Match-fixing September 10, 2010

The startling amnesia of Giles Clarke

A few thoughts and observations on Pakistan’s much elongated Hour of Need

Hello Confectionery Stallers. I have been tied up for the last few weeks attempting to entertain the masses at the Edinburgh Fringe festival (if you will excuse a numerically inappropriate use of the word “masses”), and latterly with unexpected family commitments, and to be honest I could not have chosen a better time in which to be almost fully distracted from cricket.

Cricket has itself been fully distracted from cricket, buffeted about in an inevitable typhoon of outrage and sanctimony, as the latest unfolding gambling farrago batters the sport like a cheap sausage, all amidst the queasily sinking suspicion that this particular Titanic has not quite finished ramming into what may be a distressingly large iceberg.

Here are the official Confectionery Stall thoughts on the most cricketingly depressing story of recent years.

1. It was slightly odd to see ECB chairman Giles Clarke being so affronted by Mohammad Amir that he simply could not bring himself to look at the bowler when presenting him with the Man Of The Series Award after the Lord’s Test-match-cum-debacle. Whilst all cricket fans are, without doubt, disgusted by the alleged spot-fixing, and saddened that it should have involved the most exciting young player in the game, it should be remembered that Clarke himself has not proved immune to the allure of taking easy money from dubious sources.

Just two years ago Clarke and the ECB prostituted the England cricket team to Texan billionaire and current resident of the Federal Detention Centre, Houston, USA, Allen Stanford, who pitched up at Lord’s in a fake helicopter with 20 fake million dollars in mostly fake dollars bills.

Merely hearing the words “Texan tycoon” and “cricket” in the same sentence should have set alarm bells twanging. The helicopter and Perspex-coated wodge of cash should have made them go off like a hungry-monkey enclosure at a slightly delayed feeding time. But the ECB willingly bent over and pimped out the national cricket team to such an extent that they might as well have made them all go out to bat up in fishnet stockings and push-up bras, whilst a threatening-looking gangster stood by the scorebox taking 90% of their runs away and counting them for himself.

Months later, after one toe-curlingly awkward and flirtatious cricket match, Stanford was accused by no less an authority than the United States Securities and Exchange Commission of one of the biggest frauds in human history, and the ECB emerged from the whole humiliating episode with egg not just on its face but stuck in its hair, caked all over its once-woolly jumper, and dribbling apologetically down its cash-stained trousers, a walking omelette of a sporting organisation.

For Clarke, the man who sold his nation’s cricket team to be a tycoon’s plaything, to refuse to shake hands with someone accused of accepting cash from someone dodgy for doing something he patently should not be doing, perhaps shows the lack of self-awareness required to be a successful businessman and sports administrator.

Clarke is not alone. One cursory glance at the ICC international schedule reveals that organisation’s pathological inability to say “No, thanks” to money, its steadfast refusal to protect the soul of cricket from commercial interference.

None of this is intended to justify the alleged actions of the accused players, but to highlight the fact that few at the highest level in cricket have shown much ability, willingness or effort to spurn the attractions of money and place the integrity and welfare of the game ahead of financial acquisitiveness.

2. Nevertheless Clarke deserves credit for calling for a proper, communal effort to aid Pakistani cricket in its seemingly endless Hour Of Need, an hour which has now stretched some way beyond the standard 60 minutes, and which, for various reasons, shows no signs of being interested in taking a breather and being at least temporarily replaced with an Hour Of Stability, or a Few Minutes Of Hope, or even a Quick Tea-And-Biscuit Break of Normality.

As they have proved again this summer, Pakistan’s cricket team is generally the most fascinating, irritating, compelling and frustrating in world cricket. Their bowlers, in particular Amir and Mohammad Asif, have regularly made budget porcelain mugs of both England and Australia’s batting line-ups, whilst their batsmen have made a strong, prolonged and resolutely determined statistical case for being the most inept to have visited England in more than 50 years.

Cricket needs Pakistan, and whilst it is true that Pakistan cricket has not traditionally been the most reliable friend to itself, the world of cricket must set aside its various vested interests and strive to ensure that Pakistan cricket remains alive in the international arena.

