Spot-fixing February 17, 2012

Essex have questions to answer

Another cricketer has gone to jail for spot-fixing and an international bowler is in the spotlight for his role. But what of the county cricket club involved?

The impression given in the Mervyn Westfield spot-fixing trial at The Old Bailey was that Danish Kaneria's chatter about bookmakers and spot-fixing was regarded by many in the Essex dressing room as just a bit of a joke.

Well, perhaps it was, but now the joke is on Essex County Cricket Club, a club that, for reasons as yet not fully explained, was remarkably slow to recognise its obligations to guard the moral standards of the game.

Essex will doubtless protest about the suggestion they have been culpable, perhaps preferring to be regarded as quite the opposite - a county that has courageously played its part in a successful prosecution of the first English professional cricketer to be found guilty of dishonestly manufacturing a match for financial gain.

But all the evidence points to the fact that Essex's players have been guilty of naivety at best, moral cowardice at worst. As for the officials, nobody is quite sure. They have been keeping their heads down, hiding behind as many excuses as they can muster that the investigation is still going on.

Expect to be advised soon in regretful tones that English county cricket was understandably unaware that it might become a target for corruption in those "more innocent times". This will be the first time that 2009 has been described as innocent. Perhaps Miss Marple might like to dodder into the County Ground at Chelmsford to knock a few heads together.

Admittedly the realisation has strengthened since the Westfield case, for those in self-denial at any rate, that county cricket is more vulnerable than many supposed, but the argument of lost innocence is unsustainable. Players knew about the potential for match-fixing long before 2009, and if they did not, then the officials were not doing their job. Westfield carried out the act and has been found guilty, Kaneria has serious questions to answer about his alleged grooming of a vulnerable young player, but all around there is the stench of abdication of responsibility.

Essex might have been expected to be on their guard and to have had education processes in place for years. This, after all, is a county where a former bowler, Don Topley, once caused a storm by alleging that Essex had naturally tried harder in one competition than another when they and a rival county had trophies at stake. But if they do believe in educating Essex, no one is telling.

Mark Milliken-Smith QC, defending Westfield, said it was "startling" that players deliberately "turned a blind eye" or apparently took Kaneria's words as a joke. It was an observation largely overlooked. Perhaps no one reported the approaches to the authorities, he suggested, because Kaneria remained such an important match-winning bowler for Essex.

Milliken-Smith might have speculated even more widely about why Kaneria's alleged "grooming" was not reported and examined earlier - a potential loyalty to team-mates that crossed the boundary from admirable team spirit to moral cowardice, a fear of jumping to the wrong conclusion, a reluctance to be regarded as a snitch, an unhealthy relationship between junior players and those in charge of the club, a lack of ethos about what it supposedly means to belong to Essex CCC.

Consider the evidence - all conveniently gathered as mitigation in Westfield's defence, intended as proof that Kaneria was a malign influence:

  • Mark Pettini, captain at the time, told how Kaneria had remarked in front of three players - himself, James Foster, who replaced Pettini as captain, and another senior player, David Masters - that he knew people who would "pay considerable money to influence matches".

  • Varun Chopra, an opening batsman with England ambitions, gave a further statement in which he said that Kaneria had actually made him a telephone call in which he had said: "There are ways of making money where you don't have to throw a game."

  • Paul Grayson, the coach, admitted that he had heard rumours that Kaneria had asked players if they wanted to meet his bookmaker friends.

Perhaps once everybody stopped laughing at Kaneria's playful sense of humour, it was easier to hope the problem could be managed. Nobody in a senior position at Essex thought to take Kaneria aside and suggest that one more tiresome joke about spot-fixing would see him on the first plane back to Pakistan. Do that and he might stop pitching leg and hitting the top of off.

Perhaps once everybody stopped laughing at Kaneria's playful sense of humour, it was easier to hope the problem could be managed

Only when Westfield came back late at night from a party, several days after the scam was attempted, with his then Essex team-mate Tony Palladino and showed Palladino a plastic bag full of £50 notes was the possibility that spot-fixing was now a fact of life in the Essex dressing room finally accepted.

But even then, it was hardly a dawning of moral truth. According to evidence at The Old Bailey, Palladino confided to two more junior team-mates, Adam Wheater and Chris Wright, what he had seen. Wheater, to his credit, at least rang Westfield, who denied the story. Palladino went off to play cricket in Namibia. It was six months later, in March 2010, that the rumours had reached Masters, who informed Pettini.

Essex has yet to clarify what happened in those six months. Did anybody report their suspicions to senior officials? Does Palladino deserve his growing reputation as a hero or was his official reporting of Westfield's scam reluctant at best? And was it really the case that Palladino, Wright and Chopra had since left the county for "purely cricketing reasons", or had relationships broken down?

Coincidentally, the Professional Cricketers' Association, in liaison with the ECB, had by then provided instructions about reporting any suspicious behaviour with regard to match-fixing. At least we are told it is coincidence because little in this case is straightforward. Finally, attitudes changed. The matter was reported to the ECB, and Westfield was arrested by Essex police. Kaneria, whose 2010 contract was honoured against Grayson's wishes, came back to Essex in mid-season and was also interviewed. Fearing for the future of his career, Westfield denied the charges right up until December 2011, by which time Kaneria had long since returned to Pakistan.

From Essex, there has so far been the shortest of official statements. "This is a very sad day for all at the club," it said. "It is going to take a while for us to fully digest the comments of the judge, but as the ECB cricket disciplinary committee has served Mervyn Westfield with an interim suspension as a result of his sentencing, the club is unable to comment on any aspect of this case."

Their silence is unacceptable. They should begin by confirming whether those in charge regard it as a resignation matter.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo