September 3, 2013

Fighting corruption? Look to American sport

The stats, the graphics, the jargon - can any honest-to-god fixer cope with it all?

Take a casual glance at the world of cricket and you will be tempted to think that everything is well with the sport. We have just seen a pulsating if somewhat one-sided Ashes Test series, a thoroughly satisfying Champions Trophy tournament, and even an ongoing season of international women's cricket that gets more and more engrossing every minute and is well worth a watch during football half-time.

Yet this aura of well-being is but a deceptive veneer. In reality cricket is plagued by numerous problems. I think Michael Holding spoke for all of us real cricket fans when he recently wrote on the Wisden website: "Everything sucks. Everything must die. Cricket, pitches, people, stadiums, rules, lights, children, mini-cupcakes, Dan Brown, baby animals, zero-calorie noodles, everything sucks. Everything is horrible. I hate everything. Except death. Embrace me sweet death. I am okay with some types of kittens."

Very well put, Michael Holding.

And none of these problems threaten to obliterate cricket as much as corruption in the form of match-fixing and spot-fixing. And this is not for want of trying. For years the ICC has tried several measures to isolate players and teams from the evil influences of international betting syndicates, such as by "looking sternly from a distance", "looking sternly from a distance and rolling one or both eyeballs", "coughing loudly during suspicious phone calls", "suddenly walking into player's hotels rooms and asking, 'Dudes, does anyone besides Dhoni have three million dollars in cash, yo?' in order to catch them off guard", and most importantly, through the institution of the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit, popularly known as "Acsu".

"Bless you."


So far these efforts have been fruitless. As we speak, corruption investigations are ongoing in several national leagues. The BCCI has announced a slew of measures to clean up the game in India. These are expected to be implemented as early as the week after never.

How can cricket combat the all-pervading evil that is corruption?

One answer may lie in embracing some lessons in sports broadcasting from the United States of America. As we all know, the Americans have a long history of never doing anything in half measures. Irrespective of what Americans decide to do - make burgers; produce Resident Evil films; create varieties of diesel, such as Vin; implement democracy - they do it bigger, better and bolder than anybody else.

And this is why American sports broadcasting may provide the perfect solution to cricket's corruption problem. Have you ever tried watching the broadcast of an American sport on TV? And has this made any sense to you? Of course it has, but only because you are an air traffic controller in your day job and can process phenomenal amounts of data in very short periods of time. But for normal people like me, and the vast majority of cricket fans, American sports broadcasts are incomprehensibly complex:

"Who is playing?"

"The Miami Malarias against the Arizona Diaphragms."

"What is the latest score?"

"The Malarias are leading the Diaphragms by a score of one diamond-shaped object to the picture of a small peacock."

"How many minutes are left in the game?"


And this complexity can be our great weapon against the match-fixer. Think about it. We all know that match-fixers use live television broadcasts in order to keep track of the game, receive signals from players, send messages, influence outcomes and manage their bets. (This is the major reason why, compared to live cricket, the betting market during telecasts of old matches is so small.)

But live telecasts of cricket matches are so simple that even Members of Parliament can make out what is happening on the field. For instance this is a sample of typical cricket commentary:

Commentator 1: "So what is the target now?"

Commentator 2: "Thirty runs in 24 balls."

"Umm… this one is going down to the wire."

"Yes, all the results are possible."

"You mean every result?"

"Yes, each and every one."

"What is the target now?"

"Thirty runs in 23 balls."

"So exciting."

"Too much."

Match-fixer: "I can fix this easily with a towel of some kind."

On the other hand imagine if match-fixers have to deal with the complexity of an American-style cricket broadcast. First of all at least 30% of the screen will be taken up by banners, scrolling data, statistics, charts, Pareto diagrams, logarithmic tables and other assorted facts and figures. In between there will be rapidly moving panels with pictures of the heads of players on fire, or rotating, or both.

This alone will be enough to befuddle all except the most determined fixers from following the live match. Most will be tempted to watch illegal Youtube clips later.

Now imagine the impact of some American-style commentary on top of this:

Commentator 1: "With just 0.675 runs required in the next 24 at-bats for the Mumbai Native Americans, this arena is electric, Jim."

Commentator 2: "I agree, Jerry. The thing to remember here is that Yuvraj Singh has really scored below 74th percentile of all left-handers in three of the last five post-seasons, Jerry. And I really don't see how he is going turn that trend around in this match… with both bases loaded. Starc to bowl."

"Swing and a miss. The trailing EBITDA margins for this match just shot up to 34.25. I've never seen anything like this in all my life…"

"That is long! That is really, really long!"

"It's in the stands. Suddenly this is a whole new ball game!"

"No one has scored more runs in a clutch match with fewer assists and a better Defense-Independent Component ERA than 'The Tend-ster'."

"Gone. And gone far. We're back down to 0.656 per ball weighted on base average."

"This could go either ways Jim/Jerry, I've lost track. The sensex is up 320 points."

"Yes, but let's not take our eye off the ten-year bond yield curve just yet…"



Match-fixer: "Screw this nonsense. I am opening an artisanal bakery."

The fight against corruption in cricket will be long, hard and harrowing. And we should be prepared to take help from anywhere we can. Even if it is the United States.

Sidin Vadukut is a columnist and editor with Mint, and the author of the Dork trilogy