Pakistan is not the target; deal fixers are
Cricket needs to use its TV-generated fortune to strike at the root of the match-fixing problem
There’s one heart-warming sight you can see any normal day in the villages of Pakistan: a rutted strip of earth, a few sticks driven into it, a bat, a ball, and young boys playing cricket. This isn’t just any game: this is the game. It is also a field of dreams. If you want to grow up to join Europe or Latin America’s rich and famous, you try football first. In Pakistan, it’s cricket.
Now take the dreams and park them outside Lord’s. What are those kids on their rutted tracks thinking today? That the heroes they worshipped are soiled forever, idols to be discarded? Or that they did what anyone at the bottom of the heap would do: saw a chance to make money and took it?
The money is there in abundance, in betting dens, hotels and cafes from Karachi to Delhi to Dacca. Obsession and diversion combined, a submerged industry raking in hundreds of millions a year. Bet right on this game or this combination of events and you can win a sporting life lottery. So, of course, making sure that the bets come right is a burgeoning business as well. Welcome to the seedy, digitally connected syndicate world.
Two things, though, need saying fast. One is that we’re only at the start of this story, with much left to be investigated (let alone finally proved). The other – made far more difficult because many of those village batting strips lie buried under water this morning – is to link one story of corrupt cupidity with the horror of a national tragedy. There are some links you can’t altogether avoid, alas. The fact is that the state, as opposed to an all-controlling army, has precious few resources of its own to deploy when profound crisis comes.
But don’t tangle too much, too soon. The ordinary, suffering people of Pakistan need great help and generosity. What happens when no-balls flow on cue at the home of cricket is a physical and emotional world away, seemingly masterminded by men who live here in Britain for the benefit of other jet-setting crooks. The question is what happens next.
Find calmer context first. Wherever big sport exists, big cheats naturally follow – but motivations differ. Go back to the baseball world series of 1919 and remember how eight Chicago White Sox threw the championship because they hated a mean, grasping proprietor.
Let’s be absolutely clear about cricket. It isn’t a purer game because it’s played in white flannels and run by men in blazers. On the contrary, it’s gambling bait and huge temptation. It needs to be policed with beady-eyed zeal, using its new TV fortunes. It needs those at the top to take off their blazers.
So there are already cries for swingeing penalties. The eight White Sox were banned for life by baseball’s new commissioner. “No one who sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers … will ever play professional baseball again,” he said: and meant it. Cleaning up the game – giving the kids on the block renewed faith in their heroes’ honesty – is hugely important, then as today.
But this is also 2010, not 1919. Boys of 18 of wonderful talent jostle alongside agents anxious to make a killing. Test teams, like Pakistan’s, have no home to play in because their land is a terrorist quagmire. They drift from one hotel room to another, one country to another. They are at the mercy of fixers who push deals.
You won’t, in short, solve anything by draconian bans, by wiping whole nations from the cricketing map. You need to target the pushers. Pakistan, in yet another way, needs help and understanding – not ritual rage.