x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cricket only the latest at bat in cheating league

The subcontinent may be the nerve centre for cricket, but when it comes to match-fixing, the sport has a lot of company on the pitch.

In December 2002, two economists at the University of Chicago published a paper in the American Economic Review that wrestled with a subject not normally considered by the academic readership of the journal.

Although conceding that sumo wrestling was "not itself a subject of direct interest to economists", they reported that statistical analysis of a decade of data from more than 32,000 top-level fights in the Japanese sport provided "overwhelming evidence that match rigging occurs in the final days of sumo tournaments", and that wrestlers regularly threw matches instead of their opponents. But their ultimate conclusion had ramifications beyond sumo and economic theory.

Sumo wrestling, they noted, was the national sport of Japan, "with a 2,000-year tradition and a focus on honour, ritual and history that may be unparalleled in athletics. If corrupt practices thrive here," they concluded, "one might suspect that no institution is safe." This weekend, that is a conclusion with which the International Cricket Council, under siege in its Dubai headquarters, would be unlikely to disagree.

Sumo wrestling, baseball, football, horse-racing, boxing - cricket is far from being the only sport to have been corrupted by gambling. But, barely a decade after one of the most rigorous self-examinations in sporting history, the ICC could have been forgiven for thinking it had seen the last of scandals on the scale of the one now sweeping through the sport. In June 2000, in the wake of a series of match-fixing scandals, the ICC appointed Sir Paul Condon, the former head of London's Metropolitan Police, to head its new Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) and investigate the extent of fixing in the game.

What he found was shocking. "Within days of taking up this new appointment, it became clear to me that many people within cricket had significant information about corruption within the game," Mr Condon said in his report, published in April 2001. The allegations in the public domain, he found, were "only the tip of the iceberg. Many people had not reported attempts to corrupt them or suspicions about other people they believed to be corrupt."

While match-fixing was corruption in "its most serious and lucrative form", Mr Condon's unit discovered that "every single aspect of a match can be and is bet upon" and as a result "is vulnerable to manipulation and fixing". Almost nothing, the ACSU found, was immune from rigging, from the toss at the beginning of a match and the end from which the fielding side would bowl to the number of runs scored in the first innings of a One Day International and the number of no-balls in a designated over.

Nine years on, investigators at the ACSU now examining the allegations of spot-fixing levelled in last weekend's The News of the World must be experiencing corporate deja vu - the no-ball scam is at the centre of the storm and the original scandal that led directly to the setting up of the unit also had its roots in South Asia's illegal gambling culture. In April 2000, Delhi police made public recordings of conversations between Wessel "Hansie" Cronje, the captain of the South African cricket team, and a member of an Indian betting syndicate.

At first, Cronje said the allegations that he and three other players had been involved in match-fixing during that year's series of one-day internationals in India were "completely without substance" and he would "never do anything to let my country down". The following day the South African cricket board declared him "a man of enormous integrity and honesty". They were wrong. A few days later Cronje admitted he had accepted $140,000 (Dh514,000) for forecasting - though not, he insisted, for fixing - results, though he later admitted to the King Commission that he had offered money to teammates to underperform.

He did not, however, have long to live with his shame: he died in an aircraft crash in 2002. Condon speculated that the seeds of corruption in cricket may have been sown in England in the 1970s, when games had sometimes been fixed, but only "if a match was of vital importance to one team and not to the other" and not for financial gain. Later, however, as the sport grew more popular, thanks to lucrative television coverage and the increasing number of one-day internationals, the opportunities for betting and corruption also grew and "a more insidious and corrosive" form of fixing took hold.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation told Mr Condon that unlawful betting had escalated following the resumption of matches against Pakistan in 1978. The problem had been compounded in recent years by the spread of the mobile phone, a technology tailor-made for illegal gambling, which continued to grow dramatically in India in the 1980s and 1990s. The Indian betting industry, concluded Mr Condon, "has been the engine room which has powered and driven cricket corruption", but the Indian social historian Boria Majumdar sees it from a different perspective. The corruption in cricket since the late 1990s, he says, "is the product of the shift of cricket's nerve centre from the West to the subcontinent in terms of its financial muscle. And with this came unheralded greed and unheralded corruption."

A senior research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, the author of several books on cricket, including Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom - A Social History of Indian Cricket and, ultimately, a great fan of the game, Mr Majumdar says he is deeply disappointed, pained and baffled by the events unfolding in the UK, and by the failure of the authorities to act quickly to "get some credibility back".

If they do not, he fears, cricket may be "corrupted beyond redemption. Cricket is the passion and the faith of the people and that faith is now shaken. When I next watch a Pakistan game, will I believe it is for real?" Cricket, of course, is not alone. Sport in general has had a long and dishonourable association with gambling, and boasts a hall of shame packed with fallen idols. "The unholy trinity of sport, betting and corruption," wrote Matthew Engel in the Financial Times on Sunday, dated back to Ancient Rome, "and quite likely the cavemen were at it too". As for cricket, "in the 18th century gambling was central to the game, and match-rigging was rife".

England's other national game, football, has also known its share of disgrace. Almost certainly, none of the young Pakistan players at the centre of the current spot-fixing allegations will have heard of Peter Swan, a 73-year-old Englishman battling to cope with the demons that have haunted him since 1963, but his story should serve as a warning to any sportsman tempted to gamble on their career. Once upon a time, Swan, like Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, was a young man at the top of his game in his chosen sport. Like them, he was accused of fixing a game to benefit from a bet. It remains to be seen if, like him, they have destroyed their once promising lives.

The son of a coal miner, Swan found football and kicked his way out of a life in the pits, joining Sheffield Wednesday in 1953. Part of the national squad for the 1962 World Cup, the tough centre-half was fancied by England manager Alf Ramsey for a place in his legendary 1966 World Cup team. But Swan would not be a part of England's greatest footballing triumph; his name would not pass into history alongside those of Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. Instead, he would go to jail.

One December Sunday in 1963, Swan and two Sheffield team-mates placed a bet against their own side to lose to Ipswich in the English league. His prize? Just £100 (Dh566). In those days, players like Swan earned about £50 a week and he regarded the bet, he later told his biographer, as "insurance" against the win bonus none of them expected to earn against the superior side. The truth emerged a year later, when the player who had lured Swan into the petty gamble sold his story to a newspaper. In all, eight players, including Swan, were jailed and banned from football. "What fools we were," Swan told a newspaper in 2006.

A different age, a different sport, but another fool playing the same old game: in 1920 America was shocked to learn that "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and seven other players with the Chicago White Sox had accepted bribes from a gambling ring to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Though cleared of criminal charges, eight White Sox players, including Jackson, were banned from professional baseball for life.

Like Swan, Jackson's decision came down more to economics than greed. In 1919, he was paid $6,000 a year by the Sox: "They wouldn't give you any more, that's all you could get," he told the grand jury investigating the scandal in 1920. He insisted he had played to win, but admitted that another player had promised him a $20,000 (Dh73,000) cut to help throw the series, though in the end all he had received was $5,000. When his wife, Katie, found out what he had done "she felt awful bad about it, cried about it a while".

In 2001 Mr Condon pointed out that, while it was no excuse, international cricketers were "paid less than top soccer players, golfers, tennis players or formula one drivers and are therefore more vulnerable to corrupt approaches", and some commentators believe the same could be said of today's Pakistan players within their own game. "Pakistani cricketers are no more crooked or saintly than Indian ones," wrote R Jagannathan in the Daily News and Analysis on Thursday. "The only difference is that our cricketers make tonnes of money without much effort. Theirs don't. Hence the greater lure of short-term financial fixes with the help of slimy bookies."

It was this economic reality that appears to have been exploited by Mazhar Majeed, the sporting agent who allegedly arranged for three no-balls during last week's test match. Mr Majeed, who was filmed accepting £150,000 (Dh850,000) from an undercover reporter, claimed he had seven corrupt cricketers in his pay. "These poor boys need to," he said. "They're paid peanuts." Mr Condon said: "ignorance of the risk and actuality of corruption" had enabled malpractice to flourish and concluded there was a "compelling case ... for a programme of education" in the sport. But history, of course, has plenty of lessons for any young players, in any sport, who might be planning to risk their carers with a crooked gamble.

"I don't think there's a day goes by that Peter Swan doesn't regret what he did," says Nick Johnson, a British journalist who in 2006 wrote Setting the Record Straight, the story of the footballer's fall from grace. "It eats away at him." If he could, says Mr Johnson, Swan would turn back time to that Sunday in December, 1963, and erase all the shame, all the taunts, all the regrets that have filled the past 50 years of his life.

And, if he could, to any young sportsman thinking of following in his footsteps, "He would say, 'Look at my story, what's happened to me, and think twice. It's just not worth it'." @Email:jgornall@thenational.ae