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Cheating? To be fair, it is cricket

There is nothing new nor alien about cricketing scandals; the sport of Empire has always been torn between high morals and low tactics.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Politics

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You know something must be considered serious and tragic on a global scale when the BBC sends Orla Guerin, its Irish angel of doom, to report the news. From the Middle East to deepest Africa, she helicopters into trouble zones, face set like a tombstone, to intone grim tales of famine, war and pestilence.

So it came to pass that on Monday, Ms Guerin switched seamlessly from reporting live on the human tragedy of Pakistan’s terrible floods to reporting the next great tragedy: the allegation that some Pakistani cricketers had deliberately bowled a few no-balls during a match in England. This latter crisis, she assured us, had created a sense of ‘collective shame’ among the Pakistani people – the sort of language some might recall being used to describe the German people’s postwar attitude to the Holocaust. Clearly this must be an historic crisis.

But what exactly is known to have happened? Apparently, as the result of a News of the World sting, where reporters from the Sunday tabloid posed as dodgy punters interested in betting scams, two Pakistani bowlers are alleged to have deliberately overstepped the crease, thus delivering no-balls to order. London’s Metropolitan Police arrested three Pakistani players and the alleged fixer caught in the sting, on suspicion of ‘conspiring to defraud bookmakers’. Yet the only bookmakers who still offer obscure ‘spot bets’ on, say, the number of no-balls likely to be bowled are illegal bookies in India. And as legal experts have pointed out, since no actual bets were placed by the News of the World reporters, illegally or otherwise, no obvious criminal fraud was perpetrated.

At worst this is ‘spot-fixing’, not match-fixing; the couple of obvious no-balls did not affect the outcome of the match, an easy win for England. Other more serious allegations of the Pakistan team throwing past matches have now begun to circulate in the media, but as yet the only evidence is the word of the braggart fixer and some video of badly dropped catches and poor batting. If a risible batting collapse alone is to be considered proof of a conspiracy, then England’s middle order batsmen should surely be in fear of their liberty today.

Of course cheating in top-level sport is always bad news. But the few known facts cannot really explain all of the doom-laden noise about ‘cricket’s blackest day’ or ‘sport’s darkest hour’ on the back pages, never mind the portentous frontpage splashes from serious reporters or the frankly raving opinion columns attempting to link the cricket scandal with the floods and international terrorism as symptoms of Pakistan’s national crisis.

No, all of this looks more like a hangover from the special place that cricket and ‘playing the game’ have long occupied in the British/English elite’s worldview. Once, the gentleman’s game of cricket provided the all-white (in every sense) image of British civilisation and Empire. Now all that power and supremacy has gone, some Brits appear even more keen to seize an opportunity to rail against foreign corruption and show the world that ‘we’ are whiter than the rest, albeit by putting plenty of double standards-style spin on the ball.

Cricket and its formal values of sportsmanship and respect were institutionalised by the Victorian establishment. As Kenan Malik noted during a previous scandal, they ‘used the game to maintain social decorum at home and as a building block of Empire’. The distinction between amateur Gentlemen and professional Players on the cricket pitch encoded the class system in society. As for the imperial spread of cricket’s moral code, MCC secretary Lord Harris thought cricket had ‘done more to consolidate the Empire than any other influence’. Harris became governor of Bombay in the 1890s, in which role he introduced cricket to colonial India in order to teach ‘moral lessons to the masses’.

Contrary to suggestions that cheating in cricket is something new and alien, however, there has always been tension between the image and the reality of this highly competitive game. The phrase ‘It’s just not cricket!’, employed to complain about underhand behaviour in any walk of life, ignores the fact that cheating is as old as cricket itself – and cheating to win the match, not just some money.

In one of his ‘Flashman’ novels, George MacDonald Fraser gives a fictionalised but convincing account of the skulduggery and violence in a period one-on-one cricket match played for a wager between two Victorian gents. While cricketing convention allowed English Gentleman team captains to ignore umpires’ decisions, the Players introduced tactics such as pitch-altering and ‘sledging’ opponents. From the England team’s infamous ‘bodyline’ bowling of the 1930s to the widespread ball-tampering of the modern age, cheating really has been cricket.

