Cricket has been leading a double life. At the same time it is a valiant and beautiful game played with intent by a collection of superb players, and a corrupted activity exploited by too many of its most respected practitioners. Both faces contain truths. Now the issue concerns which face is to prevail.
Sport provides an opportunity to shine, a chance to emerge from the pack, to fulfil the dreams of youth. It also offers primarily a chance to make money, to exploit and grab. As money has flowed into the game so the balance between these forces has changed. Cricket has become a battle ground between the savoury and the unsavoury. Now cricket has a decision to make. Does it intend to confront fixing or merely try to contain it?
If the fixing malaise isn’t cleaned, there might not be any fans left to put up a show for
Hitherto the game has been feeble-minded about its handling of the blight. Naivety has been part of the reason. Cricket underestimated the power of gambling. It is also an unusually unstable game, lacking a core of established countries to hold it together in testing times. Each nation has its own profound issues to sort out. Corrupt or chaotic societies promote weak institutions. Sri Lankan cricket often stumbles back into the hands of a reluctant old guard, the Pakistan board changes with the government, West Indian cricket has hardly been a byword for progressive thought, and England embraced Stanford. Some of the minnows have been caught with snouts in the trough. Governance has been poor. The game has not been run by philosopher kings.
Accordingly cricket has lacked the single-mindedness needed to tackle corruption in its ranks. To the contrary it has tried to ignore it. Nor is it any use pointing a finger at the ICC. The governing body is a convenient scapegoat, but the malaise is widespread and involves the entire community. It needs to be tackled with common intent.
Match-fixing has been condemned by word but not by deed. Cricket has not done anything serious enough in its response. At times the game forgives its champions too much, seems as besotted as a lovelorn teenager with a film star. Culprits have been welcomed back into the game as soon as the siren has blown. The message is clear and the result is inevitable. The consequences of exposure are lame. Greg Chappell was hounded over one foolish but notably open act. The fixers have been forgiven for infinitely worse conduct.
As much can be told from the respect accorded to past offenders. In Outlook magazine Rohit Mahajan quotes a senior India player as saying that the BCCI should do more to get the filth out of the game. Punishment meted to the guilty should be “severe enough to act as a deterrent”. A BCCI official points out that “Azhar is an MP, Prabhakar a coach and Jadeja a cricket expert on a respected TV channel. What kind of deterrence would that serve, if they are rehabilitated so easily after committing the biggest crime in sport?”
It’s unfair to single out these players. The malaise was much deeper. Anyhow the position is the same in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Among those named in the Qayyum report, still the most thorough official document published about fixing, two have been coaching the current Pakistan touring party, another has been assisting England and a fourth has been working on television. By all means let them work outside the game, but it’s unwise for cricket to be so hospitable. It creates the impression that the offences were minor.
Nor is it sensible to assume that fixing has a short history with two bad episodes. No one familiar with the Tehelka tapes is under any such illusion. All the evidence indicates that the ignominy has been going as long as cricket in Sharjah, and that means a quarter of a century. Mukesh Gupta, the only bookie to be interviewed on the topic, provided a long list of famous players on his books, some of whom retired 20 years ago. He has been disgraced but not discredited.
However it’s time to stop blaming the bookies. It’s another instance of passing the buck. Since time began they have been trying to shave the odds. Bookmaking is a cut-throat game, not a prim activity undertaken by maiden aunts. It’s time to hold the players themselves accountable, time for them to stop taking and start giving, time to change the culture of the sport, time to stop the whining about pay differentials and poor backgrounds and pressure. It’s time to tell the cricketers that they are stewards of the game, and those incapable of upholding its better tradition have no business taking part.
Certainly it’s time to stop making excuses. To suppose that youngsters from impoverished backgrounds cannot remain honest is to insult their upstanding brothers and sisters. It’s harder but by no means impossible. Moreover, the favoured have hardly been immune. It’s a question of character not origins.
Only the cricketers can remove the poison, and it’s up the seniors to set the example. Not the least disturbing aspect of the revelations has been the willingness of captains to dishonour their position. No country ought to appoint any leader hovering under a cloud. No IPL franchise ought to seek the services of any player with question marks against his name.
With its dusk-till-dawn parties and easy pickings, the IPL is part of the problem. At once it is rewarding and destructive. Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and Ravi Bopara missed the start of an English season so they could play in the third edition of the league. None of them has subsequently been as effective. Money is all around, and too many of the players are swayed by it. Ruination lies that way. They’d be better advised copying Warren Buffet and Desmond Tutu and the true sages of the period. Give it all away, or most of it anyhow. Focus on your true calling.
Unavoidably the game is in the hands of the players. Anti-corruption bodies and even honest administrators can apply themselves to the task with the utmost devotion, and still the curse will continue. It will just go deeper underground. Only the players can protect cricket, the game that has served them so well.
And they can start by reporting all dubious conduct.
In the last few weeks, many Australians have emerged saying they were approached by dodgy types. In all cases they immediately informed officials. Two points arise. Hereafter matters of this sort cannot be kept secret. Publicity is a powerful weapon against enemies that prefer privacy. If some of the conversations turn out to be innocent, so be it. The bookies need to be stopped at source, before they get their tentacles into an impressionable player or another worthless captain.
Although laudable, it is unsettling that only a few players have spoken up. Either they have fertile imaginations or the rest are holding their tongues. A few champions from the past have shown their mettle. When Sanath Jayasuriya was offered a king’s ransom to sign on decades ago, he threw the bookie out of his hotel room, and contacted a board member. Although his brilliance had already emerged, he was still a junior player, and it’s hard to believe he was the first player to be contacted.
The Tehelka tapes circa 2000 show that fixing isn’t an evil limited to just two episodes
If the players are serious about the game, they will lead the fight to save its name. Dressing rooms are naked places. Admittedly cheats are clever. ICL’s players were shocked and then angry to discover that some of their matches could have been charades. One said that “odd things did happen, but, mate, I thought we were just a bit raw”. Another experienced international admitted that in hindsight the fixing had been obvious, but at the time it all happened so quickly. Friendships were broken by the fixing.
In the ICL, as elsewhere, the honest majority were betrayed by the greedy. It is no longer good enough to see, hear and commit no evil. If a Test match at Lord’s can be affected then so can everything else. Cricket ought to assume that the corruption runs deep. The fightback starts not in board rooms or police stations but in dressing rooms. And it should be taken up by television stations and every other part of the cricketing community. If money is the problem, then most likely it is also the solution. If dishonesty is the disease, then honesty is the best cure.
The ICC can only put out the fires. The players themselves need to get the job done. Cricket is not a monastery. Let them drink and carouse and bet on horses and wear fancy clothes and drive sweet cars, but let them not bite the hand that feeds them. The cheats need to be drummed out of the game or else the public will sooner or later rebel. It’s time the game was rescued from the worst and given back to the best. It is a mission that only the players themselves can accomplish. In the end it’s simple. Just Say No.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It..