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Worried about match-fixing? Legalise betting

To begin to tackle cricket's biggest problem, we must legalise betting

Amit Varma

No more Hansie Cronjes please. If betting is legal, many of the conditions in which match-fixing thrives won't exist © Getty Images
It's speculation season again, with rumours floating around about match-fixing. Does match-fixing still take place in cricket? We don't know for sure, and that is reason enough not to speculate. But there is no question that if there is one thing that can subvert the sport we celebrate on this site, and drive fans away from it, it is match-fixing. If it is still going on - and the incentives, running in crores of rupees, are certainly strong - it needs to be stopped. What is the first step we should take to achieve this? Legalise betting.
In some ways it is perverse that "betting" and "match-fixing" are treated almost as synonymous terms in India. It is like frowning upon sex because rape is a bad thing. Match-fixing is unambiguously wrong because the player who participates in it is betraying an implicit contract with the fans of the sport, and perhaps an explicit one with his cricket board. Why is betting wrong, though? What justifies it being banned in India?
To say that all gambling is wrong does not wash. Betting in so many other areas is legal in India, and smiled upon. It isn't just horse-racing or lotteries or playing cards at Diwali that we are speaking about. Betting on the price of gold is effectively legal. So is betting on the movement of currencies. And the market value of companies. Heck, the entire stock market is essentially about betting: when you buy a stock, you are betting on the price going up. When you sell one, you are betting on it going down. All investment is effectively betting, and investment is what drives economies.
But doesn't betting necessarily lead to match-fixing? It does if it is banned. If you ban something for which there is a demand, the demand will not disappear. Instead, an underworld will spring up to satisfy it. The moment you make anything illegal, a black market springs up around it. That does not mean that all crimes should be legalised. But it does mean that activities that do not impinge on anybody's rights - and betting certainly does not - should be legal. The scope of the underworld should not be enlarged more than necessary.
What would be the benefits of betting being legal? Well, for one, it could be regulated, either by the government or (preferably) by independent agencies. Every bet could be charted and available publicly. Any suspicious activity would be immediately visible. Just as the stock market has its regulators, so would betting in cricket. Once the entire process is transparent, it would become harder for scamsters to make a quick buck.
Two, you would ensure that instead of shady crime syndicates, legal companies with transparent accounting would run betting. They would compete with each other for customers, and this would be incentive enough to make sure they don't defraud their customers by fixing matches. The market is smart enough to sniff these things out, and in the end, customers will place bets with whichever companies give them the fairest chance to make money. Equally, it will be in the interest of these companies to have systems in place that to make sure they don't get defrauded. All in all, in a free market of betting where both betting companies and customers have plenty of choice, everyone will act as a check on everybody else.
There are other benefits besides these, most notably the substantial taxes the government would earn by legalising betting. But that has no bearing on the questions involved here. There are two: Should an activity that impinges on nobody's rights be banned? How can we make a move towards eradicating match-fixing? The answer to both is the same.

Amit Varma is contributing editor of Cricinfo.