It's supposed to be the game of gentlemen, a game of valor and civility where cheating is so taboo that it sparked the British idiom, "It's not cricket," as in "It's not acceptable."
However a court verdict in London today rocked the game of cricket, revealing a corrupt underside involving two of the sport’s biggest names playing for one of its most controversial national sides, Pakistan.
The country has long been dogged by corruption allegations, accusations over its abrasive playing style, and administrative chaos, but the conviction of former captain Salman Butt and bowler Mohammad Asif for a betting scam has brought Pakistan’s reputation to a new low.
It centered around an international match – a test – last summer between Pakistan and England at the game’s iconic home of Lord’s Cricket Ground in north London.
The now defunct News of the World newspaper caught a British sports agent on camera bragging about how he could fix games by bribing players. In true tabloid style, they even pictured the man in front of £150,000 (about $239,000) in cash counting out an alleged bribe in a classic sting operation.
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The agent promised the newspaper he would get two bowlers – one of whom was Mr. Asif – to deliver three no balls at certain times of the five-day test in August last year. The balls were duly bowled at the specific times with one bowler over-stepping the permitted line so far that it elicited a disparaging remark from a commentator when it was replayed on television.
The probability of someone predicting this by chance was estimated by a cricket statistician as 1.5 million to one.
The plan was part of a spot-fixing scam where gamblers bet on otherwise irrelevant details of a match such as the first injury, throw-in or, in this case, no-ball and how many. Such bets are widely practiced on the sub-continent where illegal bookmakers are thought to be heavily involved in influencing games.
Despite strenuously denying charges of match-fixing, Mr. Butt and Asif were today found guilty of conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. Another bowler, Mohammad Amir had previously admitted to the same charges.
While the case is not the first instance of cheating in cricket, it is by far the most serious, with all three cricketers facing prison and unlimited fines.
Hugh Chevallier of the annual reference book Wisden Cricketers' Almanack called it a sad day for cricket. He said, “Allegations of corruption in Pakistan cricket has been an open sore for quite a while now. This is a good opportunity for the PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board] to deal with this issue and stand four-square with other boards against corruption and illegal betting.”
He added: “Up until recently Pakistani players have been poorly paid so they’re more susceptible to bribes, but that is changing. Bookmaking is also illegal in Pakistan, so it’s all underground.”
Played mostly in the former colonies of the British empire, cricket has become more commercial in recent years with India leading the charge with a hugely wealthy domestic cricket league featuring some of the game’s biggest names. With the introduction of TV replays, colored clothing, and shortened games however, cricket is slowly losing its sedate and gentlemanly reputation.
Former England fast bowler turned journalist Angus Fraser said some good could come from the court case. He told the BBC, “It shows young cricketers that there is a consequence to their behaviour. In the past players have been banned and then they have come back.
“The International Cricket Council has got to support the players, see these signs and help them out of predicaments, but also see [that] if players do commit these offences they are punished severely.”