How to clean up cricket

Save the game.
Save the game.
Image: Reuters/Brijesh Singh
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Just a week after a major report alleged that $140bn a year is laundered through illegal betting on sport, cricket has been beset by another match-fixing scandal. After convictions against Pakistani and English players and investigations into Indian administrators, this time it is a New Zealander who is in the spotlight.

Lou Vincent appeared more than 100 times for his country and spent an itinerant career playing for club sides in England, India, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.  He was approached by the anti-corruption unit of the game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), late last year, and admitted that he had received thousands of pounds from an Indian fixer in exchange for underperforming. Vincent has since identified 12 matches around the world that he knew were subject to fixing. These included English county games, the Twenty20 Champions League in South Africa and the short-lived Indian Cricket League.

The past decade has seen a plethora of new cricket competitions, most based on the TV-friendly Twenty20 format. This has helped the world’s second most popular sport to reach new audiences and attract new fans. But it has also created new possibilities for fixers and stretched the resources of the investigators to police them. The game can make life more difficult for would-be cheats. Here is how.

1. Ban mobile phones and tablets from all professional games

Following a series of fixing scandals in the late 1990s, the ICC set up the ACSU, led by a British policeman, Paul Condon. As long ago as 2001, Condon warned that players were vulnerable to fixers contacting them on their mobiles to gain additional information about the state of the game. They could then use this information to lay bets with illegal bookmakers, typically in India. The ICC has since banned the use of phones and computers in dressing rooms during international games, but no such rules apply to domestic matches. There is no proof yet that this was how fixers threw the games Vincent identified, but it remains the most obvious weakness in the sport.

2. Devote more resources to anti-corruption investigations

The creation of Twenty20 has been a huge money-spinner for cricket. Ten years ago, the Indian board, the BCCI, was receiving about $12m a year for TV rights to home internationals. Now it receives more than $100m. But funds are not trickling downwards to anti-corruption efforts.  A recent report by the ICC showed that it employed just nine officers to police matches around the world. Those officers are nothing if not dedicated—in 2012 they spent almost 1,500 nights away from home—but they are being stretched too thinly. The evidence of this is clear. The ICC cleared an English county game in 2011 that attracted unusually high levels of betting. But Vincent has now admitted it was influenced by fixers. Even now, Vincent has been charged only by the better-resourced English board, rather than the ICC.

3. Accept that the press is not the enemy

Each time a fixing story breaks in the press, the ICC is embarrassed, as it appears that journalists have discovered what its investigators had missed. The most infamous incident of recent times—the three Pakistanis cheating at Lord’s—was the result of a set-up by a British newspaper, the News of the World. The ICC was duly criticised, yet it does not have a mandate to launch sting operations against its own players. Nevertheless, after Vincent’s testimony was given to the press, the ICC’s chief executive focused on finding the source of the leak, rather than the implications of the report on cricket. There are talented minds at the ICC and in the media, but cricket will only benefit if there is less animosity between the two.

4. Bring the IPL to heel

The Twenty20 Indian Premier League is a wildly successful operation, a marriage of cricket and Bollywood glamour that attracts the world’s best to India for a six-week carnival every April and May. It was also created outside of the auspices of the cricket authorities by a local entrepreneur, Lalit Modi. The IPL has subsequently been run with a sense of impunity: its matches have been scheduled to clash with existing international fixtures and players have been banned if they had previously played in rival competitions. This feeling of IPL autonomy has been compounded by recent discoveries of conflicts of interest. In March Gurunath Meiyappan, a principal of one of the teams, was arrested on suspicion of illegal betting. Meiyappan’s father-in-law is N Srinivasan, who is both the owner of the team and the man in charge of the IPL. Srinivasan is also trying to reorganise the ICC so that its anti-corruption unit reports to him. It is a very opaque situation. But, for as long as cricket’s global authorities can be circumvented by powerful individuals, cricket will appear susceptible to corruption.

5. Understand the scale of the problem—cricket is not doomed

One of the reasons why the Pakistan case in 2010 was so shocking was because they were cheating at Lord’s, a venue known as the home of cricket. Unlike in the 1990s, when it was one-day tournaments in cricket’s poorly policed periphery that attracted the fixers, by 2010 they had become confident enough to dupe the heart of cricket’s establishment. Yet it was also a sting, and one that would not have taken place had a newspaper not put up the cash. Although anti-corruption efforts have been flawed, 15 years of investigations have found not a single instance of a player and a fixer successfully defrauding a bookmaker in a Test match. And throughout the scandals of the past two decades, cricket has continued to fill stadiums and draw in new fans. It is a resilient game, despite the efforts of the fixers. Keeping a sense of proportion, when the press is looking to whip up a scandal, is tough.