Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gambling is cancer threatening sport

Pakistan cricket scandal: gambling is cancer threatening sport
The agent and players may have been sentenced but the bigger criminals are still at large

Richard Williams, Thursday 3 November 2011 21.31 GMT

Pakistani cricket fans burn posters of Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif. Photograph: Khalid Tanveer/AP
The sight of prison vans leaving Southwark crown court ought to be sending chills down the spine of every professional cricketer in a position to accept the kind of inducements that have brought prison sentences for Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.

We know that the arrest and conviction of the men responsible for the Great Train Robbery almost half a century ago did not put an end to armed theft, but the spectacle of the careers of three of the world's most talented players lying in ruins and probably beyond repair should, as Mr Justice Cooke intended, at least provide some sort of a deterrent to others tempted to follow the same path

A blow was being struck for the integrity of professional sport, in an attempt to help preserve the fundamental transaction between the player and the spectator, who must believe in what he or she is seeing. It is a belief challenged most frequently by the spectre of doping, whether affecting sprinters, cyclists, weightlifters or snooker players. But the detection of the individual use of performance-enhancing drugs is more straightforward than that of collective match-fixing and spot-fixing, which is why the trial of the Pakistani trio and their agent, Mazhar Majeed, is such a rare example of its type, and so important at a time when modern communications enable gambling interests to extend their tentacles ever further.

Football – notably in the 1964 case of the Sheffield Wednesday players Tony Kay, Peter Swan, and "Bronco" Layne – and tennis and horse racing are among other sports to have been touched by the rigging of results. But not since baseball's infamous 1919 World Series, when eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with a professional gambler, Joseph "Sport" Sullivan, and the New York gangster Arnold Rothstein to lose to the Cincinnati Reds, has there been a trial quite like the one that finished in London on Thursday, exposing an attempt to affect a match at the very pinnacle of the sport in question.

The baseball players were lucky in that administrative errors led a Chicago grand jury to acquit them of criminal charges, although they were never allowed to play the game again. The three cricketers have been banned from their sport for specified terms, but it is hard to see them returning, with the possible exception of Amir, who was 18 at the time of the offence and was described by the judge as "unsophisticated, uneducated and impressionable".

Mr Justice Cooke took upon himself the responsibility of acting not just for society in general, which is his usual remit, but for the game of cricket –"the very name of which," as he said in his sentencing remarks, "used to be associated with fair dealing on the sporting field. 'It's not cricket' was an adage. It is the insidious effect of your actions on professional cricket and the followers of it which make the offences so serious."

If he seemed momentarily, in his wig and robes amid the full panoply of English law, to be speaking for the chaps in MCC ties drinking their pink gins in the Long Room at Lord's and dreaming of golden afternoons before the war, then it is worth listening to the response of Ali Shujaat, the head of Lahore's cricket academy, of which Butt was a graduate. "I am feeling bitter that the judge was so kind," he told Sky Sports News. "I was looking forward to longer sentences."

Someone such as Shujaat, far more than any figure of the old cricket establishment, represents the heart of the 21st-century game, which is to be found in the subcontinent. His words were those of a man with a clear sight of the present dangers that threaten to corrupt its soul beyond hope of redemption.

The revelation that the late Hansie Cronje had been an organiser of fixed matches while captain of South Africa, made as a result of investigations by the Delhi police 11 years ago, came as a terrible shock to the sport. The case of Butt, Asif and Amir, revealed by a newspaper during the 2010 Lord's Test between England and Pakistan, was even worse because the allegations, now proven, seemed to be part of a much wider, more systematic phenomenon. There was something almost matter-of-fact about the way the men behaved as they went about organising the schedule of no-balls, drawing a gifted 18‑year‑old from an impoverished background into their schemes as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Just as English football's match-fixing scandal was exposed by the Sunday People, so the Pakistani players' spot-fixing came to light as a result of the investigative work of the News of the World and its undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood. The fear must be that the International Cricket Council's anti-corruption unit, whose five regional officers represent half the number recommended by its former chairman, Lord Condon, lacks the resources and the special expertise deployed by Fleet Street. While Mr Justice Cooke's action may indeed exert a deterrent effect, the demise of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday tabloid may have lessened the chances of such activities being exposed in the future.

If the best that can be said on behalf of Butt, Asif and Amir is that the influence of corruption on almost every aspect of life in Pakistan may have distorted their view of the seriousness of a little light spot-fixing, it might also be pointed out that the real criminals were not in the dock in Southwark, a point to which the judge alluded while sentencing Amir.

"You have referred, in material presented to the court, to threats to yourself and your family, saying that there are significant limits to what you can say in public," he said, going on to give credence to "those threats and the strength of the underworld influences who control unlawful betting abroad". The Arnold Rothstein of the Fourth Test remains in the shadows.

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