Cricket is played at the highest level by ten “test match” nations – India, Australia, England, South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe- the main nations being the first eight. There have been a number of problems around the world in recent years- betting scandals, financial mismanagement and so on. But Pakistan cricket is beset by problems that dwarf everything else. Four years ago I posted a blog about how Pakistan forfeited a series in England under allegations of cheating and counterclaims of racism. Last year a terrorist attack on the touring Sri Lankan team ended the prospect of teams touring the country for the foreseeable future and three weeks ago a British newspaper demonstrated that Pakistani cricketers were involved in match fixing by paying an intermediary to get bowlers to deliver “no balls” at times specified in advance (the equivalent in baseball would be to throw, say, the tenth ball of an inning very high and wide). The video evidence is damning, and three players have been interviewed by the police and suspended from the tour. The remaining players stayed in England to complete a series of one-day games, but attendances have been low and the thePakistanis have not been playing well.
Then on Friday they won a game, only for the Pakistan tour manager to accuse the England cricketers of throwing the game. Unlike the “no ball” case, no evidence has been brought forward to support the claim, and the England cricketers are so insulted that they are threatening not to play the next game in the series which is due to start at 1200 GMT today. Unless there is evidence, this seems like a bizarre claim, because the Engliand cricket authorities have gone out of their way to help Pakistan- this summer Pakistan should have been playing at home, but since no one will play there they tried to arrange to play their “home” games in other countries- and England was the only country willing to host them, allowing them to share the gate money and sell the broadcast rights. But Pakistan cricket is a very political organisation, with strong government influence and the statement was probably more for home than international consumption.
Even if there is no basis for the current allegations, the problem of match fixing in cricket goes beyond Pakistan. Ten years ago evidence was uncovered of match fixing in South Africa, India and Pakistan, and most of the test match nations were implicated in one way or another. There are a number of reasons that cricket is susceptible:
1. The game is usually very long, so there is a lot of activity that is meaningless to the final result but can be bet upon (the Pakistani activities were not about trying to lose the game).
2. Betting is illegal in India and Pakistan, but that is where most of the gambling is done. When betting is legal bookies usually have an incentive to identify and expose fixes (there are moves to legalise gambling in India precisely for this reason).
3. Many top cricketers remain very badly paid, despite the large sums of money involved in international cricket (both legal and illegal). This is not to excuse cheating, but it’s easy to see how someone can be corrupted by the lure of payoffs of the order of tens of thoudands of dollars when their monthly pay is around $2000 per month (this is the case for the Pakistanis).
For Pakistan, beset with so many other problems at the moment, all this is very sad. However, while I think genuine concerns remain about the credibility of many games, I’m less convinced that all this undermines interest in the sport. There is a kind of moral wishful thinking, that people will only value a sport they believe to be honest and upright. Actually I think what people want is entertainment, including scandal, and are not as concerned about morality as some would wish. Maybe cricket is the new wrestling.