Whenever you watch a magician perform, or a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) match-up, or a movie, you know that what you’re seeing is scripted. You know it’s a show; a performance; an act. Sometimes you know how it ends, but even if you don’t, you are aware that the outcome is already decided. You watch because you are entertained by the way the narrative is weaved, by the skills of the performers. You don’t feel duped because, for the most part, you knew exactly what you were getting beforehand; that what you are viewing are actors playing a role, or some sort of sleight of hand. But, you know that what you are watching isn’t real.
It is not so with sport. There is an element of uncertainty that is at the center of all sporting activity. When two teams are locked in combat or when sprinters line up in their starting blocks, neither the viewers, nor the organizers, nor the participants themselves, know how the action will unfold, or who will triumph in the end.
We often have clear ideas of how we think a game or a contest might turn out. The better team normally wins. But a mouthy Cassius Clay did stop the unbeatable Sonny Liston in 1964. In the 1996 cricket World Cup, the still mighty West Indies were beaten by a group of part-time cricketers from Kenya, many of whom would struggle to make club teams in Jamaica or Barbados. And the 1980 winter Olympics gave us the “Miracle On Ice” when a bunch of college players from the USA beat a well-oiled USSR ice-hockey machine that was supposed to swat them away without working up a sweat.
There are no guarantees in sport so we watch the skirmish unfold; we revel in the skills of the warriors, and, for the most part, we accept the results, even if it’s not the one we hoped for or expected because we believed the contestants followed the rules of the game and competed fairly. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Any attempt to corrupt this process renders the whole exercise redundant and causes fans to doubt the integrity of sport. We held Lance Armstrong close to our hearts when his story was about a man who fought heroically to overcome the scourge of cancer to become a seven-time champion in sports’ most grueling event. And it was a stab in the heart when we realized that he was a perennial cheater who was far from heroic.
The spot-fixing scandal of the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) has similarly shaken our faith. As it gets wider and more nefarious we are plunged deeper and deeper into despair. We know it is growing but there is no telling how widespread it is, and recent reports that the Bangladesh T20 league was also tainted, has only heightened the uncertainty.
One of Bangladesh’s most famous cricketers, the mercurial Mohammad Ashraful, has reportedly apologized for his role in match and spot fixing and has asked his country to forgive him. And while he ought to have considered the ramifications of his awful actions, it is at least more than any other player has been willing to do so far. It is a start. The hope is that he tells all he knows about the sinister nexus of gambling and cricket, and that his cooperation will urge others to do likewise.
Deepening the crisis even further, Rajasthan Royal’s co-owner, Raj Kundra, has now been suspended by the BCCI. It has now gotten to the point where fans are beginning to think that corruption is probably a part of cricket everywhere. Who is to say that there aren’t shady bookies plotting to pounce on the Champions Trophy? The fact that players could still be convinced to sell out the game despite instances of players being caught and penalized in the past shows that punishment, however harsh, might not be enough of a deterrent.
There have been suggestions that legalizing gambling on cricket in India might be the way to go. It is not. The problem, as I see it, is not gambling per se. Punters betting on games without the involvement of players or umpires would be fine. The trouble comes when players or umpires are enlisted in an effort to fraudulently effect a result or arrange for a particular occurrence during the game. Legalizing gambling on cricket will not prevent that.
Yet the question remains: How is the sport to be washed clean? That’s a difficult problem to resolve with any certainty. No one can tell that there will never be a player somewhere who will be lured by the promise of easy money. Cricket may never totally rise above suspicion but if it is to have a chance of doing so the players have to somehow be convinced to shun this kind of wrongdoing. Ashraful has agreed to help with the investigation “ for the sake of cricket.” This should be the stance of every cricketer who has ever been approached by anyone trying to bring down the great sport.
By Garfield Robinson