It’s not cricket, it’s murder

The Jamaican Police revealed today that Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan cricket coach who died on Sunday, was strangled in his hotel room. There is no evidence that an entrance to the room was forced, suggesting he was known to his murderer or murderers. Nothing appears to have been stolen. He died the day after his Pakistan team had been defeated in the Cricket World Cup by Ireland, a result on which you could have gotten odds of around 10-1. The Cricket World Cup is a big event, notably on the Indian subcontinent, and the International Cricket Council has high hopes of spreading the game’s appeal, but this murder could also be the commercial death of cricket.

Most people suspect that it has something to do with match fixing. Back in 2000 a series of high profile investigations found extensive evidence of match fixing in international cricket. The most high profile casualty was Hanse Cronje, the South African cricket captain who was banned for life and later died in a plane crash. Woolmer was the South African coach until 1999. It is also being said that Woolmer was about to publish his memoirs, which may have contained incriminating material.

Pakistan have a had a fair few problems in recent years, including doping (two senior players were recently found to have taken banned substances but were subsequently reprieved by the national governing body, to the outrage of the rest of the cricketing world) and accusations of racism by umpires leading to a walk out last year during an international match.

During the match fixing investigations at the end of the 1990s most of the senior Pakistan players refused to cooperate with investigations. The Pakistan government then commissioned and inquiry under Chief Justice Qayyum. He found several players guilty of match fixing, including former captain Salim Malik. The Pakistan captain last Saturday, Inzamam ul-Haq, was also investigated by Qayyum (along with other players) who concluded that it was “not possible to find them guilty”. Despite this Inzamam was fined £12,500 ($25,000) and given a warning.

Whatever the outcome, the credibility of the sport is in tatters. Moreover, I think there is a simple economic explanation as to why this situation has come about. Match fixing bribes in cricket are not thought to be large. Figures of $10,000 to fix a game were mentioned in relation to Cronje. Players earn smallish salaries by comparison with most major professional sports, but the level of interest in cricket playing nations is intense and the betting turnover is vast. Unlike most sports where player salaries are bid up through competition between clubs, the only version of cricket that has any spectator appeal is international cricket. Nationality qualifications mean monopsony, and this has kept down player salaries. Last year it was reported that top players like Inzamam were paid a monthly retainer of a mere $3300 per month to play for their country. No doubt these players had many other legitimate opportunities to make money through endorsements and the like, but their likely income levels do not seem proportionate to the intensity of interest in what they do. And while a low salary does not force anyone to take a bribe, it surely increases the incentive to do so dramatically.