Cleaning up cricket

For cricket to retain credibility, it needs to get its house in order - but teams still play to win.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The reputation of cricket has been further diminished by the publication of a report by the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Anti Corruption Unit, headed by Lord Paul Condon.

The Unit was set up in the wake of the Hansie Cronje scandal in South Africa, where the God-fearing team captain admitted taking cash from Indian bookmakers to fix matches. Previously, corruption had been seen as something unique to the Indian subcontinent, where illegal and highly lucrative betting syndicates had used their resources to influence games. Former Indian captain Mohammed Azharrudin and former Pakistan captain Salim Malik have also been given life bans from test cricket, as a result of match-rigging allegations.

Then it transpired that two of the main witnesses against Malik, Australian golden boys Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, had been paid for information about pitches and teams by bookmakers in 1994.

Condon’s report does not really go much further in shedding light on all of this. Much attention was given to evidence that a murder and a kidnapping could be linked to this betting. Dramatic as that sounds, what will concern cricket fans more than anything is that they can no longer rely on the results of games being legitimate.

The classic example, highlighted in the Cronje case, is that of the final test on England’s last tour of South Africa. Cronje offered England captain Nasser Hussain the chance to win the game by forfeiting an innings each in a weather-affected game. Hussain took Cronje up on his offer, a thrilling finale ensued and England won the match. What appeared to be bold and generous captaincy by Cronje is now tainted by the possibility that he was trying to force a result for his own gain.

Condon is quoted as saying ‘Corrupt practices and deliberate under-performances have permeated all aspects of the game’ (1). He points to match-fixing in the 1970s in the English county game (for sporting convenience rather than hard cash) as the wellspring of the current problems, compounded by a weak governing body, the ICC, which is a ‘loose and fragile alliance’ of cricket boards from the test-playing countries. English cricket fans will no doubt empathise with a picture of a game run as a gentleman’s club rather than as a fully professional organisation.

Reaction to the report has been mixed. While many have been shocked, more experienced and cynical commentators and former players have called it a failure. In the Daily Telegraph Paul Hayward writes ‘If I could have a bet with MK Gupta, the evil puppeteer [the most notorious of the Indian bookmakers], it would be that cricket will back into denial as soon as the first speck of dust lands on Lord Condon’s report’. Pakistan legend Imran Khan has criticised the report for saying nothing new and perhaps overstating the problem in relation to international cricket, especially in games played since the Cronje revelations (3).

It is vitally important for cricket, like any other competitive sport, to be seen to be played with full commitment by all sides. The essence of sport’s drama is that opponents vie with one another for victory based on superior skill and spirit. Fans will not talk excitedly in the pub and the pavilion about some close-fought contest if they believe the result to be tarnished by fraud.

One factor mitigating against this, is that sport is now a highly valued commodity. Broadcasters invest huge sums in winning the rights to show it, fans pay a fortune to watch it and betting can generate huge turnovers. With so much money washing around, it is hardly surprising that some are weak enough to take a backhander, especially in a game like cricket where the public attention still often outstrips the financial rewards.

One common point made in relation to the Condon report, is that the notion of cricket sportsmanship is just a sham, and it always has been. Betting has always been part and parcel of the game, most famously illustrated when Australia’s Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh both bet on England winning the Headingley test match in 1981 at odds of 500-1. Ian Botham promptly scored a century, Bob Willis ripped through the Australian batting, taking eight wickets, and England scored an improbable victory. Moreover, cricket is probably one of the easier games to rig. A team whose best batsmen get out cheaply, or who persistently drop catches, is sunk. A few select individuals have the ability to turn a game one way or another quite dramatically. The only solution, it would seem, is to police the game rigorously and ban cheats for life.

Well, that’s true up to a point. But I agree with Imran Khan that we are in danger of overstating the problem. Most of the corruption allegations have been made in relation to one-day internationals, a form of cricket invented for easy packaging by TV, and that is more palatable to the floating customer. But these games, outside of the World Cup, are largely regarded as meaningless by players and hardcore fans.

Test match cricket is played in an entirely different spirit and is a proper measure of the skill of the two teams, especially over the course of a series. What was perhaps most shocking about the Cronje scandal was that he had a reputation (rightly, I believe) as being a tough competitor (4). Lillee and Marsh might have done very nicely out of their bet in 1981 but I have no doubt they would rather have won the game.

Cricket will have to get its house in order, with greater cooperation between countries and stiffer punishments for those caught cheating. The old boys network will have to be replaced by proper organisations. Legitimate allegations made must be investigated properly, not swept under the carpet. If the game is awash with money, at least it can fund the necessary changes. Condon’s committee, for example, has a budget of $1million per year (5). But ultimately, fans will have to judge for themselves whether players are trying or not.

My preferred image of the game is that of South Africa’s players applauding world record breaking bowler Courtney Walsh from the field as he retired recently. Walsh was always the fiercest of competitors, a fearful sight running in to bowl for any batsman. Yet, his fellow professionals accorded him the greatest respect, which speaks volumes both for Walsh and those who praised him. Personally, my faith is still intact, and I can’t wait for the Ashes series this summer. Beating the Aussies would make my year.

Read on

What’s not cricket?, by Angus Calder

(1) Read the Condon Report

(2) Daily Telegraph, May 24 2001

(3) Imran Khan in the Sports Telegraph

(4) See, for example, The Case for Hansie Cronje

(5) Figure quoted by Mihir Bose, Daily Telegraph, May 24 2001

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Topics Politics


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