One of the things that makes sport such a compelling spectacle is the knowledge that you are watching teams or individuals striving to produce the best possible performance they can and defeat their opponents.
Or so we are led to believe.
The exposure of the doping culture which is prevalent in many sports has done much to undermine fans’ belief in their idols, but at least it can be rationalised that they are still trying to win, albeit by illegal means. The same goes for gamesmanship or plain and simple cheating which we have increasingly come to accept as commonplace.
But what about when individuals commit deliberate acts which diminish their team’s or their own performance: the jockey who eases up on his ride, the striker who intentionally misses the target, or the bowler who knowingly over-steps the crease to deliver a no-ball?
Even if the transgression is an apparently minor one, what effect does this have on the way we view sport?
That is the question at the heart of the furore which has engulfed a Pakistan cricket team which hardly has a gleaming record in such matters.
Four Pakistan players – captain Salman Butt, wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal and bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif – were placed under investigation for spot-fixing events in competitive matches. (Akmal has now been dropped from the police investigation.)
Allegations in the News of the World centre on three no-balls delivered during England‘s innings at Lord’s – two by Amir, one by Asif – which are said to have been ‘arranged’ by cricket agent Mazhar Majeed in exchange for £150k. Majeed has since been released by the police on bail, without being charged.
Video footage of the three incidents, particularly in the case of the two Amir deliveries, appears damning. The bowler clearly over-steps by a full boot-length on each occasion, a huge margin of error for a professional bowler.
In addition, the Pakistan team is already under investigation for suspicious incidents in matches on their winter tour of Australia, in which they lost all three Tests and all five one-day internationals.
Butt’s response to the latest scandal fell some way short of an outright denial:
These are just allegations. Anybody can say things about you, that does not make them true. They include quite a few people, they are ongoing and we will see what happens.
The players were booed by their own supporters at Lord’s on Sunday, and some threw tomatoes at the team coach to register their disappointment and disgust at the front-page revelations that nobody associated with the game ever wanted to see again.
Pakistan’s dubious history
On the face of it, being whitewashed in Australia is not in itself a reason for automatic suspicion – England lost the last Ashes series down under 5-0 – but eyebrows were certainly raised during the series at certain idiosyncratic incidents.
Wicketkeeper Akmal dropped four catches in the second Test at Sydney, a match which Australia won by just 36 runs. And Amir dropped a simple catch off Australian captain Ricky Ponting during the third Test in Tasmania.
Of course, neither of these events is proof of any wrongdoing – Amir is not the first player to spill a straightforward catch, and Akmal is hardly the best gloves-man ever (he has kept wicket poorly this summer too). It is important not to read meaning into events which may have none, as England captain Andrew Strauss said on Sunday:
With these sorts of allegations, you start questioning things you shouldn’t be questioning.
Nonetheless, when both events at Lord’s and other dubious chapters in Pakistan’s cricketing history are taken into consideration, the weight of circumstantial evidence would trouble even the broadest of shoulders.
Asif was implicated for ball-tampering in the infamous 2006 Oval Test (which Pakistan forfeited in protest), and subsequently served a one-year ban for using the prohibited drug nandrolone.
A previous major investigation into match-fixing, conducted by Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum at the instigation of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) in 1998, led to captain Salim Malik and bowler Ata-ur-Rehman being banned for life. (The bans were subsequently rescinded.) Serious but unsubstantiated concerns were also aired over senior players such as Wasim Akram and current England bowling coach Musthaq Ahmed.
Qayyum told The Times:
The current situation is very unfortunate. It is very shocking. Is it surprising? No.
Not just Pakistan
While Pakistan certainly have the most notorious reputation when it comes to match or spot-fixing, they are by no means the only ones to have been involved in cricketing corruption.
