Cricket, corruption and the challenge of reform

When corruption is mentioned, it is easy to instantly assume lots of things.  Of one those assumptions is likely to be that whatever is happening, it is happening far from the UK’s shores.  What one doesn’t tend to think of are green cricket fields in central Chelmsford, home of Essex County Cricket Club.  Yet it was here that many of the good cricket-loving citizens of middle England were first directly introduced to the sport’s problem with corruption.  Indeed, Essex’s Danish Kaneria and Mervyn Westfield, the key protagonists in that story, have both been banned from cricket for their involvement in spot-fixing during a 2009 one-day tournament.

When the allegations first surfaced cricket, and cricket fans, were still largely in denial.  Research has since shown that the sport is clearly vulnerable to corruption and furthermore that it is struggling to deal with the challenge of counteracting it, with Transparency International reporting that urgent action is required to deal with the changing nature of the challenge.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) has been trying – generally with limited success – to tackle corruption. In 2000 it formed the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to try and counter the increasing allegations of corruption in the sport, giving the Unit the power to investigate individuals suspected of being involved spot-fixing. The ACU also has a role in education – all players involved in international cricket go through its educational programmes to learn about the risks of corruption, including the tactics used by corruptors and the punishments that can come from accepting money and engaging in fixing. Although these provide a good start, they have not managed to prevent corruption from happening, with problems outside the ACU’s control, some of which are discussed below, still being prevalent in many areas of modern-day cricket.

The challenge of getting players to talk

Corruption, as is widely acknowledged, is notoriously difficult to detect.  One small moment in a match, such as when Pakistani bowler Mohammad Amir bowled a number of no-balls against England, can bring huge amounts of money for those betting on the game without having much of an effect on the overall outcome.

The ICC had been trying to get to grips with the corruption challenge a long time before messrs Westfield, Kaneria and Amir came to prominence.  Lord (Paul) Condon, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London and former head of the ACU, released a hard-hitting report highlighting a ‘climate of silence, apathy, ignorance and fear’ in the game.  Players feared coming forward to talk to the authorities about corruption, particularly when their teammates were involved, as doing so risked them being branded as informants or being ostracised by their fellow players.

There is plenty of evidence supporting this – to take but one example, Aaqib Javed, a Pakistani international, lost many friends when he spoke to the Qayyum Commission, which investigated corruption within Pakistani cricket.  Aaquib talked about the challenge of fighting off bribe-givers and how even high-profile players such as Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram has allegedly been approached.  Suffice to say, Javed’s time in the national team did not last much longer after this, his international career ending abruptly at a relatively early age.

Given Javed’s problems after testifying, it is unsurprising that other players have not wanted to come forward to talk about corruption. Recently, Hong Kong’s Irfan Ahmed was banned for five years for not declaring that he had been approached about taking a bribe. He did not accept it, but he was banned as he didn’t willingly come forward.  The attempted bribe allegedly came from Nasem Gulzar, a close friend and former mentor of Ahmed. It is tough not to feel sorry for Ahmed as in reality he was not involved in fixing any game and was no doubt caught in a difficult predicament.  Perhaps the banning of players in situations like this is nonetheless a step in the right direction for the ICC as it could bring others out to avoid receiving a similar fate. Regardless of that, it is a prima facie example of how tricky these cases can be to deal with.

The emergence of T20

The growth of cricket as a sport has resulted in a large increase in the number of opportunities for corruption to develop. Twenty20 cricket appears to be particularly susceptible as, since its introduction to the professional arena in 2003, it has attracted both big crowds but also big money.  Domestic tournaments such as the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Australian Big Bash League certainly provide some excellent entertainment, they also open up ample chances to corrupt players.

How has this been happening?  In essence it is all about picking the right target. The sums of money involved in the IPL create a clear disparity between players, with, for example, Australian international Shane Watson earning around a million pounds for his involvement in the 2016 tournament. This huge pay-packet makes it unlikely anyone would target him – he has too much to lose.  But there are plenty of players who will be earning closer to 10,000 pounds in the tournament, and their financial situations certainly put them in a different, and perhaps more vulnerable, position.

The 2013 IPL saw the rise of a massive spot-fixing scandal involving a large number of Rajasthan Royals players and even one umpire, Asad Rauf. Of the players, Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila were all banned from cricket for life by the Board of Control for Cricket in India after their involvement in spot-fixing became clear, while Rauf was banned from umpiring for five years. The IPL is not alone in facing problems with corruption, but it does highlight that despite the best attempts of the ACU fixing is unfortunately still prevalent in the game.

Ways forward

The problem that the ACU faces is that proving that fixing has happened is a real challenge. Justice Qayyum’s report into corruption in cricket noted that most evidence is ‘primarily opinion and based upon personal suspicion’ rather than any truly incriminating proof. Essentially, it is difficult to make the difference between someone deliberately playing badly and someone just underperforming.  A cricketer could very easily be struggling with the conditions or simply having an off day – and there’s nothing corrupt about that.

Justice Qayyum made a similar point about lower-paid players. If Pakistan’s players at the time of his report were better paid, they would have been less likely to seek remuneration in other forms. Paying players more is much easier said than done, but while there are players like Irfan Ahmed who will only be earning less than £1,000 a month, there will always be easy targets. With the Twenty20 World Cup starting shortly, there will be plenty of targets as the associate nations start to play live on television for millions around the world to watch and bet on.

The de Speville Review

An independent review into the ICC’s anti-corruption capabilities resulted in a list of 27 recommendations being made by Bertrand de Speville, an anti-corruption consultant who was formerly head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong.  13 of the recommendations in the report were accepted by the ICC. Some were actually already in place.  However, a number were rejected as the ICC had reservations about them. Some of these rejections make sense as de Speville doesn’t appear to place adequate importance on the confidentiality of players.  He suggests, for example, that all allegations be made public regardless of their accuracy and also advocates investigating players’ bank accounts to try and delve into ‘unexplained wealth’.

Of those recommendations that the ICC did accept, banning the acceptance of ‘gifts’ without the ICC’s permission certainly seems logical.  Furthermore, applying this rule to everyone involved in professional cricket clubs, from players to board members, is also an important step forward. Gifts may not necessarily lead to corruption but they could become a gateway into something far more serious.

As well as this, increasing the transparency of the ACU is important in allowing the public to see exactly what is happening, whilst also including a separate clause that this transparency should not come at the expense of necessary confidentiality. De Speville also suggests the appointment of a communicator who has experience as a cricket player to be able to teach current players about corruption. Finally, setting up a frequent survey of players could help start discussions about corruption, encouraging them to come forward and talk about bribery, potentially removing the apathy and ignorance that Lord Condon wrote of.

Unfortunately there is no mention of the problem cricket has with money, and how some players can be tempted far too easily in to inappropriate relationships. This does not necessarily mean that players need to be paid more, but it does show that increasing the penalties for being involved in corruption and then implementing those changes on an international scale would completely change the concepts of risk and reward in players’ minds.

The ACU may never truly win the fight against corruption given that many of the problems are outside its control.  However, the changes made after de Speville’s recommendations are certainly a step in the right direction.  And that has to be a good thing.

Richie Vaughan

University of Sussex

Posted in Sport

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