If it ain't fixed...
When the claims of match-fixing first started emerging in the early 1990s, many in England adopted an approach that this was something that happened abroad - clearly this was not anything that could blight the traditional English game. That attitude lingered for almost two decades, finally being put to bed with the arrest and subsequent conviction of Mervyn Westfield.
The slumbering complacency was originally shaken on Sunday, November 14, 1994 when the Sunday Mirror ran an interview with former Essex cricketers Don Topley and Guy Lovell in which they claimed that two matches between Lancashire and Essex three years earlier had been rigged.
The games had come near the end of the season. Lancashire were pressing hard for the Sunday League title and needed to win their final match and hope that Nottinghamshire lost. The offer was that if Essex lost on the Sunday, then Lancashire would return the favour in the Championship match which was being played at the same time. At the time, Essex trailed Warwickshire by 14 points in that competition.
"We were given the nod and the wink that if we happened to lose the Sunday game then we would get an easy declaration on the Monday," Topley said. "I was told, 'you know what you've got to do' and I deliberately bowled so that Neil Fairbrother could milk my bowling. I am ashamed of what I did. It has been with me for all those months. Now I have got to get it off my chest."
In the game Topley scored 38 not out and took 3 for 29 as Lancashire squeezed home in the final over. Lovell, who was released at the end of the season, bowled six overs and took 0 for 34.
Lovell, whose only match for the county it was, said: "It was in the pavilion around lunchtime on Sunday when coach Keith Fletcher and secretary Peter Edwards had left the room that [it was] announced: 'We have done a deal. If we lose today we win the three-day game tomorrow.' I was shocked but didn't protest and the senior players didn't seem fazed. I was told to keep my mouth shut, not to tell officials or bet on the result."
After the revelations Essex rounded on Topley, accusing him of being bitter over his release at the end of the 1994 season. "A strange cove, not always popular with his team-mates, Topley often gave the impression that he felt hard done by," wrote Derek Pringle, who had captained the side in the Sunday League match. "As anonymity's chilly hand prepared to lead him quietly away, he has made the headlines again. It is a sorry way to be remembered."
Essex opening bowler Neil Foster was equally adamant that no such arrangement had been discussed, and Fairbrother, the Lancashire captain in the Championship game, also denied the claims. "This particular match was interrupted by rain," he said. "The only way I could achieve a win was by declaration and to set Essex a target, giving ourselves the maximum time to bowl them out."
Fletcher told the Daily Express the claims were "absolutely ridiculous", Edwards said he was "disappointed and shocked", while Lancashire chief executive John Bower dismissed the whole story as "preposterous".
In the event, Lancashire won the Sunday match but were denied the title, as Nottinghamshire, the leaders, also won. Essex went on to win the Championship game, and secured the title three weeks later by 13 points. It is worth noting the Independent's match report of Essex's Championship win, in which Michael Austin said that Lancashire's declaration was a "stunning tactical aberration". It went on: "How Fairbrother, the acting Lancashire captain, could set Essex a mere 270 to win, off what became 67 overs, on a flat pitch with a pop-gun attack at his disposal will remain a mystery."
Despite the allegations, there was no full inquiry. Both counties and the Test and County Cricket Board announced they had investigated the claims and there was no substance to them. "I can't believe the TCCB are not looking into the allegations further," Topley said, presciently as it happened: "I believe this matter will return to haunt them." He was right. There was, however, a recommendation made to the board that a confidential hotline be set up to allow players to report anything untoward.
That might have been that, had it not been for various match-fixing investigations elsewhere. In 1999 in Melbourne, Mark Waugh was asked if he knew anything about the Essex v Lancashire match. And in 2000, former England allrounder Chris Lewis made allegations to the ECB about matches being fixed. Faced with mounting pressure, the board called for another inquiry to clear things up.
In May 2000, Topley met with ECB officials formally for the first time to discuss his claims. In the months that followed, other vague claims relating to various domestic matches surfaced, mostly based on rumour rather than fact. The Metropolitan Police launched an investigation but in January 2001 said they would not bring charges as the incident had happened a decade earlier and was almost impossible to prove either way. At the end of the month the ECB announced a similar finding but, much to Topley's anger, refused to release details of their investigations.
"The whole affair smacks of a whitewash," said Topley. "The statement may have come as a relief to those administrators and players who wish to see the matter brushed under the carpet, but there are others who, in the present climate, expect from the establishment a robustness and transparency to match the public statements of Lord MacLaurin and others.
"There is a festering sore in English cricket which will not heal until there is a willingness at the top of the game to speak plainly and honestly about corruption," he added. "I can only speak of my direct experience, but rumours abound about many other matches as far back as the 1970s."
Still, the matter refused to go away. In May 2001, Lord Condon, in his report by the ICC's anti-corruption unit, said: "It has been suggested to me that the seeds of corruption in cricket were sown in the 1970s, when county and club games in domestic tournaments in England and other countries were allegedly fixed by teams to secure points and league positions." He added that the county circuit's culture of cosy declarations, joke bowling and manufactured results was the forerunner to a "more insidious and corrosive form of fixing".
Two days later Geoff Humpage, who played three ODIs for England before retiring to become a policeman, said that there were matches in 1981 that he thought were odd. "In one game we found ourselves up against a side who [were] suddenly playing kids in important positions. In the Sunday game it was a little bit easier than it should have been. Other people have now said that there are question marks over the two games."
Almost immediately, the former Kent allrounder John Shepherd came out and said that he was part of an arrangement to lose a Sunday League match in 1978. Both captains in the game denied the claim.
And there, so everyone hoped, it all ended. But as events this week have underlined, it is a problem that simply refuses to go away.
What happened next?
- Topley, who had coached Zimbabwe after retiring from playing, returned to his old school, the Royal Hospital School, Suffolk, to coach
- Lewis, after a unfulfilled career, was arrested at Gatwick Airport in Sussex for drug smuggling in 2008 and sentenced to 13 years in prison
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa