Matches don’t need fixing…
…cricket does, writes MALLI IYER
Whilst most other sports are grappling with cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs, cricket at the international level is obsessed with match fixing allegations and its latest variant known as ‘spot fixing’. The cricket loving public is beginning to wonder if their favourite sport will ever return to its glory days of wholesome entertainment, where professional cricket players and administrators all over the world uphold its reputation as a “gentleman’s game”.
Corruption at the core
A number of recent developments in cricket are unpalatable – match fixing in connivance with illegal bookmakers, ball tampering (or biting, a la Shahid Afridi), using abusive language and audible expletives on the field, racist taunts and openly dissenting the umpire’s decisions have all become commonplace. It is evident that the game of cricket has not measured up to the general expectation of fairness and good old sporting spirit. Big money and sponsorships appear to bring with them a corrupting influence and dirty politics. Political leaders like Sharad Pawar and John Howard want a share of the action, even though neither has played any competitive cricket. Lalit Modi was hailed as breath of fresh air to cricket, but was recently sidelined and accused of corruption and mismanagement of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Even terrorism has left its ugly mark, causing Pakistan to lose all its own cricket venues and move its game to safer venues in the Gulf. The advent of new technology, neutral umpires, multiple camera angles, heavy security and police presence have changed the face of the game, although it is debatable whether it has made the game any fairer in the way it is conducted.
Not a new phenomenon
Many people believe that cricket’s reputation is tarnished by the recent punishment and prison terms handed out to three Pakistani players and a bookmaker. They would be surprised to know that the first known victim of gambling in cricket was Ted Pooley, a first choice wicket keeper for England who languished in a prison in New Zealand in 1877 after he was arrested for wagering money in a game of cricket with a railway engineer called Ralph Donkin, in pursuit of making a fast buck. Ted Pooley was a highly respected cricket player (but an inveterate gambler) and was chosen to tour Australia and New Zealand with James Lillywhite’s England tour in 1876-77. He missed out on playing the first ever game at Melbourne between England and Australia. Betting was a feature and part of cricket in those days, and the odds were published by local newspapers.
The price of cheating
More recently, several reputed players have been punished, suspended or banned for match-fixing or receiving monies from bookies – the late Hansie Cronje (South Africa), Salim Malik (Pakistan), Marlon Samuels (West Indies), Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja (India) were all highly talented and proven players, until they were caught. Australian players like Mark Waugh and Shane Warne admitted to giving information to illegal bookies in 1995, but were only given warnings by the cricket administrators. Several others have been alleged to have involvements with bookies, namely Herschelle Gibbs, Wasim Akram, Kamran Akmal and Nicky Boje, but have escaped due to insufficient proof. Pakistani cricketers seem to incur the wrath of the authorities everywhere, and a point has been reached where Pakistan cricket is held guilty until it proves its innocence. This is due to glaring inconsistencies showing them up as a brilliant bunch at one time, and underperforming the next. It is to be noted that well-known betting agencies like Ladbrokes and Betfair have collaborated with cricketing authorities in England and Australia, and betting odds are already announced to television audiences by the sportscasters. The Indian government is also understood to be examining ways to establish links with underground betting agencies to legitimise gambling and in the process, get their cut. Cricket authorities do not have the locus standii to hand out summary punishments, but the Courts have generally supported these institutions and their findings have been accepted as prime evidence in trials. Discerning cricket observers would appreciate that there is a very fine dividing line between legal and illegal bets which is essentially a corrupting influence on players. The lure of “getting rich quick” is undoubtedly an attraction to most international players since their career span of peak cricketing prowess usually averages between 10-15 years, after which they have to eke out a living which offers no guarantees.
Racist taunts and sledging have also become an integral part of the game. Cricketing authorities have issued stern warnings and fines on players when they openly dissent against umpiring decisions, or make remarks on field which bring disrepute to the game. However, they are quite inconsistent when it comes to handing out punitive decisions. The same goes for match referees who are seen to be biased in favour of certain players.
There is not an iota of doubt that the game of cricket will have to change to move with the changing times, but the brains trust of international cricket has to ensure a modicum of respectability to competitions, whether they play the fast and furious 20-over game or the more sedate 5-day test matches.