South Africa captain Hansie Cronje is perhaps the best-known such case. He was dealt a life ban in 2000 after an investigation following a recorded phone call with Sanjay Chawla, a representative of an Indian betting syndicate.It transpired Cronje had accepted several payments over a period of four years to influence the result of matches, and had also offered teammates bribes to deliberately under-perform. India captain Mohammed Azharuddin and batsman Ajay Sharma also received permanent bans as a result of the investigation.
At least three players – including Australia’s Brad Haddin – are known to have reported being approached by individuals trying to set up spot-fixes during last year’s Twenty20 World Cup.
And Australian all-rounder Shane Watson has come forward today to reveal that he was invited for a drink by a member of a betting syndicate during last summer’s Ashes series:
It happened a couple of times in London and I just went and told [team manager] Steve Bernard. It was an Indian fan, or that’s what I thought it was. I didn’t think too much more of it until I found out a bit more information that he was actually one of the illegal bookmakers that was trying to get involved.
Nor is such activity restricted to international cricket. Currently two Essex players – one of them Pakistan leg spinner Danish Kaneria - are under investigation for suspected offences similar to those alleged at Lord’s. Other county players are also known to have been approached by Indian ‘businessmen’.
How does this happen?
There are a number of factors which mean that cricket – and Pakistan in particular – is particularly susceptible to betting corruption.
Firstly, cricket’s demographics and structure both encourage spot-betting on a huge variety of micro-events which do not directly influence the match result. The sport’s immense popularity in India and Pakistan, coupled with the huge (and illegal) unregulated gambling industry in India, means there is big money to be made and lost on cricket betting. From the runs scored by a batsman or conceded by a bowler (either in total or over a particular timeframe) to the number of lbw’s, dropped catches, no-balls or wides, if you can place money on it, there is someone who will offer you a price on it.
Pakistan’s cricketers are also more susceptible than most.
From an economic standpoint, the team’s centrally-contracted players are only paid around £25k pa – marginally more than the minimum wage for a senior county cricketer – which compares poorly with up to £400k for England’s team. Add in personal endorsements and the riches on offer in the IPL (which Pakistan players cannot participate in) and the sport’s superstars such as Sachin Tendulkar can easily earn in excess of £5m in one year. The temptation to accept a payment from a bookie is therefore a compelling one. (This is why county cricket is also a common target for corruption, with the added benefit of having a lower and less-scrutinised profile than international matches.)
It should also not be forgotten that many of the nation’s cricketers are from under-privileged backgrounds, and a financial inducement of even a few thousand dollars can make an enormous difference for the players and their families. Mohammad Amir is a prime example, the youngest of seven children from an impoverished family, who grew up playing ‘tape cricket’ (a common form of the game using a tennis ball wrapped in electrical tape).
In addition, the international team is effectively homeless and nomadic since the terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in Lahore in March of last year, increasing the players’ vulnerability and the opportunity for external contact. And there is also the feeling that match-fixing is almost an accepted part of the country’s cricketing culture, with the rewards far outweighing the perceived risks.
Speaking about Amir, former captain Ramiz Raja said:
I blame the people who got an innocent 18-year old thinking in a devious manner. It is that and the unhealthy atmosphere around the team. I blame the leadership, by which I mean management, the atmosphere in the dressing room, the entire cricket culture back home. They all think they can get away with it.
The various authorities are now scrambling to complete investigations into the Lord’s affair, and also the winter tour of Australia.
A PCB enquiry is ongoing, with Pakistan’s Federal Sports Minister Ijaz Jakhrani calling its outcome “a matter of honour and dignity”. The ICC has also promised it will complete an initial investigation before Pakistan’s next match against England (a Twenty20 game) on Sunday, although it is unclear exactly how rigorous this can be.
ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat told BBC Radio 5 Live:
The reputation of the game has been tarnished and it is something we must make right. There is no question that people’s confidence will have been swayed. We’re busy with the Metropolitan Police and hope, before the weekend arrives, we can get to some sort of a conclusion.
