When match-fixing allegations like those reported in Sunday's News of the World surface, most former international cricketers start to recollect unexpected and unremarkable conversations or meetings they had with people during their playing days. In light of what is alleged to have taken place during the Lord's Test between England and Pakistan, suddenly all the innocent chats at hotel bars with apparent supporters take on a slightly different angle.
Understandably, the mind wanders. Was there a more sinister reason why my new friend seemed so interested in the weather, the pitch, the make-up of our side and who would bowl the opening over?
Over the past couple of days I have attempted to recount the numerous telephone conversations I had with people who called me out of the blue in my hotel room in the build-up to England games I played in. Most said they were representing media organisations, others stated they were big fans who just wanted a general chat. My current account shows I received nothing monetary for the conversations that followed but I now wonder where the information I parted with ended up.
I was in the top tier of the Pavilion on the Friday of the Lord's Test against Pakistan and, like the rest of the crowd, stood to loudly applaud Stuart Broad after he had reached his maiden hundred. The moment was special. The appreciation of the Lord's crowd was loud, genuine and long – it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The crowd did not want to stop applauding and when they finally did, cheers began to echo round the "Home of Cricket". As I said it was a special moment.
The allegations that followed have left me, and I would imagine many people who were at Lord's on Friday, feeling emotionally cheated. One of the joys of sport is that you emotionally commit to the team you follow. You turn up not knowing what is going to happen and your mood is influenced by the way your team performs. To find out that what you were watching was not actually the real deal leaves you with an empty feeling inside.
The alleged crimes may have only been no-balls and had little impact on the match but the thought that sportsmen are prepared to make deliberate mistakes which are not in the interest of their side for material gain is deplorable. Had a colleague of mine performed such an act during my career I and my team-mates would never have wanted to play with him again. We would have made his position in the side untenable. The disturbing thing is that visually Sunday's allegations seemed to have little impact on the way the Pakistan side interacted.
It may sound naive but it is only now that I, as a former bowler, am beginning to realise how easy it would have been to surreptitiously influence events on a cricket field. Perhaps bowlers of my generation got it wrong. We believed you were rewarded for bowling balls that counted, that meant something. If the NOTW story proves to be true three of the most infamous balls delivered in cricket were deliveries that did not count – they were extras.
When I was in the England team spread betting was vogue and we used to openly talk during one-day games about the spread on when the first wide of the match would be bowled. Depending on the game and conditions – a sultry, swinging day increases the chances of wides being bowled – the spread would be say 12 to 14 balls. This meant that if the third ball of the match was a wide the gambler would make nine times his stake. Such errors were thought little of because umpires are strict on wides and it is understandable for a bowler to make such an error as he loosens up.
Again some may think what is the problem? It is only a wide and in the shake-up of a 550-run match it is pretty harmless. If someone were to be paid £5,000 for bowling it, so what? Well, as we are realising, it isn't OK. In this case if the extra ball of the over was hit for four, making the total cost of the deliberate mistake five runs, and the fielding side lose the game by three runs, then that event has ultimately cost a team the game.
For a bowler of modest ability it is easy to bowl a no-ball or wide on demand; a more skilful one is capable of bowling short, full, leg-side, off-side, inswing or outswing at will. The best, within reason, can bowl anything they or somebody else wants. Batsmen and fielders can be equally influential but their mistakes, which would often result in an individual being out or a catch being dropped, are harder to disguise. This is because, as significant moments in a game, the incidents will be analysed more closely by commentators, thus increasing the chances of malpractice being identified.
The skill in all this is disguising what you are up to. Apparently I played in a match against Pakistan in 1999 that was fixed. I had no idea at the time and still struggle to recall anything that stood out; apart from the fact I produced one of my better one-day bowling performances – 3 for 32 – in the game. England, having scored 206, bowled Pakistan out for 144. I thought it was our genius that got us over the line.
Before now bowling a no-ball or a wide has never seemed much of a deal. After all, long jumpers get their run-up wrong at the Olympics so why shouldn't a bowler who sprints in from a similar distance? I now wonder whether no-jumps at the 2012 Olympics will be viewed with such suspicion because, in the same way that it would be naive of cricket to believe that these alleged problems are limited solely to Pakistan and the sub-continent, it would be naive of sport to believe this was a problem that only happens in cricket. If sport is being shown live to Asia there will be betting on it and illegal bookmakers will be attempting to influence events somewhere along the line. Cricket is in the dock at the moment but other sporting bodies need to be vigilant.