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The courts have done their bit, now cricket’s authorities must too

Butt received a 2½-year sentence

Former Pakistan cricket captain Salman Butt and bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were all handed prison sentences in a British court today, ranging from six months to 2½ years. Many observers have expressed shock and dismay that the trio are to be jailed at all for their role in the apparently minor offence of deliberately bowling three no-balls at pre-arranged times in a Test match against England at Lord’s last summer.

For many, though – myself included – it was a necessarily strong stance against the growing spectre of corruption in sport which threatens to undermine not just Pakistani cricket or indeed cricket as a whole, but the most fundamental principles of honest competition on which all sport is supposedly based. But what is even more important now is what the sport’s authorities do going forward in order to combat a problem to which they have turned a blind eye for several years.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

After a sting by the now defunct News of the World captured damning evidence of the spot-fixing arrangements orchestrated by cricket agent Mazhar Majeed, Butt was sentenced to 30 months for his role in the conspiracy. Asif received a one-year term and Amir, who was 18 at the time of the scandal, faces six months in prison. The trio are the first sportsmen to be jailed for on-field corruption in the UK for almost 50 years. Majeed was sentenced to 32 months.

The players had already been banned for five years by the International Cricket Council, against which sanction they are all appealing. A number of respected figures in the sport, including former England captain Michael Vaughan, have called for lifetime bans for offences of this nature.

To many, corruption is corruption, no matter how ‘small’ the fix. The essence of any sporting contest is that spectators watch knowing they are seeing an honest tussle between two individuals or teams who are both trying their hardest to win. And, such is the nature of sport, it is impossible to guarantee that the manipulation of one small moment will not have a knock-on effect on the outcome of a contest. Sport so often revolves around a series of little events rather than a single big moment that it is impossible to ever be sure.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Cooke seemed to side with this view, saying the image of cricket had been permanently tainted:

The gravamen of the offences committed by all four of you is the corruption in which you engaged in a pastime, the very name of which used to be associated with fair dealing on the sporting field. It’s not cricket was an adage. It is the insidious effect of your actions on professional cricket and the followers of it which make the offences so serious. The image and integrity of what was once a game, but is now a business is damaged in the eyes of all, including the many youngsters who regarded three of you as heroes and would have given their eye teeth to play at the levels and with the skill that you had.

In Pakistan, where cricket is the national sport, the ordinary follower of the national team feels betrayed by your activities, as do your fellow countrymen in this country. You Butt, Asif and Amir have let down all your supporters and all followers of the game, I bear in mind that this was a sting by the News of the World, but that does not render your culpability any the less.

These offences, regardless of pleas, are so serious that only a sentence of imprisonment will suffice to mark the nature of the crimes and to deter any other cricketer, agent or anyone else who considers corrupt activity of this kind, with its hugely detrimental impact on the lives of many who look to find good honest entertainment and good-hearted enjoyment from following an honest, albeit professional sport.

All three players are expected to serve only half their time. Butt and Amir have launched appeals against the length of their sentences. It would not be a huge surprise if their terms were reduced by as much as a half. Arguably even a greatly reduced sentence, coupled with the loss of both reputation and earnings potential resulting from their ICC ban, still serves as a suitable deterrent against others thinking about going down a similar path. Personally, I would have preferred a short jail term backed up by a lifetime sporting ban – but I’m no lawyer and there is an important judicial precedent being set here for any subsequent cases.

One crime punished – but how many more?

There are further suggestions that the extent of the betting scam extended far beyond the one match which was the subject of the four-week trial. The Cricketer magazine has reported that deleted text messages found by Scotland Yard revealed bookies attempted to spot-fix some aspect of every match of Pakistan’s tour last summer. And Justice Cooke remarked on evidence of contact with a fixer in Dubai, as well as finding that Majeed was involved in fixing prior to the tour.

The real question now is just how prevalent is corruption in cricket, and what are the authorities going to do about clamping down on it?

Lord Condon, former head of the ICC’s anti-corruption unit, called for the various cricketing authorities to take stronger and more pro-active action:

Some of us have been saying for some years that cricket has become complacent. The big fixes had been stopped but spot-fixing had not, and this sends a very strong message.

The ICC has a big problem. It has to do more and national boards have to do more. In the past they have become complacent and they need to do more or risk expulsion from the international game.

Condon’s successor, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, was less forthright, saying that the convictions were not necessarily a sign of widespread fixing, although he admitted this was unlikely to have been the only incidence of corruption:

I think it is certainly not rampant in international cricket, it is engaged in by a tiny number of people. Sadly it I wouldn’t say the instances we have seen brought to justice are totally isolated.

Let’s be clear here. Corruption in sport is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is it isolated to cricket. After the calciopoli scandal of 2006, Juventus were stripped of two Serie A titles and relegated to the third tier of Italian football, while Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio received points penalties and were thrown out of European competition. And on a smaller scale, it used to be a common and long-standing practice in cycling for the results of the lucrative critérium races which follow the Tour de France to be carefully stage-managed to ensure a crowd-pleasing result.

