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On a couple of occasions last November, The Times, a newspaper which made its reputation by not exaggerating, said cricket faced its worst crisis in 20 years- the Kerry Packer schism being the benchmark for modern cricketing crises. The paper was right, but not in the way it intended. The supposed worst crisis was the bizarre industrial dispute in which the West Indian players refused to start their tour of South Africa and instead holed up in a London hotel for a week. It was settled soon enough.
At the time, the real crisis was being ignored. Justice Qayyum, a Pakistani judge, was in Lahore conducting his investigation into the tangled skein of allegations about gambling and match-fixing. But elsewhere in the cricket world, no one was listening.
A month later, the Australian Cricket Board was finally forced to admit something it had known, and covered up, since February 1995. Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, who had made the original allegations of attempted match-fixing against the former Pakistan captain Salim Malik, had themselves accepted thousands of dollars from an Indian bookmaker for providing apparently innocuous information.
Of itself, what Waugh and Warne did was only borderline-reprehensible. My own hunch is that it was a sting that went wrong: the bookmaker, using old spymasters' techniques, tried to draw them into a web of deceit from which there could be no escape, but was too unsubtle. The Waugh-Warne case is just a small but rocky outcrop of the mountain range of corruption that almost certainly still lies shrouded in the mists elsewhere.
But its emergence at last galvanised public opinion, and - on the face of it - the administrators. Suddenly, the Australian Board announced that it would hold an investigation. So did the International Cricket Council. Unfortunately, said ICC chairman Jagmohan Dalmiya, the very fabric of the great game is being damaged. Yet both bodies had known about Waugh and Warne for four years, since the ACB had informed ICC officials (but no one else) at the time. The fabric, apparently, was damaged only when the public found out.
Cricket-watchers have never had much faith in the game's administrators. But what they expect is incompetence, not cynicism. In fact, the ICC investigation never materialised as such. The national boards, obsessed by territorial imperative, refused to allow it. Instead, a supervisory body was to be set up, although, outside Australia and Pakistan, there were no investigations to supervise.
This did at least appear to constitute an acceptance that the rotten apples had to be removed from the barrel. But that misses the point. The poison is in the barrel itself, and it is likely to seep out again and again in the years ahead. The known facts about match-fixing are bad enough. What is suspected is terrible. If even a fraction of the rumours doing the rounds are true, it would be diabolical.
It is not easy to understand the new world of cricket if you sit in London or even Melbourne. Go to Dalmiya's own patch, though, to a hotel room or a middle-class home with satellite TV, pretty well anywhere in South Asia. There nearly always seems to be a game being broadcast from somewhere, usually a one-day international ( India played 48 in 1997-98), otherwise another one-day game. Yes, these matches do have some spectator appeal. But they have as much lasting resonance as the afternoon greyhound meetings staged in Britain for the benefit of betting shops. And since cricket goes on longer than a dog race, it makes better, more cost-effective, visual wallpaper without losing its power as a gambling medium.
This crisis is not merely the worst in 20 years. It is doing more damage than anything since Bodyline because it is eating away at cricket's most vital asset: its reputation for fair play. And Bodyline was easily solved by amending the Laws. This one is far harder to control.
I like a punt myself: I would be sorry if cricket betting had to end. But it is an ironclad rule that unregulated gambling leads to gangsterism, and, when that gets a grip on a game, then radical action is the only solution. It happened in baseball after the First World War. To clean up, the game required strong moral leadership at the time, and constant vigilance thereafter. Cricket's response so far has been pathetic, almost frivolous. Dalmiya almost split world cricket trying to take charge of ICC. Having succeeded, he has given the game no leadership whatever. He should resign and be replaced by someone capable of providing that leadership.