June 6, 2013

How education can prevent corruption in sports

Cricket is an easy target for illegal practices, and a lot of that is to do with how much of the game there is these days

When coaching children in any sport, values like empathy, compassion and fair play need to be emphasised over winning at all costs © Getty Images

On Wednesday, I was one of the guest speakers at a conference aimed at addressing corruption issues in sport. At the start of proceedings, we joked that Australia getting bowled out for 65 could have been ammunition for anyone with a conspiracy theory; yet it's just one of those things that happen in sport. Sometimes, strange things can happen and there need not be anything sinister about it. It doesn't matter which country is involved.

An Indian colleague from Mumbai teased me about whether there would be any bleating about this pitch turning too much and we all enjoyed a good laugh about the fact that it was the seamers who did the damage this time. No excuses except that it was a practice match and perhaps not too much could be read into it except a slight dent to the confidence perhaps. George Bailey's refreshingly honest post-match assessment put it into perspective without making excuses. There's a lot to like about his leadership - I suspect we'll get used to it if Michael Clarke's back is as bad as it appears. I don't expect to see much of Clarke during the Champions Trophy or the Ashes.

Speaking of Ashes selections, it is fascinating to watch politicians dog-whistling about issues around refugees and promises to "turn the boats back", in reference to the so-called influx of boats carrying refugees. The front pages of the newspapers are full of predictable interviews about threats to national security. It's an easy tune to play with an election looming; the contentious issue of border protection and offshore immigration centres will prove too tempting for politicians looking for easy votes by insisting that we make refugees wait years before their refugee status is assessed. Yet the speed with which Fawad Ahmed's citizenship has been rushed through parliament might be conveniently forgotten by those very same politicians if he plays a key role in winning the Ashes. Clearly we have a soft spot for refugees if they can give the ball a rip!

The conference itself offered a fascinating insight into the various cutting-edge programmes and research on corruption issues in sport. Governance was certainly an area of concern that was discussed. At the time, we were blissfully ignorant of Tim May's resignation from FICA, but that will spark another fresh debate I'm sure. Even allowing for May's critics, only a fool would blindly ignore the broader allegations that he levels at governance structures. I've known him for close on 13 years now and I marvel at how he predicted many of the corruption issues that we are now facing. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, he shared a room with Shane Warne in Sri Lanka when Warne was first "seduced" by a bookmaker and May was one of the first cricketers who explained the notion of "grooming" to me. This was long before the practice has now been recognised as a legitimate corruption issue.

Central to the discussion was the issue of prevention and the role that education can play in framing a culture of ethical behaviour that goes way beyond match-fixing and performance-enhancing drugs.

As part of the work I do with sporting codes around Australia, I stressed the importance of creating a sporting culture that fostered young athletes who bought into values like empathy, compassion, fair play and basic decency before we could realistically expect any significant improvements with regard to the more insidious betting/drugs issues that ultimately play out at the end of the line. If winning is all that matters and there are no hostages taken along the way when it comes to basic morality, it was the considered consensus of all the respected, world-class criminologists and law-enforcement specialists in the room that it would be nigh on impossible to prevent match-fixing. A young man who grows up in an environment devoid of ethics other than the law of the jungle will find it very difficult to refuse temptations on just one issue alone. Why would match-fixing present an ethical dilemma to someone whose moral compass is skewed or non-existent? It would then necessarily become a detection-and-punishment exercise, a far more expensive and less effective way of addressing this vexing issue, one that has ties to the criminal underworld.

What was particularly revealing about the conference was the complexity of the problem and the clear consensus that too much of a good thing will inevitably lead to indigestion. Whether it is soccer (60%of global sports corruption), cricket (15%) or tennis (5%), what these three sports have in common is simply too much of a good product, which then makes them ripe for the picking, because there are now so many matches that just don't mean a thing. Played today, forgotten tomorrow. Fixed today, payday tomorrow. Groomed today, compromised tomorrow.

Cricket is naturally an easy target for corruption because of the episodic nature of the game, as is tennis. Any sport that has so many little episodes (balls, overs, wides, no-balls, runs per over, Powerplays etc) has inherent risk factors. Throw in meaningless T20 competitions all over the world where player loyalties are traded like commodities and after-parties attract those who wish to engage in a spot of image-laundering and you've got all the makings of a perfect storm. The IPL is the easy culprit to point fingers at because it is a world leader in so many respects, but the same principles apply to any tournament that trades in mercenaries. Cricket may choose to ignore this inconvenient truth but to do so would be to ignore the bleeding obvious. And bleed it will one day - to the point where it haemorrhages uncontrollably and we will grieve the passing of something we loved so dearly.

Even innocent incidents that highlight the romance and the glorious uncertainty of sport will be viewed with suspicion. Kieron Pollard's bizarre sequence of dropped catches off Mike Hussey in the IPL recently could easily be seen through the prism of cynicism. Had Hussey gone on to make a big score, unfair accusations would have been hurled at him from those living in ivory towers. These things happen sometimes, even to brilliant fielders like Pollard. No questions about match-fixing were asked, nor should they have been. The IPL and Pollard don't deserve that level of cynicism.

Will we be as sanguine about a similar scenario though if it involved players from Pakistan? I absolutely love watching Pakistan play cricket because of their unpredictability. When they are on song, there is no team more thrilling to watch. They're excitable, skilful and capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat just as quickly as they are to surrender certain victory in the face of unbackable odds. That's Pakistan for you. I played two first-class matches against Pakistan and what struck me most was the speed of their transformation, from mediocre to mercurial (and vice versa). For me, as a journeyman cricketer always huffing and puffing at 100% intensity and with no capacity to up the tempo, those Pakistan cricketers of the 1990s were unbelievable, because they just turned it on and off like a tap. It never once occurred to me to be anything but in awe. I could not comprehend having that much talent to burn, just idling and growling like a 750cc motorcycle at the traffic lights. This unpredictability is a beautiful thing and we shouldn't always look for sinister motives every time they are involved in a rollercoaster ride. I'm sure it must frustrate Pakistani supporters at times but I think this magical quality is what makes them such feared opponents. Imran Khan coined the famous "like a tiger" mantra, and with that latent power and majesty also comes many a botched hunt. They too deserve better than cynicism.

That's what makes them so damn watchable. I never switch off my TV when Pakistan are playing, especially when they are chasing runs at over eight an over, because they were the first team to switch gears so dramatically long before it commonplace in more recent times. Their stunning World Cup triumph in 1992 was a blueprint for this formula of suicide to reincarnation. If that happened today, would we laud Javed Miandad, Imran Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq as geniuses or frauds? In those days, 21 years ago, cricket matches meant something. I can barely remember what happened a year ago. And that's what the match-fixers are banking on. All the way to the bank to launder their money and their image..

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane