June 21, 2014

Why punishment may not be the best way to deal with fixers

Tim Hall
It may seem like a soft touch, but getting convicted match-fixers to seek forgiveness from their victims - team-mates, officials and fans - could help build a movement against fixing

The opening day of the Division 2 County Championship clash between Worcestershire and Essex in August 2006 is unlikely to be remembered by those, like myself, who were there, for anything other than the three hundreds scored by Worcestershire batsmen. Graeme Hick's brought a sense of relief, confirming that at 40 he was not yet a spent force in county cricket. Vikram Solanki's 122 was typically elegant, while Lou Vincent's 114 from only 120 balls more brutal and urgent.

However, I had reason to recall that day recently when the ECB charged Vincent with involvement in match-fixing relating to his time at Sussex in 2011. Also playing at New Road, although barely registering, as he bowled only six innocuous overs in Worcestershire's first innings, was Mervyn Westfield, who was subsequently jailed for four months in 2012 for spot-fixing in a Pro40 game against Durham.

In addition to his jail term, Westfield was banned from professional cricket for five years. Vincent's fate, if he is found guilty, is uncertain but it is sure to include a lengthy exclusion.

These reactions are understandable but are they right? Is the best way to rid cricket of corruption through the punishment and exclusion of the guilty and the education of the next generation of, as yet innocent, players?

Considerable effort and resources have been expended since 2000, when the case against South Africa captain Hansie Cronje broke, in the attempt to rid cricket of corrupt practices. Commentators and administrators now routinely bemoan the opportunities for corruption thrown up by the proliferation of domestic T20 competitions, the mobility of players, uneven international regulation of the game, and global television coverage of mundane fixtures. Here, the financial incentives to fix seemingly outweigh shallow-rooted and temporary team allegiances.

However, the list of international players who have been implicated in corruption is worryingly long and there are continuing allusions to the spectre of widespread fixing within the game. Match-fixing remains a recurrent, if not necessarily endemic, problem in cricket. This begs the question of whether the official responses to corruption and the narratives advanced to understand it are missing the point.

What alternatives does cricket have if it is to address not just the manifestations of corruption in the game but also the conditions that underpin and sustain it?

Cricket could seek to make punishments for match-fixing more harsh. Typically, in the UK, match-fixers such as Westfield are charged with accepting or obtaining corrupt payments, under the 1906 Corruption Act. An alternative would be to frame prosecutions for match-fixing within anti-organised crime legislation. As well as the threat of longer jail terms, guilty players might also have to endure Proceeds of Crime Asset Recovery investigations.

Intuitively appealing as this sound, this is unrealistic. Proving underperformance is difficult enough in itself, but proving it as part of a criminal effort takes it to another level of complexity entirely. It is difficult to imagine, also, that cricket anti-corruption units possess the expertise to prosecute such cases or that police forces will see it as a priority, given the more urgent threats of general crime they are charged with investigating.

A more punitive response is also likely to drive match-fixers further underground. Guilty players are unlikely to volunteer information if it would lead to their long-term incarceration and the potential loss of their houses, cars and savings.

Alternatively, cricket could seek to cultivate a more permissive response. All investigative roads in match-fixing cases seem to lead back to extensive illegal betting markets in India. Remove these by legalising betting there and the agents behind the widespread fixing of cricket matches are suddenly neutered.

Despite the risks, and the inevitable controversy, perhaps it is time for cricket to see match-fixers as an asset in the ongoing fight to rid the game of corruption and to seek their restoration rather than exclusion

Again, though, it is unrealistic to imagine that cricket can effect such a change. There is no apparent appetite in India for the legalisation of gambling. The ICC could lobby the Indian government, citing the importance of cricket to India's international image and the damage corruption causes a country's reputation. The anti-corruption NGO Transparency International has reams of data that proves how damaging a reputation for corruption is for a country's economy. However, there is no evidence that the ICC recognises tackling illegal betting in India is within the remit of its approach to the problem of corruption in cricket.

There might be some merit in exploring this more permissive response long-term. Similar approaches are gaining traction in wider criminal justice circles as faith in prohibition regimes, such as the US-led War on Drugs, begins to crack. However, in the case of cricket this is a 20-year project. Not a time scale that cricket politics allows the ICC to readily embrace.

Perhaps, though, the seeds of an alternative, restorative approach lie in the recent amendment to the ICC corruption code allowing the reintegration of guilty players into the game. This challenges the notion of the long-term exclusion of the guilty, previously axiomatic, and speaks of the potential rehabilitation of players.

Restorative justice works on the principle of the guilty facing their victims, acknowledging the impacts of their crimes, and taking responsibility for their actions. In return, sentences can be significantly shorter. The emphasis is on repairing the harm caused by crime rather than seeking retribution. Restorative approaches have been deployed effectively across other criminal justice settings, from the relatively minor to major international tribunals, most famously South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This is not an approach entirely alien to cricket. Responses to match-fixing do demonstrate restorative elements. Mohammad Amir's 2012 interview with Mike Atherton, and the majority of his subsequent media appearances, are light-touch restorative justice in all but name. Westfield's ban from playing club cricket was reduced after he participated in a Professional Cricket Association anti-corruption programme.

It is worth considering how cricket's response to corruption could be more formally founded on restorative principles. A truly restorative approach would replace the slightly muddled, uneven mix of retribution and rehabilitation that currently prevails.

Under a restorative approach Westfield, as well as others found guilty of match-fixing, such as Amir, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, would have been required to engage with the victims of their actions. These could include their colleagues, administrators, opponents and umpires, as well as fans present on the days when the offences took place. These meetings can take many forms, depending on the circumstances of the offence. What is common, though, is the involvement of individuals trained in restorative processes who determine whether the offender is ready to engage with the victims of their actions. "Ready" in this case is difficult to define precisely but it involves determining that the offenders understand the process they are about to engage with and that their involvement is genuine. It is at this stage that those who see restorative justice as an easy way to forgiveness are challenged.

They are often derided as a soft touch, but evidence shows that these difficult restorative dialogues are effective. The UK's Ministry of Justice has found 85% victim satisfaction for those who participated in restorative programmes, along with a 14% reduction in the frequency of re-offending. Meetings are often lengthy and highly emotional for both victim and offender. Their power, and ultimately their effectiveness, lies in what both parties bring to the meetings. For the victims the need to have answers and for the offender to understand the hurt they experienced, and for the offender a need to explain what led them to offend. The process of explaining their actions is often cathartic for the offender. They feel changed as a result. It is also often revelatory. They come to understand their motivations and, in taking responsibility, realise that they are not dupes, mere pawns in a larger conspiracy, but agents with the power to shape events. It is this revelatory element that separates the genuinely restorative approach from the somewhat clichéd media interview where the offender seeks forgiveness while insisting that they were tricked or bullied into fixing.

In return, Westfield, Amir, Butt and Asif would have been playing professional cricket for two or three years by now. Unpalatable as this may be to some, could their earlier reintegration have actually helped inculcate an anti-fixing culture within cricket?

Until Amir starts playing again - the others are less likely to return to professional cricket after their bans expire - we will not know the reaction. Abuse from crowds, however undesirable, would act as a visible, ongoing anti-corruption symbol.

Professional cricket is a closed, highly connected world. Talk of Amir's reception, post reintegration, will spread quickly among players. Perhaps first- and second-hand knowledge of the experiences, and probably struggles, of a guilty player reintegrating into the game will act as a greater deterrent to potential fixers than formal anti-corruption programmes, which are inevitably abstract.

Alternatively, a welcoming reception might allow more open discussion of individual cases, bringing the practices of match-fixing out of the shadows a little.

There are risks, of course. Adoration from a crowd for the guilty player would be an ambiguous message for the game to deal with. But despite the risks, and the inevitable controversy, perhaps it is time for cricket to see match-fixers as an asset in the ongoing fight to rid the game of corruption, and to seek their restoration rather than exclusion.

Tim Hall is a professor of criminology at the University of Winchester