Want a solution? There’s no quick fix

I’ve never felt so numb after an England win, which is heart-breaking for me, especially at the end of such a brilliant Test. We should be remembering it for the humdinger of a second day: Amir’s bowling to reduce England to 102-7, Trott playing his way into the hearts of a certain kind of cricket fan, Broad playing some orgasmically brilliant drives through the off-side. Even without the match fixing, the joy of the win would have had some gloss taken off because of Pakistan’s inept capitulation in the face of some good, occasionally great, bowling. You could still sympathise with with a young side who have played six Tests in seven weeks in unfamilar conditions, whilst their homeland was under water.

With the allegations of fixing flying around, it puts Pakistan’s performance with the bat into a whole new perspective. For every moment of madness, like the silly pull shots Farhat and Yousuf got themselves out too, is scrutinised as possible cheating. These shots look to me like those of players who have mentally “gone”, not the result of talking to bookmakters. But where do you stop? Do you scrutinise every no ball, every dropped catch. Jarrod Kimber wrote an article on fixing for the Cricket Sadist’s Quarterly, in which he said: 

 

I wouldn’t want to be the person in charge of finding spot fixing. Look at any Pakistani cricket game. Saeed Ajmal dropped three catches in one T20 match, Kamran Akmal refused to glove a ball cleanly against Australia, Mohammad Yousuf captained like it was his first game of cricket in the same game, Shahid Afridi’s whole batting career must raise red flags and that is just the really blatantly obvious ones. It could be that all of these are match fixing, or that none are. How the fuck could we know?

In Gideon Haigh’s collected articles The Green and Golden Age there’s very good stuff on match-fixing, including this bit which is relevant for our present purposes:

You see, it’s the simplest thing in the world to raise “questions” by inverting the burden of proof, implying guilt through rumour and hearsay, then leaving it to the injured party to establish his innocence. For innocence frequently relies on nothing more than an individual’s word and, in an age where the vogue is for cheap cynicism, that counts for little.

Part of the beauty of sport, and cricket in particular, is its unpredictability; that very gifted people can do silly things at crucial moments. That Australia can win a Test match despite being effectively 49-8 on the fourth day; that England can post a world-record 8th wicket partnership after being 102-7. That one of the best batsman I’ve ever seen will play a daft half-pull to deep square leg. If you start questioning these things, you bring the soul of cricket into disrepute.

I don’t think this is an exaggeration. I don’t mean in a dewy-eyed romantic way the NOTW implies when they write that Amir “sealed cricket’s shame on the pitch once illuminated by legends including WG Grace, Ian Botham and Don Bradman”. W.G. Grace was a cheat and philanderer; Don Bradman was, to put it mildly, a humourless bugger; and the life of I.T. Botham is hardly an unblemished journey of a saintly man. But to question the authenticity of cricket matches, and to wonder whether what we are watching is “real” or merely manufactured by a betting syndicate, is to put cricket on a par with tosh like WWF Wrestling.

Let’s try and work out exactly what is going on. First off, arrests have been made, so this isn’t a huge practical joke by the NOTW, however much we may wish it all were. Second, this isn’t technically match fixing. “All” we have so far is good evidence that Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif bowled three no-balls for financial gain. This is deplorable of course, but not on the same level as fixing matches. The idiot caught in the NOTW sting talked of fixing Tests and ODIs, but it’s hard to know whether these boasts should be taken seriously. He could easily have been exaggerating to impress a potential business client.

Then again, he may not have been. This NOTW report could be the tip of an iceberg. The article by Jarrod I mentioned earlier – which is worth the price of the magazine alone – says that several players had contacted him talking of match fixing in the Indian Premier League, Indian Cricket League and other one-day matches. He also says that in one ICL match both teams were trying to lose parts of the game at the same time because both had been paid by different bookmakers, which evokes a Tom Sharpe-esque image of ludicrousness, until you realise just how much corruption must exist for that to be true.

So far only one international player, the former Bangladesh captain Shakib al-Hasan, has spoken publicly of being approached by bookmakers. This season we have also had Essex players being arrested for match fixing, Lalit Modi accusing Chris Cairns of match fixing, even reports of Flintoff’s auction being fixed. All this had come out this year before these spot fixing allegations.

At the risk of sounding like a crusty MCC egg and bacon blazer, it is one thing to fix an ICL/IPL match, or even a mainly pointless ODI. It is another thing to indulge in fixing during a Test match. At Lord’s. When you need to draw the series, which looked eminently possible after the last match Pakistan played. As Jarrod writes in this emotive piece, the feeling is like someone has been cheating on you.

The other reason this episode evokes complete and utter sadness is because Mohammed Amir was one of the players involved. He is only 18 and has bowled beautifully all series. An international career of fifteen years would have seen him – probably – become an all-time great. That future lies in tatters now.

I’ll leave you with some thoughts on how cricket could perhaps get out of this mess.

1) Cut the amount of international cricket

Curbing match fixing isn’t the only reason for doing this. England’s last two captains – both tough characters – resigned in tears, such was the pressure of the job. The amount of cricket being played is surely part of the reason. As crowds this summer are not quite as numerous as you’d hope, it seems cricket is suffering from over-saturation. The fact that there is so much meaningless cricket is a Godsend for bookmakers, and means that players are more likely to fix matches where everyone will have forgotten the result in six months time.