3. Human history shows that, in general:

  • many humans throughout history have found easy money far more attractive than hard money (for examples, see, for example, the recent history and current state of the global economy, the MPs’ expenses scandal in Britain, the existence of the Cayman Islands, the IPL);
  • financial inequality leads to wrongdoing (it must be much easier to spurn the offer of a few thousand pounds if you are already earning a few hundred thousand);
  • where gambling is legal, legal gambling thrives; where gambling is illegal, illegal gambling thrives; where illegal gambling thrives, people become aggressively naughty; people like gambling (witness the popularity of religion – what greater punt can there be in life than betting for or against an afterlife?);
  • teenagers thrust rapidly into the public spotlight frequently balls things up; and
  • when a British tabloid newspaper starts taking the moral high ground, you know things have gone very, very badly wrong.

4. The ICC has, evidently, not adequately decapitated the particularly snakey Medusa of cricket corruption. ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat, has, however, stated unequivocally: “We will not tolerate corruption in this great game.”

It is reassuring to know that there is at least one thing in the universe that the ICC will not tolerate. Amongst the things it will tolerate are:

  • the potentially terminal decline of cricket in some once-great Test playing nations;
  • the premature elevation to Test status of nations due to political and commercial vested interests;
  • large amounts of money from TV companies in return for artificially and soullessly elongating one-day tournaments;
  • shamelessly pricing local cricket fans out of attending said tournaments, leading to embarrassingly sparse attendance at showpiece events;
  • international schedules, pitches and regulations designed to break bowlers;
  • infantilically draconian restrictions on what paying spectators are allowed to wear or consume inside cricket grounds;
  • being held to ransom by various other organisations with three- or four-letter acronyms;
  • needlessly snoozy over-rates;
  • umpires leading players off for bad light whenever they get a bit peckish;
  • idiotic implementation of an untested and patently-unready TV umpiring system;
  • Daryl Harper being allowed control of said system;
  • sundry other bloopers.

Still, it is nice to know that the ICC will draw the line somewhere. And that line is at corruption (of the on-the-field variety, at least).

5. Amir, if found guilty, deserves another chance. Who knows what pressures he was under and from whom? If he was being urged by some or all of his captain, team-mates, his agent, gambling gangsters, the Pope, and/or the FBI to bowl no-balls and he caved in to those demands, with minimal impact on the game, whilst simultaneously obliterating England’s batting in one of the finest displays of bowling seen at Lord’s in years, is that surprising? His brilliance with the ball and determination with the bat were not indicative of a man unconcerned by the performance of his team.

If and when the full story emerges, it may be that Amir is seen to be a naive pawn in a game beyond his control. It may emerge that he was a fully willing participant. Either way he deserves both an appropriate period of punishment and a second opportunity. And it will help, if and when he is afforded that second chance, if the PCB does more to prevent the tentacles of temptation winding their way into the dressing room. Its tactic of sticking its fingers in its ears and singing 1980s rock ballads at the top of its voice does not seem to have worked.

6. Spot-fixing is a curious beast. The fraud of the kind and scale that seems to have taken place at Lord’s has far less influence on the game than, for example, the widening gulf in finance and facilities between different Test-playing nations, batsmen not walking, incompetent umpiring, or poor pitches. As Amir’s performances have shown, it is possible to be fully committed to helping your team win and to break cardinal rules of sporting fairness and honesty at the same time.

If spot-fixing ever migrates into stand-up comedy, I and my fellow comedians will be permanently under the spotlight. Was that joke about the International Monetary Fund simply not funny or did I deliberately flunk the punchline? It would be almost impossible to tell. I have had gigs during my career in which audiences seemed to think I had purposefully tanked every single joke in my set.

7. Until scientists stop piddling around trying to find out why dogs bark at cats, and what happens if you feed nothing but pastrami and gherkin bagels to a laboratory orangutan, and instead focus on developing a cure for people with an unquenchable urge to bet on when no-balls are bowled in cricket matches, these controversies will continue to occur.

Meanwhile, in the cricket, England are playing well in a series of training matches.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer