Cricket at the crossroads

Pakistani cricketer Salman Butt (centre), arrives at the Pakistan High Commission in London on September 2, 2010. Photo: Reuters

First published on 10th January 2011.

It is some contrast. I left a jubilant England cricket team in Sydney after their stunning series win against Australia to travel to Qatar where three Pakistan cricketers are, effectively, on trial accused of cheating in a test match.

While the Ashes, despite being a little one sided, threw up everything a great sporting contest should, the case of Salman Butt and the Mohammeds Asif and Amir swims in the murkier waters of international cricket and of the two stories the spot fixing scandal will have a much bigger and longer lasting impact on the game.

Without prejudging a case which may well end up with all three cleared of any wrongdoing, cheating undermines the very fabric that defines sport. If a contest is not a contest then it is worthless. Fans will stop paying to see it, TV companies will stop writing huge cheques to cover it, sponsors will run to the hills and its foundations will crumble. It is that serious.

Whatever the outcome here in Doha – cricket and the International Cricket Council in particular knows that now is the time to tackle a cancer that has the potential to kill the great game’s integrity.It is far from easy.

Big Asian gambling syndicates are as powerful as they are dangerous. They can offer some cricketers riches way beyond their salaries for carrying out seemingly inconsequential acts that would have no impact on a game. Bowling just one wide at a specific time for example can make some people millions from unsuspecting bookmakers but of course will almost certainly not change the course of a test match.

It is wrong but perhaps understandable why some players might consider making an easy buck.

There is another side to it though. If they don’t, there are menacing men lurking in the shadows, threatening all sorts of retribution to the player themselves and even his family.

If earlier you have unsuspectingly accepted a ‘no strings attached gift’ from a middle man who you actually thought was just a wealthy fan and then later refuse to carry out the sting when it’s proposed, you know he will use the gift as evidence that you agreed to a deal.

He can ruin your career even though you’ve done nothing wrong. In the end the power to protect the game is in the players' hands but they do need support from the cricket authorities to help them fend off those who will always go to great and sometimes sinister lengths to target both the influential and the naïve.

The next cricketer to be found guilty of fixing any part of any game should be shown the door for life. A no tolerance, maximum punishment policy is just a start and however unfair it might seem it is an essential start.

If the ICC ducks this responsibility then the soul of the game begins to slip away and however great the achievement, performances like England in Australia will become meaningless.