Match-fixing November 4, 2011

Match-fixing: where it all began

In which the clock is turned back to 1844 and a most suspicious game

“As Butt, Asif and Amir disappeared into the unwelcoming bosom of the British prison system, the surgeon at St Cricket’s Hospital woke the corruption iceberg from its anaesthetised slumber. The tipectomy had been successful. The iceberg was released back safely into the wild, and HMS Cricket sailed on serenely for evermore.” -- From A History Of Cricket, by Gervold H Scralthouse, published 2084

Perhaps these words will one day be written. Perhaps not. I hope this will prove to be a long-overdue watershed for cricket. Until now the sport has not entirely grasped the match-fixing bull by the horns. It has, to be fair, sent the bull a few sternly worded letters asking it to please remove its horns, or at least file them down a bit so they are not quite so pointy. But the bull appears to have not opened its post. Or has been unable to read.

It is all rather depressing for anyone who loves one or more of cricket, Pakistan, Pakistan cricket, or humanity in general. Open any newspaper, history book or heavily guarded government building and you will be confronted by story after story of greed, corruption, arrogance, dishonesty and the failure of human beings to resist the lure of easy money, all of which played starring roles in the Lord’s 2010 debacle.

Look at the state of the global economy, and the unbridled avarice, short-termist recklessness and morally squalid practices that have left it lying face-down on the canvas, gasping for air and asking for its mummy; look at MPs convicted for fiddling expenses; at all manner of personal, corporate, commercial and national malpractices; at Allen Stanford and his Perspex box of pretend lucre. Sport is supposed to provide an escape from all that. But easy money is a persuasive salesman, and we now can add to that regrettable roll call of its customers the cream of third-millennium Pakistan fast-bowling.

I hope Amir has a future in cricket. I like the idea of redemption. I do not know how I would have reacted in the same situations, under those pressures, and in that dressing room. I like to think I would have had the strength to refuse. And I would probably have been more worried that my slow-medium long-hops and technical weakness with the ball against all forms and qualities of bowling might be shown up at international level. But if I had a captain, an agent, and a large wodge of banknotes all trying to persuade me to do something I thought I could probably do without compromising my ability to take 6 for 30 in 13 overs of mesmeric swing bowling, maybe I would have done it.

I hope not. I hope I would rather have taken 6 for 28, without the two no-balls. But I don’t know. Situations like that did not crop up very often in my days in the West Kent Village League, and on the UK stand-up comedy circuit, gig-fixing is mercifully far from rife. At the moment.

Anyway cricket now has to take a long, hard bath with itself and ruminate on how and why this whole miserable morality tale came to pass, and why it took a newspaper to plumb the depths of cricket’s morality (a newspaper that has now ceased to exist after not merely plumbing the depths of its own industry’s morality, but installing a fully fitted marble bathroom, complete with power shower, in those depths).

The ICC’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (the ACSU, which I hope will soon be renamed the Anti-Corruption and Pro-Security Unit, to clear up any lingering confusion arising over its attitude to Security) would appear not to have been 100% successful to date. It may well now want to look back through cricket history to determine whether the rancid tentacles of naughtiness had wrapped themselves around other games in the past.

The best place to start might be with this game: USA v Canada in 1844, the first-ever international cricket match. It was a suspiciously low-scoring game, in which no batsman scored more than 14, and the USA, cruising to victory at 25 for 0 in pursuit of 82 to win in the fourth innings, lost all 10 wickets for 33.

Admittedly, losing all 10 wickets for 33 was not especially unusual in the mid-19th century, when men were men, moustaches were moustaches, and cricket pitches were discourteously bobbly. But the scorecard and accompanying notes reveal further details that the ACSU simply must investigate.

Four batsmen in the game are recorded as being dismissed “lbw b ?”, with ? picking up another scalp via a stumping by Canadian gloveman Phillpotts. ESPNcricinfo’s match notes highlight that: (a) Canada’s captain was not named, (b) the bowling figures do not add up in any of the four innings, (c) the runs do not tally in the USA’s first innings, (d) the Americans’ key No. 3 batsman Wheatcroft simply did not turn up at the ground on day three and therefore missed his second innings, and (e) it is not clear which of the Wilson and Thompson brothers played for Canada. Every single one of these potentially match-turning factors suggests that some shady betting syndicate was almost certainly involved. And as long as betting in India remains illegal, 1840s cricket matches will be vulnerable.

The 1846 rematch raises further questions. Aside from the in-form ? picking up another key wicket, Canada scoring 46% of their first innings runs through wides flung by the under-suspicion US bowlers (admittedly this amounted only to 13 of an underwhelming total of 28 all out), and further alarm-bell-clanging mathematical inconsistencies in the scorebook, the game was suddenly abandoned with Canada struggling at 13 for 3 in the second innings.

Apparently John Helliwell, Canada’s opening batsman, confidence rising as he advanced his score to 4 not out (needing only one more to become his team’s highest scorer in the match), skied the ball towards the bowler, the American allrounder Samuel Dudson, who was himself pumping with adrenaline after a dazzling innings of 10. Helliwell, in an outburst of unbridled North Americanism, rushed towards Dudson to try to stop him taking the catch, shoulder-charged him and clobbered him to the ground.

Dudson somehow clung on to the catch, and on recovering from being crash-tackled, chased after Helliwell and hurled the ball at him, no doubt following up with some ripe 19th-century verbals impugning the batsman’s parentage and familial virtue. The bowler was calmed down by his team-mates, who we must assume were by now stifling their giggles, and apologised. Canada, however, refused to continue playing, forfeited the match, and did not play the USA again for seven years. It was like The Oval 2006 all over again, but almost entirely different, and 162 years earlier. In fact, the only link between the two incidents was that Darrell Hair was the umpire in both.

Were the bookies involved in this bizarre moment as well? Was Helliwell acting under pressure from a pushy agent promising him a flashy pocket watch, a mahogany smoking pipe, or shiny new horse? Or, even in this cynical age, can we take his excuse – that he thought shoulder-charging fielders was still legal, as it had been in the early days of cricket ‒ at face value? Perhaps the ICC should consider bringing this spectator-friendly tactic back during the middle overs of ODIs, to spice up the excitement levels for today’s easily distracted fans. This level of violence works in rugby, American football and professional wrestling. It would work in snooker, if given the chance. And it could save ODI cricket. It is about time that skied catches became heartstopping tests of physical bravery.

Of course, some self-proclaimed “historians” might argue that these controversial matters arose only because the game happened 167 years ago, deep in the midst of barely recorded cricketing history, and was not televised, due either to a contractual dispute between the USACB and Cricket Canada over the rights, or to television not having been invented yet. But cricket has been too complacent for too long. The players’ descendants must be questioned and vigorously held to account. If international cricket began in a morass of corruption and wrongdoing, how can we trust anything we see in the game today?

And there is one man who might finally be prevailed upon to give the full story – the crash-tackle opener Helliwell himself. Because, according to no less a source than his player page on this esteemed website itself, Helliwell is alive and well and looking forward to his 189th birthday. We must not let him take his secrets to the grave.

I digress. The point is, match-fixing of any kind is naughty. Very naughty. I think we’re all agreed on that. It is slightly ironic, given the startling extent and depth of the allegations and rumours in the Qayyum Report and elsewhere concerning previous match-fixing schemozzles that the first criminal convictions were for something as relatively trivial as a few no-balls. If half of what was alleged in Qayyum’s report is true (and its findings and punishments were nebulously non-committal), there must have been several well-known cricketers yesterday, watching the three convicts gingerly tucking into their unappetising portions of fresh justice pie in London, thinking: “Phew.”

The punishments seem to me to be tough but fair – Wandsworth Prison might have been built in 1851, but as a property it is not renowned by estate agents for its charming period detail, whilst Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute was described to me by a lawyer friend who has visited several times as “a crushing vortex”. And unconfirmed reports suggest that all televisions in both institutions play nothing but unedited ball-by-ball coverage of Gary Kirsten’s 210 at Old Trafford in 1998 on an unending loop.

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