Saturday, 4 September 2010

It's just not cricket

I said a few months ago ( that I tend not to write too much about sport, the reason for which I explained in some detail in that post. However as a massive fan of cricket (yes I really am that British), recent revelations about spot fixing, almost exactly 10 years after the last corruption scandal that rocked the game in 2000, have shocked me into breaking one of the few rules I set myself for this blog.

While ten years ago it was South African captain Hanse Cronje who was at the eye of the corrupt storm for accepting money to deliberately throw games, last weekend it was Pakistani fast bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif around whom the cricketing world exploded an a shower of righteous indignation and abject shock. The crime is no longer as game changing or as monumental as deliberately trying to lose a game, it is simple deliberately bowling a No Ball as certain specific points in the match. The bowler’s actions only influenced the outcome of the match to the tune of 3 runs in England’s monumental total of over 400 – Pakistan were subsequently dismissed twice for under 150 and defeated heavily. However, while their impact on the match in hand was far less than Cronje’s, their crime is no less heinous.

Amir and Asif are guilty of abject dishonesty and injustice in an arena built on honest and fairness. Sport is, at heart, a competition between two groups of individuals who are trying as best they can to defeat their opposition legitimately within the laws of the game. You play under the assumption that your opponent is trying just as hard as you are to gain victory and so you are pitting yourself against his of her greatest efforts in an even playing field – the laws are the same for both sides. Sport is an expression of human competitiveness in a controlled environment which encourages skill and intelligence as well as brute strength and power. When someone plays a sport for more than just the desire to win, you rob that sport of the fundamental principles upon which it is built. Thus when a couple of bowlers seemingly harmlessly put their foot a few inches further down the 22 yards that they’re allowed for a few bucks on the side, they tear the very spirit of the game.

The tragedy of the situation is that you can understand exactly why they did it. Pakistan is not like India, England, Australia or South Africa – world leaders, both in wealth and talent in the cricketing world of 2010 – they are poor, under-resourced, their country is ravaged by war and by flood. Playing for Pakistan is not a lucrative career path; especially when you cant simply jet off to India for a month of two a year to compete in the money-drowned Indian Premier League – Pakistani players are bared from the tournament. The Pakistani team was in turmoil even before this most recent torrent. They have had more captains that Test victories in the last 12 months, been dismissed for record low scores and thrown away matches which have seemed to be impossible to lose. Selection is inconsistent, players are inexperienced and coaching is lacklustre. Amid this turmoil there have been heroic wins which belie the talent of the team, and the impetus for these wins has come from the two at the centre of this current controversy. Amir and Asif have both bowled brilliantly this summer; Amir in particular has shone, all the brighter because of his age – he’s younger than me!

So here are two bowlers performing at the top of their game, dismissing two of the best sides in world cricket for under 100. Around them their team repeatedly implodes and crashes to crushing defeat after crushing defeat. They get little support from their team mates either in the field or with the bat. To compound this they get paid far less that the players that they repeatedly best week after week. I think it’s understandable that they would become disheartened and disgruntled. They reason that the odd No Ball here and there is pretty harmless in the context of the game and ask why they shouldn’t try to pick up a bit of extra cash on the side to supplement their relatively measly income. This is perhaps the most frightening thing about the entire affair – its absolute plausibility. The Cronje affair was terrifying because it was so unbelievable, this one is equally terrifying, but because it is so very believable.

We should not allow the circumstances surrounding this affair cloud our judgment however. What Amir and Asif did was wrong; understanding why they did it does not make it any less so. There is no place in the game for such actions and a clear message needs to be sent out to the cricketing world that such behaviour is unacceptable. Should the allegations against them be proven to be true – and they are still, as yet, allegations – they should not step onto a cricket field to represent their country ever again. It is a terrible shame to destroy the careers of such young men, Amir in particular, but the game of cricket is bigger than the career of one young man. Ultimately these players have only themselves to blame. Sure the external pressures were strong, but there is always the opportunity to say ‘no’ and more importantly to report the tempters to team managers and indeed to the international body set up in 2000 to tackle corruption. There are plenty of examples in the last ten years of players doing just that.

Inevitably this incident is and has been a remarkable catalyst for introspection from the cricketing world. Corruption was not wiped from the game in 2000, its spectre has always hovered ominously over cricket, but, apart from occasional incidences taken in isolation, the media and the cricketing bureaucracy have allowed it to fester out of sight. For 10 years it has been an elephant in the room. Now however the cricketing world is presented with a perfect opportunity to remove corruption root and branch. This incident acutely reveals the nature of the corruption. It is no longer about match fixing, or even about fixing large statistics and major events in the game, it is about small, insignificant occurrences which have little or no impact on the actual match. With the growth of the internet, betting can be done so much faster and so much more easily that every single ball of a cricket match is an event which can be bet upon. While there are allegations that a recent game in Sydney between Pakistan and Australia, in which Pakistan lost from an inconceivably strong position, was fixed, it seems that, for the most part, fixing has become much more small scale and insidious that it was ten years ago. However through a thorough investigation into this issue, tighter regulations and sever punishments for anyone caught out in this most recent affair, corruption can be tackled and dealt a sever blow. It will never be irradiated because there will always be people ready to cheat to make easy cash, but the job that was started and not finished in 2000 can at least be done more satisfactorily this time round.

The spotlight must also fall on Pakistani cricket itself, which has suffered a number of body blows in recent years. As well as on field problems, selection remains a contention issue, as does administrative corruption and internal security – Pakistan are no longer hosting tours due to fears for the safety of players. Pakistan is a country suffering from floods, internal strife, international pressure over suspicions of terrorist activity and widespread corruption. It is hardly surprising that it’s cricket in is disarray. There have been calls to ban Pakistan from playing international cricket at the highest level as a result of the issues surrounding the team. However, while the solution to on-field corruption is to ban players in order to send a strong message of zero tolerance to the rest of the cricketing community, the solution the Pakistan’s problems are not to throw them out. Individual administrators might be at fault for some of the problems, and if they are then those individuals should be punished accordingly, but an entire nation of people, many of whom are honest, cricket loving people who simply want to see their nation perform well, should not be punished for the maladministration of a few senior officials. Pakistani cricket needs to be nourished, supported and cared for by the international community through the current problems. Pakistan has produced some of the finest crickets ever to grace the game and will continue to do so. It would be criminal to destroy the potential career of future Pakistani cricketers as punishment for the crimes of today’s corrupt administrators and players.

No doubt this scandal will continue to unfold over the next few weeks and months. If I think future revelation merit another post, no doubt I will return to this issue, but for now I apologise to those for whom much of this post made little sense because you don’t follow cricket. I hope that you still find the wider issues relevant, because the match and spot fixing are not exclusive to cricket. They are a menace for all sports.

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