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Cricket’s the loser

12 February 2013

7:11 PM

12 February 2013

7:11 PM

Cricket glorifies some cheats. W.G. Grace often batted on after being clean bowled; such was the public demand to watch him. Douglas Jardine’s bodyline tactics revolutionised fast bowling: eventually making it acceptable to target the batsman rather than the wicket. Fielders “work” the ball. Batsmen stand their ground when convention asks them to walk. Cheating is part of cricket. But match fixing? The culprits live forever in infamy, and deservedly so.

The cricketing authorities (the ICC) believed that match fixing had died ten years ago; but the News of the World’s sting on the Pakistan team in 2010 demolished those hopes. The sting suggested that the problem was deep. Rumours abounded around the globe. Even England’s obscure domestic competitions were allegedly corrupt; allegations that hardened when Mervyn Westfield, of Essex County Cricket Club, was convicted of conspiracy to defraud.

Ed Hawkins’ Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy relays and examines the grandest of these rumours. Pakistan met India at Mohali, Punjab, in the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup. Early in the match Hawkins received a message from an Indian bookie he’d been cultivating with a view to writing this book. It read:

‘India will bat first and score over 260, 3 wickets fall within the first 15 overs, Pak will cruise to 100, then lose 2 quick wickets, at 150 will be 5 down and crumble and lose by a margin of 20 runs.’

And so it came to pass, more or less. The events inspired Hawkins to further his investigations. He flew to the sub-continent armed with the script.

Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy is remarkable. The pre-conception is that Indian gambling is chaotic, the perfect cover for deceptions. Hawkins smashes this prejudice. The industry (for that is what it is) is well organised. Bookies run franchises of varying sizes on behalf of a few large betting syndicates. Little is known of those behind the syndicates, but Hawkins makes a compelling case for them being organised criminals who operate in the sub-continent, south-east Asia and the Arabian emirates. These gangsters, in Hawkins’s view, create the necessary fear to ensure that the system works discreetly.

Trust is the lifeblood of illegal gambling. Communication between syndicates, bookies and punters occurs over secure lines and services like Blackberry Messenger. Money is paid out of one pot to keep the movement of funds to a minimum. The wagers are enormous: tens of thousands of pounds at a time, which means that the bookies must manage their liabilities carefully by manipulating the odds (as most Western bookies do). Hawkins’s bookie sources say that manipulating the odds is much easier and safer than trying to fix a match; besides, they say, fixing a match destroys the bond of trust between punter and bookie.

This bond is rooted in the punter’s understanding of the available bets. Gambling in the West has become very complicated: you can bet on more or less anything. The Indian system is different. Hawkins discovered that punters can only bet on four markets: a spread bet on runs in an innings, a spread on runs scored in a given time, a bet on a team to lose, and a bet on a team to win. A fifth market on the match being completed is available in the event of bad weather. This is all that illegal Indian bookies offer.

Hawkins notes that ‘spot fixing’, as uncovered by the News of the World, does not exist – at least in the context of wading into the illegal market. He analyses the sting and the subsequent court case at length. For those who’ve forgotten, a man named Mazhar Majeed promised that two Pakistani bowlers would bowl ‘no balls’ at a particular point in a Test Match against England, which they duly did. He did not offer a betting price for the no balls because no such bet is available. The Screws’ hacks, who knew next to nothing of cricket or illegal gambling, insisted that a wager be placed on the pre-arranged no balls. This absurd demand ought to have alerted Majeed; but he was plainly an inexperienced and incompetent crook.

The News of the World got lucky with Majeed. It got even luckier with Mr Justice Cook, who tried the case, and the various defence teams involved. Cook said in his judgment that ‘bets could be placed on these no-balls’. The defence might have established that such bets could not be placed; and then it might have argued that it is difficult to be guilty of ‘conspiracy to cheat at gambling’ when no gambling could take place.

This is not to say that ‘spot fixing’ is trifling. A no ball is negligible in a five day Test Match; but it is more important in one day games and 20:20, where time is shorter and runs are more valuable. Deliberate ‘No balls’ in a limited overs match can influence the markets offered by Indian bookies, particularly those devoted to runs scored in a particular time frame or innings. Hawkins’s account suggests that both bookies and punters corrupt cricketers to extract information that affects the odds; and to obtain small “favours” from players that distorts the markets. It is not “fixing” in the conventional sense of predetermining the result; but it is unquestionably cheating and it denies the viewing public a fair contest. Cricket’s the loser.

Illegal gambling in India has been identified as a political problem: legalise the industry, it is said, and all will be well. But Hawkins is clear that this is cricket’s problem. He damns the various anti-corruption boards, insisting that they improve their ‘betting expertise’ and do more to educate players. Hawkins’s contempt for the administrators is warranted; but a deeper cultural change is also required. The book is full of redacted names: revered international superstars allegedly on the take from punters and bookies. The part of me which loves cricket says: publish, and bugger the consequences.

There is, of course, an excellent reason why the names were redacted. Proof is elusive because the corruption is subtle. The art is to manufacture a narrative of likely events and mould the details precisely to your advantage. Hawkins senses that the world cup semi-final mentioned earlier was suspicious. The game’s turns and result certainly look dubious next to the script; on the other hand, the script describes what one would probably expect of the mercurial Pakistan team under pressure: a decent bowling performance, a good start with the bat and then a steady collapse leading to a comfortable defeat. On the surface the game was both fishy and predictable, so Hawkins did some statistical digging. His findings were inconclusive. It was a 405-1 shot that the game would unfold as it did; but the numbers also confirmed that Pakistan invariably lose by a substantial margin when their best batsmen fail or score slowly, as happened at Mohali. It is impossible to build a strong case for a fix, but neither can one dismiss the possibility.

Politicians and administrators will never be able to unmask every subtle fixer on the inside. Only cricketers can cure their game of this corruption; but they need encouragement. Publish the names of the cheats, and to hell with them.

Bookie, Gambler, Fixer, Spy by Ed Hawkins is published by Bloomsbury (£15.29).

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