October 17, 2012

What to do with cheats

Erasing their stats from the records isn't feasible, but another sanction may be possible

Forecasting and defining greatness is the second-most rewarding aspect of a sportswriter's lot. It is also our foremost challenge, riddled with risk. So regularly do contenders avail themselves, and almost as often undo themselves, there is every chance of looking extremely foolish/stupid/asinine, even within hours of sticking one's neck out. As when the owner of these very fingers predicted that Mark Ilott might be every bit as good as Wasim Akram.

Resisting the urge to wax rhapsodic about recent sporting events has nonetheless proved impossible. While there are many in these parts who will assure you that the London Olympics was the most unforgettable sporting experience of their lives, I have no expectations at all, as a true if unblinkered Brit and hardened Olympiphobe, that I will ever experience again such a concentrated passage of imperishable sporting drama and competitive artistry as the one that has left me spellbound these post-Games weeks.

Admittedly part of the pleasure has been unabashedly parochial - Andy Murray's courtly triumphs at the US Open, followed by that near-miraculous fightback by Europe's Ryder Cup chippers and putters. Still, the neutral in me has also had a whale of a time: a last-ball finish to the CB40 final; a riveting World Twenty20 capped by a rollicking rollercoaster of a climax, fittingly won by a free-form jazzy Caribbean combo; a succession of Major League Baseball playoffs that have ripped the breath away and refused to hand it back, regardless of the attendant cost to cardiac efficiency. Throw in Yuvraj Singh's double-century on his first-class comeback after beating cancer and it is sorely tempting to suggest that Him Upstairs is an Olympiphobe too.

Yet the most enduring memory left by the autumn of 2012, sadly, will almost certainly be the official vilification of a hero, namely another cancer-trouncer, Lance Armstrong, leader, according to last week's statement by the US Anti-Doping Agency, of "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen". It remains to be seen whether race organisers ever seek to reclaim (let alone redistribute) his prize money, yet while the cyclist's punishments - to date at least - may not have been entirely commensurate with his considerable sins, stripping him of those seven Tour de France crowns strikes me as entirely just.

Cheating is as old as competition itself, but performance-enhancing, as a contemporary cause célèbre, poses unique problems. What punishment is adequate? What is the most effective sanction, the best deterrent? As with athletics, cycling now routinely rewrites its records and honours boards, which admirably serves the dual function of penalising the fake while rewarding the genuine, however belatedly. Even then, one could argue, justice can never be done. Silver medallists and runners-up are now crowned winners retrospectively, yet miss out on all the benefits derived by the original champion, tangible and spiritual. Victory after the fact can never feel remotely as good as glory on the day. Nor can pockets ever be properly compensated.

Cricket is blessed indeed that PEDs play such a minor role - so far as we know. On the other hand, it does have a long and profoundly un-rich history of another, more criminal brand of deception: match-fixing, the supreme act of sporting fraudulence and one not significantly mitigated when "spot" replaces "match". Suspensions and lifetime bans have been an imperfect answer, but since the threat of imprisonment (and worse) has failed to help governments the world over win the so-called "war on drugs", should we be surprised? At a time when umpires are being lured into this treacherous web and second chances are granted to those for whom there can never be true redemption, is there a case to be made for a more ruthless approach?

As things stand, we still await the first civil lawsuit against a player for deceiving the paying public, though it may not be long before some disgruntled punter, deprived of a fair chance to beat the bookies, pursues just such a course. In the meantime, the Armstrong Solution is nothing if not compelling.

The difficulty in this case lies less with intent than outcome. Whereas Armstrong was apparently prepared to do pretty much anything in his power to cross the line first, those who bring cricket into disrepute are usually those who will do anything to finish second. Or, at the very least, cannot be relied upon to prioritise collective success from first over to last.

Would Mohammad Azharuddin or Salim Malik have sold their souls for such an unholy mess of potage had they known that every run they scored would be erased? Would Mohammad Asif have done so had each and every wicket been at stake? Would H***** C***** or Salman Butt have pre-empted Armstrong's bullying tactics, strong-arming team-mates into their nefarious world, had they known their records, as player and captain, would be expunged? Given the number of players I have met who can rattle off their average, strike rate, economy rate or no-ball frequency without a millisecond's hesitation, who see themselves as being defined by their "stats", maybe not.

The nearest comparison, of course, lies with the most infamous episode in the long and lustre-free history of sporting scriptwriting - the 1919 World Series, wherein eight Chicago White Sox players accepted bribes to lay down against the Cincinnati Reds. All eight were banned sine die, albeit amid deeply unsatisfactory circumstances, but while their career records remain intact, preserved and pickled in aspic and ink, inconsistency persists.

As the most public face of the fix, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson suffered most, and continues to do so more than six decades after his death. As a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame - his lifetime batting average has been bettered by just two others - he continues to be rejected, even though those pleading forgiveness include Jimmy Carter, the erstwhile US president. Similarly, while the sullied feats of Pete Rose, a gambling addict shut out for a string of betting offences, including wagering against a team he was managing, remain all present and correct, unmoved and exalted, he is still routinely scorned by the journalists entrusted with deciding who enters the Hall of Fame.

Whereas Lance Armstrong was apparently prepared to do pretty much anything in his power to cross the line first, those who bring cricket into disrepute are usually those who will do anything to finish second

Admirable as it is, the ICC's strictly virtual Hall of Fame (if there is an actual "hall", the hits I gleaned after googling images for "ICC Hall of Fame" kept it a trade secret) has yet to penetrate public consciousness to anything like the same degree as its Cooperstown counterpart. It probably never will, such is the veneration Americans accord their sporting heroes. Even last week, in Armstrong's native Texas, while the rest of country was expressing its anger at the downfall of a blue-collar poster boy, and calling someone "a Lance" was flourishing as a term of abuse, it was still possible to hear a businessman express pride in having raised $67,000 to take part in a "Ride with Lance" charity event with "one of the greatest athletes ever".

Indeed, judging by the fact that cricket's Hall of Fame numbers that notorious law-bender WG Grace, exclusion from it might not be deemed a hardship. So that leaves the stats. In the wake of revelations about the 2000 Centurion Test, Sir Richard Hadlee advocated that players found guilty of match-fixing should be removed from Wisden. Resistance was stern.

"Where do you stop? Where do you start?" wondered Graeme Wright, then newly re-enthroned as editor of the Almanack. As we spoke, he was checking the scorecards from a South Africa-India one-day series, at least three of whose matches remain marred, even now, by liberal doses of suspicion. "Salim Malik is in the list of Five Cricketers of the Year. Do we take him out? If we take his scores out, where does that leave all those matches he played? Do you take runs away from teams, wickets away from bowlers? It's impossible. It's the WG factor. People said he replaced the bails when he was bowled and blithely carried on, but his record has never been altered. And I've never been a revisionist. Besides, there's no definitive list of offenders. It's all so subjective."

Wright's objections were grounded firmly in logic, but 12 years on, with the disease far from cured, a dependable antidote far from view, and ever more subtle means of underperforming coming to light, reassessment beckons. Since the Wisden records section omits any mention of the context of C*****'s numbers, and that England's "victory" in that Centurion Test was commemorated by Sky Sports during the summer whenever the highest fourth-innings chases against South Africa were listed on screen, another deterrent is overdue.

Wright was right: it would be the height of ludicrousness to rewrite scorecards or team records. There is, though, another path open to Lawrence Booth, the current Wisden editor, however unorthodox.

In the "Births and Deaths of Test Cricketers" section, why not insert an asterisk in the entries for proven offenders, followed by a footnote - something succinct, unequivocal and suitably damning? How about "Fraud"? Or "Liar"? Or better yet, "Cheat"? Keep the syllables to a minimum. Much as the only thing we hacks like better than hailing greatness is venting our self-righteous spleen, there really is little point in wasting words on villains.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton