskirts. Many of them moved to Gujarat, Rajasthan and other states. With no major source of betting in the city, the punters got attracted to other sources of gambling such as online and zhatpat lotteries. Meanwhile, the rich punters began to explore betting on cricket matches.

The business received another setback in 2008 with the murder of Suresh Bhagat, son of Kalyanji Bhagat. Suresh and Pappu Saula are both said to have had ties with Mumbai gangster Arun Gawli. “In the age of spot fixing and cricket betting, matka has lost its charm in the city. But in remote areas of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, where bets as low as R10 can be placed, it still attracts the youth from poor families,” said a matka operator who functions from the city’s outskirts.

The reason that the police try to bust these betting rings is because the money made in gambling has sponsored underworld activities many times. The illegal gambling thus funds other forms of criminality which pose a danger to society.

Matka operators claim that if gambling is legalised it would stop the flow of illegitimate money to criminals and the same amount could get diverted to the government in the form of taxes. In the current scenario, the government loses hundreds of crores of rupees in revenue to illegal gambling through hawala. Gambling in India has a very real association with criminality and this has created scandals such as spot fixing and match fixing in cricket.

In particular, the cricket fixing allegations are especially harmful to the country’s reputation and work to perpetuate a belief amongst foreigners that India as a whole is corrupt. As a former matka operator points out, “By legalising gambling, it would become far easier to eliminate these types of scandals from the game of cricket and punish the culprits, which would, in turn, better the state of both the nation’s pride and its economy.”

Mumbai connect with cricket controversy
Though players of Rajasthan Royals are the ones who have been caught spot fixing, the Mumbai connect with the controversy is not difficult to find. Vindoo Dara Singh, who was also arrested in connection with the spot fixing, is a Mumbai resident and a Bollywood actor. S Sreesanth was arrested at a five-star hotel in the city. Raj Kundra, who cops claim has confessed to betting on matches, also shares a home with wife Shilpa in the city.

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