We are working hard, but it’s important to remember that an individual is innocent until proven guilty. At the moment, it is appropriate that the game continues. We shouldn’t let everyone suffer because of a couple of individuals that might have got caught up in corrupt practices.
The vast majority of players are not guilty of any such behaviour. We shouldn’t let a couple of individuals, a few players, bring the entire game to a standstill.
Responses from the cricketing community – players, media and fans alike – have ranged from outrage (many) to sympathy (a few).
Strauss is one of those who has come down quite clearly on the side of making an example of any wrongdoers:
If someone is found categorically guilty, the only way for me is for you to not be able to play international cricket again.
Former captain Michael Vaughan agreed:
The game has to be cleaned up. This is the chance to change the game forever and stamp this kind of thing out.
Others from outside the English game, including former Pakistan captain-turned-politican Imran Khan agree:
If these allegations are true then there should be exemplary punishment. If the players are found guilty they should be shunted out of the team [and] replaced by others.
Certainly, past precedent would suggest that life bans are likely for any players found guilty.
Former England captain Mike Atherton, now The Times’ cricket correspondent, points to the case of the 18-year old Amir and the opportunity this presents to purge Pakistan’s cricket culture of its disease of corruption:
Amir’s rehabilitation should be at the heart of the cleansing of Pakistan cricket. The brilliant young bowler is not the cause of the problem but the most tragic consequence of it.
Regardless, it is vital now that any investigations and subsequent punishments do not shy away from meeting the issues head on. Writing on the BBC Sport website, cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew says:
The investigation, for the good of cricket, has to be thorough and absolute. The game cannot afford for this to be swept under the carpet and if that means Pakistan, when this tour comes to an end, must serve a temporary exile from international cricket then so be it.
In the meantime, the tour continues, although it is unclear whether Butt, Akmal, Amir and Asif will play again. Pakistan play Somerset on Thursday, and are still scheduled to play two Twenty20 matches and five one-day internationals against England.
The moral question
This story will run and run for at least the next several days, with our perspectives on it no doubt changing as new evidence is made public. But the fundamental question I posed at the beginning of this post remains: even if the transgression is an apparently minor one, what effect does this have on the way we view sport?
To say that the full extent of Pakistan’s alleged deception was to concede three inconsequential no-balls in a match England won by an innings and 225 runs is a facile and ignorant argument, not least because England were on the ropes at 102/7 before Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad staged their world record eighth wicket partnership. What if one of those no-balls, if bowled ‘properly’, had dismissed Trott or Broad early in their stand? What if it had struck the batsman’s head, unsettling him for a future wicket-taking delivery? What if the ball had reared up unexpectedly, planting a seed of doubt in the mind and geeing up the other bowlers? What if? What if? What if? No one delivery in a cricket match can be considered to be a wholly independent event, just as a single move in chess inevitably has repercussions on the rest of the game.
So much of sport is about winning (or losing) the battle in the mind that it is hard to believe that a player consciously committed to under-performing in one aspect of his game would not also be subconsciously affected at least slightly in others, and at the highest level it is these marginal differences that often make all the difference.
What was the cost to Pakistan of those three no-balls? Just three runs? I don’t think so.
There is also the question of whether the suspected players (or conceivably others) also committed other acts of falsification which remain undiscovered, a point raised by former England captain and Sky commentator Nasser Hussain in the Daily Mail:
I find it hard to believe that we’re just talking about a few no-balls. I’m furious with Pakistan for going down this road again. My hope is that, if the allegations are true, the authorities are strong.
The reality is that the breadth of corruption extends far beyond this match, the Pakistan team and the players under investigation. The News of the World‘s allegations only scratch the surface of a far bigger problem. But starting with the visible tip of the iceberg is as good a place to start as any.
I am indebted to The Times, and in particular correspondents Mike Atherton, Simon Barnes, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Ashling O’Connor and Matthew Syed, from whose reports the facts and quotes for much of this post have been drawn. Any errors in this article are strictly my own.