May 22, 2014

The slap we knew would come

The news of widespread fixing in T20 cricket feels like a slap in the face even for those of us who had secretly thought that such days were in the offing

Do you feel a sense of trepidation when turning to the sports pages these days? © Getty Images

For many of us it's possible to trace the feeling of no longer being a child and even losing a certain sense of innocence back to the first time a sportsperson we loved let us down. For me it was when the great Australian Rules footballer Tony Lockett up and left my team, St Kilda, for the more glamorous and lucrative life in Sydney's colours. It brought me to tears.

The hours of pasting newspaper clippings into scrapbooks, waiting outside the ground in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of him and maybe, just maybe, securing an elusive autograph had been rendered foolish and juvenile. I'd loved him and because I loved him, I loved his team. Then he just walked away and an 11-year-old discovered that his hero didn't love him back, no matter how many posters he stuck on the wall.

In a cricket sense that same jolt of misery came with added stabs to the heart during the fall from grace of South Africa's seemingly dependable leader Hansie Cronje. In a lesser sense I later rued the heartbreaking personal failings of English allrounder Chris Lewis, another childhood favourite who had once seemed so perfect. In his prime, Lewis had everything - looks, talent to burn, and the kind of swagger that had that same 11-year-old scurrying around the boundary line in search of an autograph. Like a lot of cricket fans, I now only mention his name as the punchline of jokes, and that actually stings you a little bit when you think about it harder.

For fans younger still, that crushing moment of being let down might have come as the boyish Mohammad Amir was sent to a jail cell for his role in the Lord's spot-fixing scandal. As each of these blows arrives, cricket's carnival stops for a second, and then, as you're shaking your head, just grinds back into gear and starts chugging away again. "Look at that catch by Kieron Pollard, how amazing are these guys?" Battered and bruised, we just move on again.

As each of these blows arrives, cricket's carnival stops for a second and then, as you're shaking your head, just grinds back into gear and starts chugging away again

Right now it's possible that a new generation of cricket-loving kids, the ones who have only recently discovered the game and its many joys, is having that moment where the world suddenly seems more complicated and grown-up; maybe even a little less fun. I'm sure they are not keeping scrapbooks these days, but if they were, there would be as many of tales of fixers and frauds as of towering sixes and last-ball victories. These personal blows are the unseen toll of moments in time like, the Lou Vincent affair.

I'm not just worried for the kids, either. To many of us cricket is a refuge from the drudgery and endless complications of real life, a hiding place that we never grew too big for and never felt ashamed of running to. To have it so thoroughly confirmed a plaything for crooks is a bitter pill and raises all sorts of questions. Will we as cricket fans soon endure the same endless jibes as cycling buffs or Italian football fans do about this state of apparent disgrace? That's before you even get started on the game's administrators.

The unease is only worsened when you hear stories like the $600 million being bet on the most recent Big Bash League tournament, and that was just with a single agency and a reputable one at that. It's not unreasonable to suggest that the true figure reaches into the billions; this in a tournament that features a salary cap of just over AUD$1 million for an 18-player squad. Australians are terrible offenders when it comes to willfully dismissing the thought that sports in their own backyard are vulnerable to fixing, but who could be comfortable seeing those two sets of numbers side by side? The Guardian's Andy Bull wrote this week of the risk of being "paralysed by a paranoia that prevents you from being able to enjoy the sport." He's not the only one who feels that way.

What's awful is that it's now almost impossible to watch a single T20 game without at least wondering whether some element of it is corrupt. Will successive generations raised on a format of the game so clearly lacking in moral fibre be destined to enter a similar cycle of lazy justifications for the bind in which the entire sport has thus been placed? It's a horrible state for a great game to be in.

At the risk of offering a massive understatement and getting too maudlin, it's all got me a little bit down about the future of T20 cricket and the game in general. For those of us who have given the newest format a go despite initial reservations and even learned to love certain aspects of it, it's the slap in the face we secretly knew would come. You're entirely prepared for it when it arrives but then there it is, right in the mush. It's also pretty hard not to take it personally when something you love is being toyed with by mercenaries and charlatans.

I never thought a time would come when I opened up the sports pages and hoped not to see too much cricket but it's almost at that point now. Some great and necessary reporting is being done obviously, much of it in these pages, but little by little the aggregated impact of the game's crisis becomes a dispiriting deadweight.

I never imagined feeling that way about cricket, even when Hansie Cronje let me down.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko