Interpol offering reality check

INTERPOL, the international policing organisation, have offered to help the ICC by taking steps to prevent organised crime from infiltrating cricket. This follows hard on the warning by the ECB this week that the domestic game in England remains vulnerable to corruption.

A cold draught has been blowing into the game since the Pakistan corruption case at Southwark Crown Court in November, when one half-expected giant screens to flash up “guilty” like a third umpire’s verdict. Reality is very much upon us.

Pakistan players Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were sent to prison, guilty of cheating and accepting corrupt payments. Their fixer Mazhar Majeed, the classic dodgy dealer, was given the longest sentence, two years eight months, for conspiring to cheat and for making corrupt payments. This was the first time that corruption had led to more than mere suspensions by the International Cricket Council. The events in London involved not just a trudge back to the pavilion but barristers… police… prison officers… cold walls…

And now the Interpol secretary general Ronald K Noble, on a two-day tour of India, has offered an arrangement to the ICC president Sharad Pawar and Indian Cricket Board vice-president Rajiv Shukla that would give them access to Interpol intelligence, as with football. FIFA agreed a 10-year deal for almost £13,000 in May to keep tabs on global betting and to monitor the activities of suspected match-fixing syndicates. With support from FIFA, an Interpol centre in Singapore is being planned to promote ‘integrity in sports’.

Noble described the meeting with Pawar and Shukla as “cordial” and “positive” and he added: “We would like to have a prevention programme put in place, when there are incidences of young players, agents and officials taking money to fix matches. We know these young players are easy targets.”

One should remember that Hansie Cronje, a self-confessed crook, was never prosecuted by the South African law enforcers for spot-fixing. The issue was funked and never progressed beyond the King Commission inquiry. The Pakistan fixing case in London became a landmark when the sanction was prison.

Bearing in mind that the Southward courtroom must have witnessed many cases of violent crime, lawyers had to talk hard to show that deliberately overstepping a white line for betting purposes in 2010 was a serious offence that produced victims. The prosecution succeeded in arguing that the viewing public, especially, did not deserve to be cheated while players enriched themselves on a separate bookmakers’ agenda. But was ‘acting’ cricket on brief occasions worth prison?

The former England batsman Geoff Boycott reckoned the authorities should lock up these people “and throw away the key”. As the fixer had had the gall in court to claim Boycott as his friend — they met in a hotel lobby once — one could predict his fury, but it is a safe bet that his suggestion will not reach the statute book.

Mr Justice Cooke spoke of the damage to the “image and integrity” of cricket and the betrayal of followers of the game. He said he would have heavily extended the two-year six-month sentence given to Butt, the captain, as a clear deterrent if the player had not been already banned from cricket for five years.

To me, one of the sourest aspects was the conspiracy that gave Butt power. The position of the incorruptible Shahid Afridi as captain of the Test team became untenable when undermined by a nucleus of players, including a few not on trial, so that the Pakistan Board was hoodwinked into promoting Butt for the series in England last year. The jury heard how Afridi’s presence made fixing very difficult and that the gang needed him out of the way. So here was one victim at least. It was not just about a white line.

Watching sport — events that matter when they do not really matter — requires suspension of disbelief for enjoyment. A bottle of beer thrown at a television screen by an over-emotional viewer might be the extreme example, but integrity lies at the heart of all sport. In my view athletes caught cheating with performance-enhancing drugs should be jailed just like the cricketers. The athletics and cycling authorities should have called in the police a long time ago. And they still have not. With soft suspensions the only deterrent, the moral aspect is now dreadfully distorted. The thinking has changed. To some athletes — and to some lawyers, one imagines — drugs are only no-go if they are officially banned. New dope is fine until the authorities update the list…

Individualistic sports such as tennis and snooker have been long vulnerable to corruption, but the advent of spot-betting on live television — wagers on small events such as wides or no-balls during play — has brought cricket into focus, as with football. The key problem for cricket is that there is no regulation of the biggest gambling market, India and the subcontinental region, where betting is illegal. The boom in cricket has produced a multi-billion pound bookmaking industry where no suspicious betting patterns can be detected in the way that protects above-board bookmakers. Heavy wagers on an Amir no-ball at Lord’s, for example, would sound alarm bells in a regulated market outside Mumbai or Dubai.

Cricket is a quirky game built on justice while the fielding side gang up against the batsmen. Umpires make judgments, sometimes on appeal, and uphold the Laws. At international level the ‘third’ umpire waits in his studio, ready with cameras and infra-red detectors to adjudicate at an on-field umpire’s request. When camera back-up for run-outs and stumpings began in 1992, red and green lights were used for the verdict. Red meant ‘in’ at first before being changed to ‘out’. Almost inevitably the wrong button was once pressed by mistake, in Karachi in 1994, so that the South Africa batsman Dave Richardson was given out when he should have been in. Here was press-button injustice of the cruellest kind. But at least this was not a Crown Court.

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