May 23, 2014

Players must police their game

National boards need to create an environment where open discussion about dodgy behaviour and whistle-blowing is encouraged

In the late 1970s, I knew of a couple of county games that were supposed to have been "organised". I had come into county cricket straight from school and was wet behind the ears, but you didn't have to be Poirot to pick up on the rumours. The prime opportunity for collusion was a double-header weekend, when Sunday League matches interrupted a Championship game that had started on Saturday and was to continue on Monday. The players met in the bar after Saturday's play and began the negotiations - consciously and subconsciously. In the instance I heard about, one team was going well in the Championship, while the other was top of the Sunday League. Apparently the two captains agreed to make life easy for one another, so to speak. As it happened, the team that needed an assist in the Championship on the Monday were double-crossed and ended up beaten in both games!

I really have no idea how accurate the story is but the point is that cricket matches have long been open to persuasion. In my time as a player for Hampshire, we frequently declared to make something of three-day games that were drifting into submission. And, usually, we were more likely to do so against an opposing captain who might return the favour one day. In 1985, Hampshire were second in the Championship to Middlesex at the start of the final round of matches. At lunchtime on the third day, the final day back then, our potential decider against Nottinghamshire was going nowhere and I suggested to Clive Rice that he might declare to give us a run chase on the final afternoon of the season. In return for the declaration, I told him we would go all the way rather than shut shop, if the tide turned against us. You should have seen the look on his face. I never asked him again.

I know that many a deal was done in the county cricket of the time and that the game was better for the positive and entertaining play that emerged from such arrangements. But you could argue that this cheated other teams. Disapproval was rarely voiced but often felt. Nobody spoke out against the practice, a) because they might have needed a deal themselves some time, and b) because nothing underhand was considered. The family wrapped its arms around one another. But we never heard of fixing. I honestly think we would have reacted had we done.

It was nigh on impossible to police the game from the outside then and it is not much easier now. Having said that, the ICC Anti-Corruption and Security Unit has done a decent job given the limitations. There is talk of the restructured ICC reducing the ACSU's power, or worse, changing its role. That would be a mistake. Ongoing investigative presence is a deterrent in itself and autonomy from the governing body ensures a clear line between the international boards and any vested interest.

We have all been guilty of whispering. We have all seen things we have questioned. If we are to rid the game of corruption we shall have to speak freely about our suspicions and concerns

Writing in the Times last week, Michael Atherton felt that because the recent allegations of corruption involved only a handful of players, the game was proven to be relatively clean. I really don't know if he is right and doubt anyone except the fixers themselves know. Atherton's point is that an awful lot of professional cricket is played by an awful lot of people. Television coverage and the short-form game - T20 leads the way here - bring myriad opportunities for betting and therefore fixing. Given that, says Atherton, we can be relieved that suspicion and accusation are not rife.

Lou Vincent's testimony to the ACSU, which began with accusations against players in the long-abandoned ICL and spread to county cricket and elsewhere is the catalyst for another period of dark rumour. The fact that Vincent will now be charged by the ECB on 14 counts relating to two county matches suggests that his tactic of revelation was self-serving. This has been a long and complex investigation and gives on a feel for the skills used by the various corruption and security units that support the ACSU. The charges against Vincent go back almost three years and do not reflect the good work done of late by the ECB and the PCA to educate English professional players.

Two other New Zealand cricketers are apparently being questioned by the ACSU and stories of subtle changes in the way in which fixes are conceived and instigated are now doing the rounds. Cricket fans are pretty sick of it, even though there is no suggestion as yet that international matches are under investigation. Probably the fixers have learnt that it is easier to operate illegally in low-profile televised matches without necessarily making any less money.

The only way forward is a policy of zero tolerance - as applied in some countries already - with life-long bans and criminal prosecution as punishment. Each board should be responsible for the order in its own house and for spreading the fear of consequence. It has become too complex a job for the now almost powerless ICC, and anyway the various territories require different approaches even if they are governed by one ACSU template.

The India-England-Australia triumvirate have the chance to make an immediate and worthy impression on the game by empowering the ACSU to work directly with the boards of all nations - Full member and Affiliate - to run a series of educational seminars for all their first-class players, setting out the dangers and making the consequences of corruption perfectly clear. This is an opportunity for the kind of governance that allows the Big Three to illustrate they are made of more than self-interest.

The players must be urged to police their own game. In essence, professional cricketers are an honest bunch; the game dictates as much. Most are at a loss to explain the innuendo and accusation that now clouds the game. It is they who must take control, along with the rest of the family - umpires, administrators, commentators and writers.

We know the game better than those charged with watching over it. Whistle-blowing should be a duty and must be applauded, not frowned upon. Open discussion about doubtful behaviour and passages of play should become the norm, so that anything underhand is quickly exposed. We have all been guilty of whispering. We have all seen things we have questioned. If we are to rid the game of corruption we shall have to speak freely about our suspicions and concerns. There really is no other way.

In the meantime, we can run with Atherton's view that cricket is cleaner than many think and that given the opportunities and vast sums of money out there, we can thank our lucky stars. As Michael Clarke explained when talking about this very issue: "I'm very proud of what we [the Australian team] have achieved, and I think we are well educated on what is right or wrong." In other words, the vast majority of players we watch and admire uphold the honour that has carried the game for so long.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK