The floodlights went out – and an Asian betting syndicate raked in a fortune
On a Monday evening in November 1997 Frank Lampard had just struck an equaliser for West Ham United against Crystal Palace when the floodlights at Upton Park failed, plunging the ground into darkness and forcing the abandonment of the game.
As football fans in east London cursed their luck, 6,500 miles away in Malaysia members of an Asian betting syndicate celebrated a six-figure payout.
A month later the syndicate – who had "arranged" for the lights to go out – repeated their scam during a Wimbledon vs Arsenal game. But, when they tried for a third time, at a Charlton vs Liverpool match, their plan was foiled. The security guard who had been bribed to trip the electrics using a remote control told a colleague of the plan and he alerted the police. Four men – two Malaysians, a Chinese man and Roger Firth, the Charlton security supervisor – were subsequently jailed for between 18 months and four years.
The scam was the first and so far only time that an Asian betting syndicate has been proven to have successfully infiltrated a British sporting event. But, as Sunday's News of the World cricket story suggested, sport in the UK is by no means out of the reach of crooked betting stings which have their roots in the Far East.
The three no-balls which the paper's reporter was given advance knowledge of would have been useless information to a British punter, who would be unable to place such a bet in a UK betting shop. In Asia, however, punters can place money on "spot bets" which predict the outcome of the minutiae of a game.
Similarly the floodlight failure scam was only of use to those placing bets in the illegal Asian betting markets. Bookmakers there pay out on the result as it stands if matches are abandoned during the second half of a game. British bookies simply void the bet.
But suspicious betting is by no means unique to Asian markets or football. In snooker a September 2008 match between Peter Ebdon and Liang Wenbo saw huge money being placed on the unfancied Wenbo to win 5-0, a scoreline he eventually achieved. And last year a low-key Wimbledon tennis match was the subject of complaints after a surge of bets predicted, correctly, that the favourite, Jürgen Melzer, would win 3-0.
Both Ebdon and Melzer denied wrongdoing but their matches were reported by bookmakers and investigated by the Gambling Commission (GC), the body which regulates the UK betting industry. They took no action over either case, but bookies are legally required to report any suspicious betting activity. They look for punters who suddenly change the amounts they are betting or sports they are betting on, and become particularly suspicious when large sums are placed on events that usually attract little betting.
Contrary to popular myth, bookmakers will not take bets on anything, and are particularly keen to avoid offering markets on events that can be easily abused. In the 1990s markets on the time of the first throw-in were offered by various bookies, but were soon stopped when it became clear that fans who knew their team's tactics from kick-off, and players who felt it was a victimless crime, were only too happy to take advantage – Matthew Le Tissier, a Southampton player, admitted in his autobiography that he had attempted the scam.
Graham Sharpe, a spokesman for William Hill, said: "We operate with an acute sense of self-preservation. If you phone me up and tell me you want to place a bet on what will happen to the fourth ball of the 15th over on the third day of a Test, I'm going to tell you I wasn't born yesterday. We would not take the bet because you obviously know something I don't."
But while the bookmakers report the cases, industry insiders say that their attempts to weed out cheats are frustrated by the GC and the police. In 2007 an offence of cheating in betting was created to help prosecute offenders, but in the three years since the GC has not brought a single prosecution in relation to sport.
The GC's lack of action over one particular event is the source of great consternation in bookmaking circles. A Forest Green Rovers vs Grays Athletic tie saw about £50,000 gambled on Grays being behind at half-time but winning at full time – a bet which offered odds of 22-1.
When this happened, the incident was reported to the GC but the investigation was dropped and Grays denied knowledge of any corruption. But one betting source told The Independent: "Of course the Grays game was fixed, but the Gambling Commission lack the skill to prosecute. And the police aren't particularly interested in taking the cases on because they often relate to small events and are relatively small amounts of cash."
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