The question has to be faced. To a group of blokes for whom cricket has been a big feature of their lives, it is an unthinkable question. But it has to be faced, and quickly!
When Mr Justice Cooke was passing sentence on the Pakistan players found guilty of cheating in the Lords Test, he remarked that the very name of cricket used to be associated with fair dealing both on and off the field. ‘It’s not cricket’ became an adage used by vast numbers of people, many of whom had no interest in the game. When I was a youngster, and a very poor player, cricket was an example for life. In those days you walked from the wicket the moment you felt the slightest nick as the ball travelled in the air to keeper or slips. It was a matter of honour. And if you fielded near to the boundary and knew that the ball had touched it before you grabbed it, you signalled a boundary to the umpire.
It all sounds old fashioned and goody-goody now doesn’t it? But that is how it was . I once shared a dressing room with someone known to be light-fingered, but even he dare not risk the contempt of his peers by cheating at cricket. Someone once described the game as religion in action, it was apt.
Over the years those standards have dropped. Even England’s leading batsmen wait for the umpire’s finger even though they know that they are out. Even England’s fielders claim catches that they know have touched the turf. But, as far as we know, our national team is guilty of nothing worse than lower standards of sportsmanship.
The fixing practiced by Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammaid Asif was appalling, and represents a huge threat to the future of a complicated game that is clearly vulnerable to so many ways of cheating. In this specific case, the aim was not so much to cheat their opponents but the bookmakers, for whom cricket is a massive industry in Asia. Their agent, Mazhar Majeed, took huge sums of cash in exchange for providing details of three balls which would be bowled as no-balls (front foot over the line). His promise was kept.
Unfortunately for him the person he gave the cash to was a reporter for the News of the World. Once the promised no-balls appeared as promised it didn’t require Sherlock Holmes to prepare a prosecution. But, as the Judge inferred, one would have to be very naive to imagine that this was other than the tip of an ugly iceberg.
The most worrying aspect of this affair is that it took a tabloid investigator to expose it. The anti-corrution squad of the International Ctricket Council (ICC) was nowhere to be seen. If only half of the boasts made on film by the crooked agent are true the practice of fixing specifics bits of action in top matches is prevalent. The game is, it seems, riddled with the cancer of corruption.
Already cricket lovers are casting their minds back to possibly suspicious actions. The top batsman who made a poor defensive stroke, the three batsmen out to a ‘hat-trick’, the fumble in the field, the crazy run-out, the no-balls..the list of possibilities is a long one. Of course, even international stars make mistakes, but suddenly we ask ourselves if they were mistakes. And remember that the result of the game might not be the fixing target, it could be incidental.
In his column of this morning, former England captain Michael Vaughan looks back and wonders if all the matches he played in were quite what they seemed. He recalls the Test against Pakistan in Karachi in December 2000. Pakistan had the match in the palm of their hands but suddenly collapsed from a strong position to leave England with a tiny target. Vaughan recalls what seemed ” a very surreal atmosphere, a feeling that there was something odd “. Or was it down to a “dodgy wicket”? This sort of speculation will pour forth over the coming months, not least in the New Year when England meet Pakistan again.
Vaughan agonises about the seemingly magnificent 169 scored by Stuart Broad in the now tainted Lords Test. At the time we hailed a new Freddie Flintoff, now we wonder if the bowling was sub-standard as individuals concentrated on what they had to do to fix a whole series of no-balls. One thing is for sure, the mounted trophy will have been moved from the centre of Stuart’s sideboard.
The ICC now faces a massive challenge. I for one have no wish to pay good money to watch international matches that may well be as dishonest as professional wrestling. Already the sense of longing for next season has been replaced by a doubt as to whether what we see will be real or faked. Already we are hearing stories of players from across the world being threatened with appalling retribution should they decide to tell all.
Most first class umpires and referees are former top players and they have to be the first line of defence. Not all matches are televised and their notes must cover all ‘unusual’ happenings. But that is far from enough. The ICC must come up with a watertight method of match reviews. Personal checks of bank balances and the like will not help, if a player can cheat on the field he is hardly likely to have a conventional Barclays account.
Most of that is my guesswork, I simply don’t know how the game can be brought back under control. All I know is that every cricket fan in the world is right now asking his or herself if there is any longer any point in watching or supporting cricket.
This is of course far from the first instance of cheating. But there can be no more whitewash enquiries, this has to be the last scandal, or the game so many love will crumble before our eyes, and quickly.
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