And in line with cricket’s original imperial ethos of the white-trousered-man’s burden, there has always been a dose of racial double standards and hypocrisy in attitudes to rule-bending and breaking. Just this week, everybody has been reminded again of the scandal when Pakistan refused to take the field against England in 2006 after being accused of ball-tampering. Yet the occasion almost a decade earlier when England captain Mike Atherton was apparently caught tampering with a ball has strangely been missing from many of the media’s lists of cricketing scandals.

As for match-fixing and involvement with dodgy betting syndicates and bookmakers, the media focus on this as a Pakistani problem should not blind us to the fact that the biggest scandals unearthed involved South Africa’s iconic captain Hanse Cronje, banned for life for taking bookies’ bribes worth $100,000, and the Australian greats Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, fined in 1995 after admitting giving information on ‘the weather’ to an Indian called ‘John the Bookmaker’. The Australian cricket board kept that affair a secret for three years. (Away from cricket, meanwhile, the former Southampton and England football star ‘Saint’ Matt Le Tissier admitted in his recent autobiography to being part of an attempted spot-betting scam in the 1990s, which involved him deliberately trying to kick the ball out for a throw-in straight from the kick off. Nobody seemed too outraged by the revelation from good old ‘Le Tiss’.)

These days the English establishment has lost not only its Empire but its old air of self-belief and assured sense of what’s right and wrong with the world. This helps to explain the pained overreaction to allegations that some foreigners have been messing with what remains of the sacred rules. But more importantly perhaps, some have seized upon the brewing Pakistan ‘betting’ scandal as an opportunity to show off ‘our’ lasting national characteristic of moral, if not necessarily sporting, superiority. The fact that today’s cricket betting scandals tend to focus on the Indian sub-continent, where cricket is the only game and illegal bookmakers abound, makes it easier to exploit the crisis in this way. The implicit message is that we might not know quite who we are any more, but we know we’re not like them.

Hence the tendency to treat the recent alleged offences as if they were Pakistani national characteristics, forgetting the many other instances of cheating. And never mind the fact that two Essex county players were also arrested for alleged ‘spot-fixing’ earlier this year, one of whom was an Englishman, Romford born-and-bred.

Let’s not be naive enough to imagine that cricket is immune to cheating, professional fouls and betting scams; where there is sport and gambling, legal or otherwise, the one sure thing is that there will be attempted chicanery. And let’s not be pompous or hypocritical enough to imagine or pretend that only Johnny (or Mohammed) Foreigner would stoop so low.

But we need not be so cynical either as to suppose that all cricketers – or even all Pakistani cricketers – are bent, or that sport is irredeemably tarnished by these affairs.

It is worth recalling the attitude of CLR James, the late great Trinidadian writer on everything from slave revolts to cricket, most notably in his autobiographical work, Beyond a Boundary. James understood perhaps better than anybody the roles of race, class and Empire in the history of cricketing encounters between England and the West Indies; adapting the words of Rudyard Kipling, he asked ‘what do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’

Just as James saw no contradiction in supporting Western civilisation while opposing Western colonialism, so he accepted the Empire’s use of cricket to teach discipline and self-respect in the Caribbean while opposing any notion of subservience to the English Gentlemen. In that spirit he was a firm critic of cheating and corruption in sport, teaching his sons ‘that “it isn’t cricket” to sell a game at baseball or basketball or whatever the game may be’. Nor, James would have insisted, is it ‘cricket’ for the creaking colonialists to use a cricket scandal as a bat to beat up their former servants for old time’s sake.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Duleep Alirajah thought the 2007 Cricket World Cup was comically crap and asked if the ‘Bollyline’ affair was cricket’s darkest hour. Mick Hume saw Musharraf’s crackdown on ‘uncertainty’ as a product of the West’s ‘war on terror’. Brendan O’Neill looked at how the issue of providing aid to Pakistan became bound up with the terror-beating agenda. Or read more at spiked issues Sport and Asia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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