2) Legalise betting on the sub-continent

As with drugs, if you criminalise something the people that provide it will be criminals, and often criminal gangs.  Bumble tweeted earlier that players’ families have been threatened if they don’t comply with the bookmaker’s demands, which certainly puts a different light on Amir’s actions. Alex Massie is correct when he says:

A legal gambling industry – that is, one less in hock to and controlled by gangsters – would surely be better placed to combat this kind of corruption.

3) Improve pay for Pakistani cricketers

According to Dileep Premachandran:

The £4,000 cheque Mohammad Amir received for being Pakistan’s player of the series was three times the monthly retainer he gets from the PCB. It is just over half what Ishant Sharma, India’s most exciting bowling prospect when he signed for the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2008, received for every ball he bowled in the Indian Premier League.

Pakistani cricketers were banned from playing in the IPL and, if they signed a central contract with the PCB, also prohibited from playing cricket for an overseas side. It’s therefore probable financial motives played some sort of role, and that improving pay would perhaps help keep a lid on corruption.

Add to this a complete overhaul of the ICC and PCB. But there’s not enough time to go into that…

Cricket will emerge from this mess, but needs to change in order to emerge stronger from it. I don’t want to speculate or write much more, because it’s too painful and I’ve written enough already.. We are all just going to have to sit and grit our teeth through whatever revelations come out next.

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5 Responses to Want a solution? There’s no quick fix

  1. it is heartening to see how the loss of aamer has truly hit cricket fans from across the globe in such a visceral way…

    until you realise that your team is the one that got fucked, and will be fucked forever, and will be the one actually losing this beautiful boy, and all that kumbaya joy fades into oblivion…

    • I think on Aamer we’re going to have to wait and see how things develop.
      a) Was he led astray by senior players?
      b) Were threats made against his family?
      c) What sort of punishment is he doing to get?

      Once we know those, the “healing process” (for want of a better word) can start.

      I cannot imagine how a Pakistan fan is feeling right now. All I can say is that things will improve, but it will take time.

      • there is no doubt he was led astray, but perhaps not in the way one would readily accept it. our culture is very deferential, and even refusing an extra spoon of sugar an elder adds to your tea is an insult. i don’t want to make bullshit new york times cultural stereotypes here, but a pakistani would find it hard to say no to an elder, especially if they seem to know what they’re doing.

        the threats against his family are the greatest hope to hold on to, because then it becomes a reason which our hearts can justify readily.

        the saddest part is that he is paying for a national culture’s malaise. a no-ball during an amazing spell is as trivial as breaking a red light to get to your job on time. at least in pakistan it is, because so many of us abuse our systems, but throw our hands up in despair and condescension when someone gets caught for it.

  2. Luke_D says:

    I don’t know really what to think about all this (I’m not sure I agree with you about over-saturation – personally I think there is a lack of exposure to the game which is behind the lack of substantial crowds, but that’s a different issue).
    You’re right, three no-balls in the context of a test match means really very little, but the implications are much broader.
    The real question is what is the best outcome of this affair? I personally don’t think that the upcoming ODI’s and 20-20’s should be played, as (a) the Pakistani players will be under the watchful glare of the media and police, with every no-ball questioned, and (b)the question of what either team stand to gain from it hangs heavy in my mind. All England can do is beat a decidedly mediocre Pakistan team, which would the very epitome of kicking someone when they’re down. All Pakistan can do is achieve some degree of damage control, and whilst there is some argument for moving on and not letting this affair blight the tour, it seems a bit feeble now simply because this affair HAS blighted the tour.
    The other question is what to do with the accused. If they are guilty, it seems almost inevitable they will be banned for life, and the career of a potential world-beater will be shattered. Even if they are not guilty their reputations will be tarnished, perhaps irreparably. Either way is a sad state of affairs.

    • Karachikhatmal: I think you’ve got a point, especially about deferring to elders. It seems possible that Aamer could escape with, say, a 5 year ban, whilst Asif and Butt get banned for life, because of the various mitigating circumstances Aamer might have. I’ve no idea how long this could all take though. You’re right that bowling a no ball is trivial, but as I (and Luke) say – the implications of bookmakers being able to fix things like no balls is disastrous.

      Luke: These ODIs at the end of the series are exactly some of the pointless cricket I’m talking about. It was the same after last year’s Ashes: 7 ODIs were played. England lost 6-1. I think. Can’t remember, care even less. What is the point of such a series? We’ve already had the Test matches, so it’s like having the main course before the entrees. This table illustrates it best. Since 1997, we’ve had over 100 ODIs each year: roughly equivilent to 1 every 3 days. In 2007 there were 191 ODIs – inflated by a World Cup I know, but that’s an ODI every other day! That’s far too many, especially now when you factor in whatever Test/IPL cricket the players are playing too. There’s also a surfeit of meaningless cricket – like last year when Oz went 4-0 up in the ODI series meaning the last three matches were needless. No wonder match fixing occurs in these circumstances. It’s not the only thing that needs to be done, or even the main thing, but cutting the amount of international cricket has needed to happen for about 15 years (and while I’m ranting on the subject, cutting the amount of county cricket played has needed to happen since 1890).

      What should happen now? That’s an interesting one. I think the matches will go ahead – the ECB would lose so much money if they didn’t, they will find a way to put them on. If Pakistan don’t play, and perhaps they shouldn’t, they’ll probably find another international team that will come along and play instead.

      Whether or not they should play is another matter. My gut feeling is that they should; that we should just get on with the cricket despite all that’s happening. But I can’t see the matches being interesting at all. I still feel very empty about the whole thing, and I don’t think this will change until a line has been drawn under this whole sorry mess.

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