Turning a blind eye to ever-increasing signs that cricket is gripped by corruption will end badly

Although the ICC have offered plausible explanations for why they have commented so little on the sting that caught out six umpires involved in and around the World T20, it is still noticeable how quickly that story has faded. Cricket is not a sport that can afford to treat stories on how those meant to be in charge of protecting the laws of the game were willing to cheat with short-term, absentee memories. The accumulated drip-drip nature of scandalous revelations regarding match-fixing has reached levels now where it is not unreasonable to fear that corruption is endemic and entrenched behind the scenes, stretching from players to officials, boards to governing bodies. The three Pakistan players that were caught out in 2010 tends to drown out the whispers surrounding certain Sri Lankan players for some time now; the involvement of the South African team around the turn of the century is recalled when one considers the exile of Marlon Samuels for two years for providing information to bookmakers; Danish Kaneria’s lifetime ban from county cricket has parallels to allegations of fixing in the Indian Premier League. Put together, cricket has a serious problem. One has only to look at the extraordinary success with which Lance Armstrong covered his tracks for so long in cycling to know that it is foolish to presume that all is as it seems in a sport, or as its protagonists would have us believe.

Yet no-one is asking the hard questions in the weeks following the bombshell news about the umpires. Why is it still only independent news channels that are making us aware of a greater problem behind the scenes, with the game’s governing body always playing catch-up? Does the fact that umpires who are sanctioned by the ICC are corruptible mean we have to consider the sincerity of commitment of a financially-dependent institution to tackling wealthy mafias that have always preyed on cricket? If the International Cycling Union aided and abetted Armstrong in getting away with his crimes for so long, there is no reason for cricket fans to place their trust in an organisation that has so far failed to deliver results in the fight against corruption and has often seemed more willing to turn a blind eye than shed a light on the sport’s ugly side.

Sportsmen have always had a code of silence when it comes to protecting their world. No-one inside golf ever felt the need to spill the beans on Tiger Woods’s real personality behind the carefully packaged image; more regrettably, the ominous code of omerta enforced in cycling meant that many were prepared to take the secrets of Armstrong and his allies to “the grave” (in Tyler Hamilton’s words). It would be extremely interesting to be a fly on the wall in most cricket dressing-rooms, and hear what players have to say about the match-fixing disease away from the cameras. Rather than expressing the same amount of shock as they did to the public about the Pakistan scandal in 2010, the regrettable suspicion abides that some might have been laughing at how foolish they were to have been caught.

If the ICC continues to deal with match-fixing on a case-by-case basis, rather than designing a comprehensive program to smoke out and clear out every place in the game in which corruption has taken a hold, cricket will suffer a body blow from which its fragile popularity may not recover. The number of fans who have turned away from the game in Pakistan as a result of the failure to protect – and subsequent banishment – of two of its best cricketers should not be underestimated; if that was merely the tip of the iceberg, cricket needs to know now because the longer corruption is allowed to fester in the game, the worse the ramifications will eventually be.

Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

Something is rotten in the game of cricket

Amid all the brouhaha generated by Kevin Pietersen’s divisive personality, it would be easy to overlook what his rebellious actions reveal about the wider health of the game. Above and beyond his digressive complaints about the players’ schedule being too cramped and his problems within the England dressing-room, Pietersen’s sense of empowerment is a direct result of the presence of the IPL. If there were no IPL, Pietersen would have no worries about his cramped schedule, and if there were no IPL, he would not be able to treat Test and international cricket as a bargaining tool rather than a privilege he had a duty towards protecting and upholding.

His is the most high-profile case, and the thought of his retirement from the purest form of the game is startling for how young he is (32). However, zoom out and it fast becomes apparent that the IPL’s tawdry money has long begun ruining cricket. Lasith Malinga’s retirement from Test cricket at just 28 was tantamount to an admission that he was prioritising his fragile fitness for the IPL’s cash reward over any sense of duty to his career and what mattered in the game; Chris Gayle as much as blew smoke in the face of Test cricket by not turning up for a large part of West Indies’ tour of England earlier this year; Muttiah Muralitharan’s abrupt exit from Tests came as a surprise and could be attributed to the fact that easier money was to be had in the IPL in his last few years. The biggest worry is that more fast bowlers like Malinga, who put their body through a burden that cannot shoulder commitments to both the IPL and five-day cricket, will call it quits as early as their mid to late-twenties. This in turn will tilt the Test game even further in favour of batsmen, and render one of its most enthralling qualities – the contest between good batsmanship and quality, hostile fast bowling – redundant (a problem which was apparent during long spells of South Africa’s high-scoring matches with England).

When the game’s best players devote most of their training and efforts towards making sure they can participate in a month-long glamour tournament – or worse, retire altogether to announce themselves as mercenaries available for the highest-bidding T20 tournaments – it devalues Test cricket and means there is little worth in what is on display. England have been obsessing over the No.1 status and their impending battle to keep the crown from South Africa for some time now, without realising that they are big fish in a rapidly shrinking pond. The financially weaker nations of Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand have been decimated by their inability through money to command the attention of their players away from the lure of all the T20 leagues that have mushroomed around the world. If Australia, India, South Africa and England think the Test game can survive on the limited appeal of their roundabout contests, they are more myopic and selfish than was previously assumed.

The game I watched and loved is being taken apart at the seams by the onslaught of T20 and its association with money. If even England’s position as one of the financially stronger teams can no longer keep Kevin Pietersen from jumping ship, it will serve as a further continuation of the game’s tragic slide into irrelevance at the hands of administrators who couldn’t care less.

P.S. Faith in the ICC to manage market forces or gamblers from encroaching on areas that fans hold dear to the game has long been extinguished. Indeed, their submissive reaction to the world’s media and expectations in banning three Pakistan players for match-fixing in 2011 may have seemed laudable, but they have not carried out a single initiative since then to target the criminals who represent the heart of the problem and whose involvement in the game is unlikely to be silenced by the jailing of three players. Given how far India dictate matters to the ICC through their monopoly on the game’s cash flow, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the mafias associated with cricket may have penetrated higher up its ranks than just the players. I will examine these issues, and how the banning of Muhammad Amir in particular has dealt Pakistan a body blow at a potentially critical juncture in its cricketing life, in another post soon.