Cricket’s corruption

2013-07-25 00:00

AQUARTER of a century has passed since Ben Johnson’s 100-metre world record at the Seoul Olympic Games, an achievement subsequently found to have been helped by banned substances.

Last week, two top sprinters, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, were suspended for doping. In-between, Lance Armstrong had set new highs in cycling, only to bring the sport’s reputation crashing down over his defiant drug use. The anti-doping agencies have struggled to keep up with medical and pharmacological ingenuity, although they protest that the situation is improving as they now monitor continuously.

Armstrong argues that consistent winning performances at the highest level inevitably require drugs. Other athletes have gone so far as to suggest that doping be legalised. This is not as far-fetched as it may appear. The idea of a level playing field, where sportspeople test their relative natural abilities, is illusory.

These days, success, to a significant extent, depends upon money in some form or other: not many of the poor succeed at sport. But the illusion is blithely ignored.

If Karl Marx were writing today, he might well suggest that sport, not religion, is the opium of the people.

The drug takers in cycling and athletics are a product of the win at all costs, money-dominated culture that pervades modern sport, so their actions, while illegitimate, are entirely consistent. They are trying to win. The crisis in cricket is altogether different: some players couldn’t care less whether they win or lose, as long as they make money. And helping them are betting syndicates with links to organised crime.

History has come full circle. The first recognisable version of modern cricket was patronised by the English gentry largely as a vehicle for gambling. Cricket’s laws were devised to ensure that wagers could be settled in a civil manner. Since the introduction of the shortened form of the game to high-level cricket 50 years ago, betting has spread like wildfire. Now it is no exaggeration to say that nothing in a professional cricket match can be taken entirely at face value, although almost all of it is, of course, perfectly legitimate.

The Hansie Cronje affair was a wake-up call, particularly for South Africans. Not much has changed subsequently, in spite of the routine assurances from the International Cricket Council (ICC).

The Indian Professional League is tailor-made for the bookies. Its mercenary nature and the improvisation of the cricket itself make it ideal for spot betting (predicting a particular occurrence such as a wide or no ball) and brackets (runs scored in spells) that may be based on a pre-arranged fix. But Test cricket is not immune, as the 2000 Centurion Test against England showed. And two years ago, three Pakistani Test players were drawn into temptation in England and ended up with jail sentences for corruption.

Illegal betting and the subversion of cricket that goes with it are widespread, but best documented in India.

Sports journalist Ed Hawkins wrote his recent book after he was sent evidence that one of the most significant matches of all time, the 2011 World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan, was scripted.

His subsequent investigations showed how the fly-by-night bookies keep one step ahead of the police, significant numbers of whom show an interest only when they have not been bribed. The betting business operates with a laptop (or an A4 notepad), banks of cellphones in suitcases, an amplifier and a bhao line operator who shouts the odds received from the syndicate to a select group of punters as a match progresses.

The details are arcane in the extreme, but for one simple and significant exception. It is a system based on trust. The illegal betting franchise structure, the relationship between bookie and gambler, and the settling of accounts, has no permanent paper trail. The last is based on hawala, a system of cash transfers at specified outlets that is entirely reliant on honesty.

Yet it is this very same quality that is rapidly disappearing from the game of cricket.

The bookies can spot possible fixes by watching for irregular and inexplicable changes in betting as a match progresses.

So, of course, can officials of the ICC’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit, but there has been little action. The three Pakistani cricketers were caught in a newspaper sting, not by cricket’s governing body. And if every professional cricket match is now suspect, one of the reasons is the conspiracy of silence among cricketers.

Even more worrying is the fact that the ultimate boss of the syndicates is the gangster Dawood Ibrahim of D Company, the third most wanted man in the world, according to Forbes, and a suspected collaborator of Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The headquarters of cricket moved from Lord’s to Dubai in 2005. What most unsuspecting fans have not realised is that some part of control of the game moved even further East and is in the hands of a Mafia.

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