Cricket, a gentlemen's game? That's balderdash.

Sticky wicket: worldwide probe begins into charges of match-fixing by the game's greatest stars.

Cricket - long viewed by the English as a game for gentlemen, and by most of mankind as an unfathomable mystery - now finds itself on a sticky wicket.

In the sport's most sordid episode to date, a damning Indian report last week accused some of cricket's greatest players of match-fixing. The report further blighted the game's image, following accusations, as well as confessions, by leading players around the world in the past year.

Now, the former chief of Scotland Yard has been given three years and a reported $3 million budget by cricket's world governing body to find out how and why international bookmakers have been able to corrupt the players.

Sir Paul Condon, along with six detectives, is currently traveling the world in a bid to clean up the game once described as "the sport of flanneled fools."

Meanwhile, India's Central Bureau of Investigation - the country's federal police - timed Sir Paul's arrival in New Delhi last week with a report implicating nine former captains of national teams around the world of being involved with bookmakers to varying degrees.

And in a move that stunned the game's English administrators, the report said Alec Stewart, a former England captain and prolific run-getter, had accepted $7,500 from a bookmaker in return for information about his national team.

Stewart, whose nickname in cricketing circles is "Squeaky Clean," and who has a reputation for do-or-die patriotism on the field, denies the charge.

In addition to charges against English, Australian, South African, and Indian players, Brian Lara, the West Indies' greatest contemporary player, is said to have been paid large sums to underperform in one-day games. So was India's Mohammed Azharuddin, a great in his own right.

Suspicions of corruption in cricket first turned into reality in the late 1990s.

Two of Australia's top cricketers, Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, admitted accepting money from Mukesh Gupta, an Indian bookmaker, for trying to influence the outcome of games.

Earlier this year, South Africa's cricket board imposed a lifetime ban on the country's captain, Hansie Cronje, who confessed to agreeing to fix matches.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, widely seen as England's leading cricket writer, says corruption is "unfortunately common" in international cricket, but says it is "inconceivable" that Stewart "has done anything but his utmost for England."

He agrees, however, that Sir Paul has "a vital job to do" if cricket's reputation for fair play is to be restored.

On the face of things, cricket doesn't look like a sport likely to attract sleaze.

It has a reputation for staging sedate encounters on sunlit grounds between teams clad in immaculate white who bat and bowl for days on end, frequently without a result.

But to many cricket fans these days, such a reputation seems poppycock.

The English, who invented cricket, took it with them to their colonies. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies all took up the sport, and in the past two or three decades, cricket has become a truly international game. Nowadays, as England's fortunes dwindled on the field, other nations have become powerhouses.

Live satellite transmissions of cricket "Tests" - encounters between national teams - are broadcast all year round. So, too, are quick-fire one-day matches that were introduced in the '70s in a bid to attract younger fans.

And in a crucial development, the Internet and mobile phones have made it possible for bookmakers world-wide to take bets on the outcome of matches. It is this technology that has made apparently widespread corruption possible.

Bookmakers like Mr. Gupta don't always ask players to throw matches or "underperform." They also offer money for inside information on such matters as team tactics, morale, and the state of the turf on which games are played, something Stewart has been accused of providing during a tour of India in 1993.

Present indications are that by Sir Paul's investigation will ultimately paint an ugly picture of what has happened to a once-honorable game.

Malcolm Gray, president of cricket's world governing body, certainly thinks so: "I would think we're getting to the bottom of it now, but it is a lot deeper and broader than anybody realized or expected."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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