But it does appear that the problem is more prevalent in cricket than in other major sports, with a perfect storm of factors coming into play. Top cricketers from the Asian nations frequently come from impoverished backgrounds – Amir, for instance, is one of seven children from a poor family – and are often relatively lowly-paid compared to their peers in other sports. Pakistan’s centrally-contracted players are paid as little as £25,000 pa, and only the biggest stars can attract lucrative deals from sponsors. The riches of the IPL are also off-limits – Pakistan’s players are currently banned from it. Cricket also enjoys an enormous following in India and surrounding countries, where illegal betting syndicates are rife. And the format of the game lends itself to the possibility of spot-fixing, whether it is a dropped catch or a judiciously-timed poor delivery.

Although Pakistan’s players are more susceptible than most, corruption – or at least attempted corruption – has targeted players of virtually every cricket-playing nation. South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was dealt a life ban in 2000 after an investigation revealed he had accepted several payments over a period of four years, 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 same 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 the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup. And cases of suspected corruption in English county cricket – which is also heavily televised and gambled upon on the Indian subcontinent – have also been uncovered.

Corruption is not a new problem. Butt, Asif and Amir represent no more than the tip of the iceberg. The image of cricket as a genteel and honest game has been severely damaged. Rather than patting themselves on the back for a job well done – and one which they themselves played no role in – it is time for the ICC and the various national cricket authorities to act decisively. They must be seen to be actively addressing the issue if the damage is not to become irreparable, even if it means unearthing more dirt. As has been the case with cycling’s battle against doping, such battles are often a case of two steps forward, one step back. But it is the only way to assure fans that the sport wants to be truly clean. A sport plagued by the merest whiff of corruption that is tacitly ignored by its governing bodies ceases to be a credible sport at all.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

6 Responses to The courts have done their bit, now cricket’s authorities must too

  1. I feel sorry for these young Pakistani men, yielding to massive temptation to do something which may have seemed like a minor misdemeanour at the time. But I quite agree that the penalties should be severe and that every effort should be made to keep this sort of thing out of cricket and every other sport.

    Of course it shouldn’t have been and wasn’t considered in this case, but it seems probable that more players and more matches have been corrupted in the past, both distant and recent. (The 2010 Sydney test which Pakistan lost from a seemingly impregnable position is highly suspect now. There were some very strange field placements, unaccountable dropped catches and irresponsible batting).

    It has never been true that cricket is a uniquely gentleman’s game.

    I have no sympathy whatsoever for people who bet on sport, even if they’re cheated of their potential winnings. If you are thinking of placing or taking a bet on a no-ball being bowled on a particular ball, you should bear in mind the advice of Sky Masterton in Guys and Dolls:

    “One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.”

  2. Tim says:

    While I have a degree of sympathy for all three – although less so for Butt, as the obvious leader – I’m happier that the courts have erred on the side of a draconian penalty rather than a more lenient one. It’s important to set an example, and I have no doubt that after appeals and ‘good behaviour’ that each will serve much less than half their initial sentences. But I do think the sporting sanction should be greater. The degree to which their intention to participate in a fraud perpetrated by and largely isolated to illegal betting rings is a genuine crime is debatable. Their violation of fundamental sporting principles is not. None should ever be allowed the opportunity to profit from playing professional cricket again, even the impressionable Amir.

    The Sky Masterson quote is particularly appropriate. And although this case was only about the one match relating to the News of the World sting, it appears there is ample evidence to show this was just one example of many. I remember the fuss over the Sydney match, and other suspicious events on that tour. It casts every match the Pakistan team have played in the last couple of years into doubt. Whether rightly or wrongly, it’s hard not to jump to the obvious conclusion every time something odd happens in a match. It’s an insidious feeling.

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  4. Big Dave says:

    The reputation of cricket and of sport itself was dealt a massive blow by this case. I believe that the bans from all sport, should have been lifetime. However, I doubt that 3 no-balls would have changed the course of a match, and the victims were the bookmakers who I have no sympathy for. But of course bookmaking is big business in the UK and is protected by the law far more than the average citizen. Had these men decided to make a few extra bob by robbing someone in the street, they’d have probably got lighter sentences – unless of course they did it during the riots.

    Now if we could outlaw betting on sports events, we could solve a lot of problems. This sort of corruption could not happen, certain families would eat because the man of the house hadn’t lost their money on gambling, and William Hill and Paddy Power would no longer have the cash rolling in and would have to go out and do some socially useful work.

    A number of problems, solved in one go!

    • Tim says:

      I agree that lifetime bans would have been fitting. Such is the nature of cricket, though, that I don’t think we can say definitively that thee no-balls would have made no difference. They probably would not have done, but who knows what was going on in the bowlers’ heads in the minutes either side of bowling their no-balls. Would the competitive intensity have been the same? I doubt it.

      It wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory that a run or two either way could have made a crucial difference – England’s 2-run win over the Aussies at Edgbaston in 2005, say. But more than that, England were on the ropes in that Lord’s match – 102/7 – before Trott and Broad’s remarkable stand. What if one of those no-balls had been bowled ‘properly’ and dismissed one of the batsmen? Or maybe struck him on the head, loosening him up for a wicket-taking ball later in the over?

      They probably made no difference. But we can’t be sure. That’s what’s so insidious about it.

      The bookies’ businesses affected by these spot markets were all (I think) Indian-based, rather than UK, where even our in-play markets are less focussed on such specific events. Such betting syndicates are also illegal and unregulated. Of course, we’ve seen more than occasional match-fixing going on even in British sports, but nothing that is quite as easy to manipulate as cricketing spot-fixes.

      And without bookies, where would all those seedy old blokes who seem to spend all day hanging out in the local bookies do with their time?

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