April 15, 2000

Match fixing - A historical perspective

David Underdown

Oh, well, it has happened before - almost 200 years ago to be precise. That may not be much comfort to any cricket lover who has followed the sad, miserable, story of match-fixing scandals, culminating in the recent allegations against Hansie Cronje. I have just finished a book on early cricket history (to be published in September by Penguin UK, under the title Start of Play: Cricket and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England), and while I was writing it I had some uncomfortable shocks of recognition as I read the latest unhappy piece of news from around the world.

The scandals that I had to deal with in my book took place in the first decades of the nineteenth century, when the new commercial spirit was affecting everything in England - and, as in our own day, how could cricket escape it? People had always bet on cricket, of course, especially the dukes and earls and lords who ran the country and set so much of the social tone. But there had been very few accusations of cheating, or at any rate of match-fixing.

After 1800 all this changed, and by about 1820 everyone recognised that the integrity of the game was being threatened, just as it is today. William (`Silver Billy') Beldham, the greatest batsman of the day, gives a vivid account of the process of corruption. The naive young cricketer, fresh from the countryside, would be quietly drinking in the Green Man, the London pub where the professionals tended to congregate when they were playing at Lord's. A plausible `sharp gentleman' would introduce himself, buy him a drink, and then somehow bring up the question of money, asking the innocent player how much he was paid. Ridiculous for a lad of your ability, the plausible gent would say when told of the pathetic sums on offer as match pay - he knew how the pro could earn a hundred times that amount. But he would of course have to lose occasionally.

Soon the bookies were openly plying their trade at Lord's. With so much money at stake, the consequences were predictable. `You may make a fortune if you will listen to me', one of bookies told Beldham, `so much for the match with Surrey, and so much more for the Kent match'. Silver Billy says that he always resisted the temptations, but there were plenty of others who did not. Single-wicket games between small numbers of players - three, four, or five a side - were the easiest to fix, just as limited-overs matches apparently are today. But eleven-a-side matches were certainly not immune.

In the end, inevitably, it all came out. In 1817 William Lambert, next to Beldham cricket's biggest star, made a century in each innings during a first-class match at Lord's, the first time this had ever been done. Later that year he was found guilty of match-fixing, banned from ever playing again at Lord's, and rode home to Sussex in disgrace. There were rumours of more widespread corruption, accusations of wrong-doing loudly exchanged between other leading players, and suspicions that some of the wealthy aristocratic amateurs were no more honest than the professionals.

Eventually, in the course of the 1820s, the cricket authorities did put their house in order. The bookies were driven out of Lord's, the matches for big stakes became a thing of the past, and the small-scale betting that always continued in the country posed no threat to the integrity of the game. There is no reason why cricket's current lords and masters shouldn't be able to clean it up again. In today's global economy they will never be able to control the multinational betting industry in the way the MCC could control its English equivalent. But they can control the players. They will have to show a bit of courage, though, and not be content with slapping derisory fines on offenders, as the Australian authorities did a few years ago. No more excuses - it may seem harsh, but let's remember William Lambert.

(The author is Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University.)