Cricket and corruption: The strange case of Shakib Al Hasan

It had been a stellar year for Shakib Al Hasan, the captain of the Bangladeshi cricket team, until on 29 October he was banned from cricket for a year for failing to report inappropriate discussions with an alleged bookmaker. CSC Professor Dan Hough puzzles over why people who know the rules still sometimes break them.

Shakib Al Hasan, the captain of the Bangladeshi cricket team and doyen of Bangladeshi cricket, had a very good summer. He scored 606 runs in cricket’s World Cup, ending as the tournament’s third highest run scorer. He was the jewel in the Bangladeshi cricketing crown.

His Autumn has been altogether different. On 29 October he was banned from all cricket for a year (with a further year suspended) on account of failing to report inappropriate discussions with an alleged bookmaker. He’d fallen foul of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) rules on how to nip potentially corrupt behaviour in the bud.

Shakib has scored in excess of 11,000 international runs and has taken more than 500 international wickets. He’s had a distinguished career. That career won’t be expunged from the record books. His name will nonetheless be added to the more than 40 players who have been banned for an array of corruption offences. A sorry end to what should have been a year that Shakib could look back on with real pride.

How did it come to this?
Players with Shakib’s experience should not find themselves in this position. As was widely noted in the press, he’ll have attended numerous briefings on how to deal with people asking for information on games that he was playing in. He will have known the warning signs; people whom he didn’t really know asking about team selections, people whom he had never met asking him for his bank account details. When those sorts of issues come up in conversation, you report them to the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU). This really isn’t rocket science, and Shakib will have known it.

There consequently is little room for sympathy here. One suspects Shakib is well aware of that, and that may well be one of the reasons that he fessed up and admitted his culpability. There was simply no way out. You can’t be an international cricketer and think that this sort of behaviour is acceptable.

An anti-corruption unit with teeth
The details of how exactly the ACU got wind of Shakib’s behaviour are not (yet) clear. It is also unclear why Shakib didn’t report the approaches to the ACU, particularly as he did precisely that in 2008 in broadly similar circumstances. Then, he was approached about under-performing in a series against Ireland. Quite why a young and inexperienced Shakib would report in 2008 but a much more seasoned Shakib would not in 2017/18 remains one of the key puzzles that remain as yet unsolved.

The ICC under the leadership of Alex Marshall, the general manager, continues to investigate what may well be a much broader corruption ring. Deepak Aggarwal, the man Shakib was talking to, has long been suspected of engaging in potentially dubious practices, and in its judgment the ACU made it clear (see the link at the bottom of this page for the full judgement) that it was already aware of him.

The ACU will see the snaring of Shakib as a success, even if Bangladeshi cricket “has been rocked to its foundations”. In February 2018 the ACU introduced an ‘Anti-Corruption Code’ and all ten of the teams at the 2019 World Cup had a dedicated Anti-Corruption Officer. In recognition of the fact that corrupt practices flow seamlessly across national borders, the ACU has also been in close contact with Interpol and other enforcement agencies. Under Marshall the ACU looks and sounds like it means business.

Defending the indefensible?
The Shakib case nevertheless illustrates that the corruption battle is on-going and at times frustratingly difficult to make sense of. Judging on the evidence released thus far a rational actor would not act like Shakib has done. The financial and reputational costs of getting caught are significant. The ACU and its national anti-corruption partners have done much to educate cricketers at all levels. Shakib cannot (and indeed did not) claim he didn’t know what he was doing, and yet he still went ahead and acted in a fashion that went directly against the rules and indeed the spirit of the regulations.

Given that we can’t get inside Shakib’s head, we may well never know what was driving his behaviour. Corruption analysts working in the area of psychology have nonetheless indicated that it is at times surprisingly easy to see one’s own actions as within the realms of the permissible. At times humans have an innate ability to explain away – no matter how implausible those explanations may be to the outsider – their own behaviour. Inconvenient facts gets overlooked, warning signals go unheard.

As an example, Andy Mangan, an English professional footballer who was caught gambling on his own team’s performances, went through similar processes of education and training. He knew the potential consequences of getting caught. But he still indulged.

Mangan saw people he knew within the game earning more than he did. He wasn’t always convinced that they were better players, but they’d had that bit of luck or shown that bit of extra flair that had somehow passed him by. That, he felt, was unjust and legitimised him playing an illegal game of financial catch up.

Andy Mangan’s case may not be instructive here. Shakib’s motives could indeed be very different. But it is certainly plausible that all the education and training notwithstanding Shakib managed to sleepwalk in to a corruption-mess. That doesn’t exonerate him. Ignorance certainly isn’t a defence in a court of law. But it is nonetheless worth remembering that human fallibility is one of the reasons that analysing corruption is both so challenging and so interesting. Given that, Shakib’s case will certainly not be the last one of its type to see the light of day.

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