May 20, 2014

Oi crooks, go corrupt something else

It's just disgustingly lazy to fix something as easy as cricket

Why pay for a teensy no-ball when you can use the money to rig the outcome of any reality show of your choice? What do you mean they're all already fixed? © PA Photos

England's Elvis-style 2014 Comeback Special summer begins in something vaguely approaching earnest today, with a one-off T20 fixture against the format's world champions, Sri Lanka. A soggy one-dayer in the notoriously un-dry city of Aberdeen offered few clues to whether a spluttering post-Pietersen phoenix might emerge, soot-covered and spluttering, from the ashes of the 2013-14 meltdown.

England won that match, after which an ECB spokesdude claimed that he had run a computer simulation that proved that, had Pietersen played in the match, he would have been out for a 17th-ball duck, dropped three catches, insulted WG Grace at the post-match press conference, and set fire to some bagpipes, whilst claiming he makes his own haggises out of abandoned puppies. "It's early days," said the fictitious employee, "but it is already looking like a good decision."

Quite why there is a one-off T20 international is not entirely clear. "What can be read into a one-off T20 fixture?" is one of the modern world's unanswerable philosophical quandaries, alongside, amongst others: "What is the meaning of life?", "Does God exist, and if so, is he paying attention?", "Do Popes bounce?", and "How good a cricketer is Kieron Pollard?" T20 barely makes sense as a three-game series, or, arguably, as a mere 17-day tournament. The in-built vagaries of the format give it much of its appeal, but also render one-off matches almost completely meaningless.

It will, at least, provide a little diversion from the latest belchings from the rumbling volcano of match-fixing. Perhaps one day it will Vesuvius all over cricket. Perhaps it will just keep on rumbling. Perhaps cricket with concrete over the top, thus turning it into a nice, friendly mountain, so we can all forget about it. Whatever transpires, it is a fact that rumbling volcanoes are disconcerting. And it is also a fact that disconcerting things can be made less disconcerting by watching some sport.

Of the many irritations provoked by corruption in sport in general, from scientifically honed cricketers suddenly sending down a physics-defying wide, to Lance Armstrong riding the 2003 Tour De France on a Kawasaki 350, one that is seldom commented upon is the sheer needlessness of it.

Surely, there are enough things that can be fixed, cheated or corrupted outside the realm of sport without having to morally vomit all over the world's favourite hobbies? Share prices, elections, and interest rates, for example. Or Nobel Prizes (someone must have had a sizeable punt on Kissinger), the Oscars (take your pick), and the Miss World competition. (The bafflingly-still-in-existence beauty pageant aroused considerable suspicion in 2008, when it transpired that a dubious far-Eastern betting syndicate had placed wagers totalling $674.8 million that the contest would be won by 74-year-old retired Lancashire housewife Enid Pook. The former school cleaner and mother of eight duly won, prompting much disgruntled chuntering from her competitors. The judging panel, however, insisted that the victory was authentic, and that they were swayed by Mrs Pook's "excellent knitting, a first-class recipe for Battenberg cakes, a refreshing scepticism about children being the future, fashionably knee-length orthopaedic socks, and an uncomplaining attitude towards her recent double hip replacement".)

Fixing of sorts is even readily accepted in certain spheres of life. The G8 has yet to formalise an independently audited promotion and relegation system, for example, whilst the British monarchy has been an absolute, blatant stitch-up for centuries.

I digress. The question arises: Why could the crooks and charlatans of the world not do the decent thing and leave sport out of it? Given the scope for non-sporting corruption, and the fact that fixing sport is evidently not that much of a challenge (and entirely without a wider social purpose), we can only conclude that those who resort to sullying the purity of sport by organising and executing fixes are simply too lazy to put the work in to get to the top level of corruption in more demanding fields, such as politics, banking or business.

Sport and cricket are thus left with low-to-medium-grade hoodlums and sharks. I suppose it was inevitable, in some ways. Such people cannot all become football agents. Cricket must either weed them out or encourage them to raise their game and aim at loftier goals, such as crippling the international banking sector again, or making off-the-books arms deals with dodgy despots, or suchlike. It might not necessarily benefit the world, but it would benefit cricket.

Underpinning the whole sorry blancmange is the fact that the human brain enjoys gambling. This is proved, for example, by almost every single commercial break during UK sports coverage, the advertising on most sports websites, the existence of Las Vegas, and the enduringly popular institution of marriage.

The human gambling impulse is, scientists probably believe, an evolutionary relic, dating back millions of years, to when an intrepid fish took a long-odds punt, climbed out of the sea, and began evoluting.

The world's restaurants owe a significant debt of gratitude to the gambling instincts of our pre-historic ancestors (for younger readers, I refer here to cavemen and their ilk, not to cricketers from before the advent of T20). Without those brave souls having an edible flutter on which berries were lethally poisonous, which shellfish will probably kill you if you do not douse them in enough Tabasco, and which animals will/won't kick you in the face if you start palpating their gablongas in order to steal their milk, the menus in restaurants would be considerably less interesting today.

Not only does the human brain (or, at least, a significant number of human brains) enjoy (a) gambling, but it also enjoys (b) winning at gambling. The combination of (a) and (b) is the nexus wherein the trouble has arisen for cricket. I am sure that almost all top-level cricket is fine, uncorrupted and authentic. However, suspicion, as Aristotle himself once wrote, is like fox wazz - its stench is a difficult aroma to shift. As all professional road-race cyclists, and all those who have once had a fox relieve itself on their doormat, would no doubt attest.

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