A test of character

It would be facile to see cricket’s newest fixing scandal as merely a repeat of the Mohammed Azharuddin-Hansie Cronje tragedy of April 2000. The sting operation that nailed an illegal bookmaker/agent in London, and had him accept bribes allegedly on behalf of cricketers as well as commit to specific deliveries that Pakistani bowlers would bowl, constitutes evidence in real time. All previous fixing investigations have functioned on the basis of third-party suggestions, post facto “confessions” and conjecture.
The framing of the Pakistani cricket team’s corruption in the Lord’s Test is beyond doubt and dispute. It is extremely damaging for world cricket and particularly for the International Cricket Council (ICC), which had set up its Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) after the 2000 match-fixing mess and had made robust efforts to clean up the game.
The ACU has worked hard in the past decade. In most countries, the easy access bookies and would-be fixers had to cricketers is impossible now. Players and officials are sequestered and allowed limited use of, say, mobile phones during games. If match-fixing is to prevail despite all this, it will likely require the connivance of an influential section of the team XI as well as key officials. As such, not just Pakistani cricketers but the team management and administrators of the Pakistan Cricket Board too could be brought within the purview of suspicion.
The methodology of fixing — or attempted fixing, since very few matches have been proven to have been fixed — has evolved since 2000. A Test match lasts five days. To pre-determine its result, a large number of players, including at least one of the captains, may need to be compromised.
As such, today the focus is on individual episodes within a match. The introduction of online betting sites with market-determined odds, and the ability of some websites to allow the punter to — within reasonable limits — set his odds or to “buy” or “sell” his wager on a team or on a possible mid-match occurrence at differential odds (and so make a profit), have made such a business all the more lucrative.
“It’s a bit like the stock market”, a punter once explained, “you agree to sell a scrip at `20 at 2 pm. But you don’t actually have the stock. You know there’s a big announcement coming that will cause the stock to drop to `18 at 4 pm, and you plan to buy then. So you agree to sell at `20 but wait to buy at `18”. Similarly, if you know that a batsman who is 93 not out at stumps will be dismissed in the first over the following day, and before he reaches his century, you can manoeuvre the odds to your advantage.
Such parameters create conditions for what is called “spot-fixing”: asking a single player to do something —whether get out or bowl three successive loose balls that concede boundaries — that significantly alters the immediate odds but may not necessarily decide the final result.
The bookie arrested by Scotland Yard has claimed he was responsible for many instances of “spot-fixing” but relatively few cases of “result fixing”. However, he has not altogether denied pre-determining the final result of cricket matches. All of the matches he has spoken of feature Pakistan. If this is true, it would imply Pakistan is potentially looking at not just five or so corrupt cricketers but an entire cricket system that is dysfunctional.
Sport is inherently unpredictable. Yet, even by normal standards, Pakistan’s performance has been marked by extraordinary volatility during its current tour of England. It has swung wildly in the just-concluded four-Test series — dominating one session, crumbling in the next; picking up seven wickets for 102, and then allowing the eighth-wicket stand to add 300. If it is now established that this volatility was by design and an act of tanking matches (or days or sessions of matches), it would bring a lot of Pakistan’s recent cricket under scrutiny.
In the 60 years it has played Test cricket, Pakistan has been bowled out for less than 100 13 times. Three of those 13 innings came in this summer’s series against England. Four of
those 13 have come since July 2009. For all it matters, seven
of those 13 have come since 9/11.
What does one attribute this to? Is it symptomatic of a nation’s overall collapse of confidence in the period since the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan began? Is it the consequence of a cricket culture, of players and administrators, losing out on legitimate business opportunities due to terrorism and related conditions and becoming vulnerable to the fixing mafia for incremental earnings? After the Lord’s imbroglio, such questions will need to be interrogated.
For all its failings, Indian cricket is a structured enterprise. Many leading cricketers come from urban, educated backgrounds and are astute with their savings. Cricketers from humble origins learn as they go along. They make a good deal of money through endorsements and the like, learn to survive one-sided agent contracts — Mahendra Singh Dhoni had such an experience — and realise there is much to be made by following the straight path.
Continuity in terms of the core of the team and examples of the success of rectitude — Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman among others — also mean the moral compass of the team is never entirely askew. There may be a few bad apples now and then, but there is rarely if ever a complete ethical failure. Pakistan has not been as fortunate, not since the days of Imran Khan.
The fixing virus is believed to have afflicted Pakistan in the early 1990s. Salim Malik, it is said, was employed in a non-executive capacity by a leading financial services firm in Pakistan. Young cricketers in the national team, seeking counsel from a senior, were urged by Malik to invest in the firm. As it happened, the company went bankrupt — the promoters were charged with embezzlement — and some young cricketers lost all their money. They blamed Malik
and asked him for compensation. Under pressure (and threat), Malik led them to a fixing syndicate. The rest is notoriety.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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