Middlesex's cricketers were innocently preparing for the 2012 season at the Lord's Indoor Cricket School yesterday morning when news of Mervyn Westfield's admission at the Old Bailey began to filter through. The news was not greeted with shock or horror by the dozen or so cricketers keenly practising their skills, not for reasons of apathy or complacency, far from it, but because cricket has a pretty active grapevine and most were aware of what was alleged to have taken place.
For most domestic cricketers it is when the initial news breaks that conversation on such topics is at its most intense and diverse. In sport, life moves on pretty quickly. One person's misfortune is another's opportunity. There is not a lot of pity shown. Of interest to cricketers, however, will be the sentence that is handed down to Westfield on 10 February.
If it is custodial, sizeable shockwaves will reverberate through county cricket, as was the case last year when three Pakistan cricketers were jailed. That ruling made everyone in cricket take a step back. In the past, the size of the consequence for such misdemeanours has appeared negligible. In most cases the punishment for getting caught had seemed to be nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Players who were banned for life or deemed to be heavily involved were either playing again, coaching or being welcomed in to commentary boxes. This, thankfully, is no longer the case, and there can be no stronger deterrent than the prospect of spending time behind bars. That a relatively unknown domestic cricketer travelled down such an unwelcome road is not as big a surprise as many would believe it to be. If you think about it logically, why should it only be international matches and players who are involved in such activities? If a sporting contest is being transmitted live to television sets in Asia – where most of the illegal betting syndicates are situated – there will be gambling on it. As a consequence there is money to be made. And if there is money to be made, illegal and unscrupulous bookmakers will do their utmost to influence what is taking place.
Compared to India v Pakistan at Eden Gardens in Calcutta, a CB40 match at Durham is pretty low key but butchers don't survive alone on selling fillet steak, they have to make money out of sausages too. County cricket, like the IPL in India and the Big Bash in Australia, is now an international game.
County cricketers have been made aware of the dangers and pitfalls, and have been well-advised for a number of years. Each pre-season the players union, The Professional Cricketers' Association, has sat down with every county squad to identify what players should look out for and do if they feel uncomfortable about a conversation or where a new relationship with somebody is heading. Every player is sent an online Anti-Corruption Tutorial that they have to complete. It pulls very few punches. The tutorial explains what players are and are not allowed to do as regards to betting, corruption – spot or match fixing – and insider information. They are told they cannot bet on cricket anywhere in the world, to fix parts of matches to make money and to be extremely careful even when discussing team information – such as "Fred is injured and won't play" – with family members who enjoy a punt.
The consequences are laid out too. Cricketers are told that if they are caught, the offence could go higher than cricket disciplinary sanctions and they may be prosecuted in a criminal court, where jail is a possibility. They are also informed that bans are worldwide and that while banned, they are not allowed to play or train with any team, even if it is with a club side as far away as Dunedin in New Zealand.
In summary, it is stated that no sportsman is more vilified than the cheat, that a cheat's reputation and achievements will always be questioned and teammates will never forgive him. If they have any reservations they are told to report them to someone they can trust or an official – somebody like me –as soon as possible.
The information is then passed on to the relevant people. In 2011, at the instigation of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the top management of county clubs met with consultants to go through anti-corruption guidelines and policy. The messages were the same as those made to the players. The strongest message to me was that no person at any county, whether they were a board or committee member, employee or associate, could bet on any cricket in the world. This was to prevent the ability to obtain inside information, of which there is much, being abused. In everyday life, a county cricketer meets a lot of people. Cricket is a sociable game and the clubs want their high-profile figures to be reachable and to fit in to the community.
Players are encouraged to mingle, and supporters or members of the public regularly introduce themselves for a chat. Some supporters and members are good company, some a pain in the arse. Some are genuine, others a bit shifty. Some just want a one-off chat; some seem to want to start a relationship. It is even tougher for an international cricketer, as many of the people you meet in these circles are major figures in sport or business. Many are influential and wealthy, and they don't mind telling you that.
Judging the good from the bad is difficult, and it is easy to be sucked in. It is called grooming. An innocent drink at the bar turns into dinner with your partner at a nice restaurant or golf on an excellent course. On the eve of a televised game your hotel room phone rings and your new best mate asks about the make-up of your side, what a good score would be and what your captain will do if he wins the toss. You might think nothing of it.
Then, in a light-hearted moment, you are offered £5,000 to make sure seven or more of your team wear sunglasses or sunhats when they walk out on to the field. Again, you may not think it is serious but slowly you are getting in deeper and deeper. Then, if you are the opening bowler, it's £10,000 to bowl a wide in your first over. Maybe you now think: "Hang on – but it's £10,000 and I only get paid £30,000 per year by my county. Nobody will notice."
Well, as the Westfield case has shown, players do notice. Sports dressing rooms are rarely places where secrets are kept. They are close-knit communities where players live on top of each other. Mood changes and expensive clothing are noticed. Questions are asked and cynics conjure up rumours.
The next problem is that once these people have you, they have you. The meals and golf are replaced by threats and the risk of being exposed leads to more and more being asked of you. Getting caught can then only be a matter of time. It is extremely sad for county cricket that one of its members has been lured in to such activity but supporters can rest assured that spot-fixing is not rife in the domestic game. To my knowledge it is only matches transmitted to Asia that are at risk, and there are not many of them.
The main worry, however, is that if match and spot fixers have got to one domestic player it is likely they have got to another. What happens on 10 February may dictate how hard these mistaken and greedy souls try to get out of the predicament they are in, if they can.
Westfield's figures: The match in question
Mervyn Westfield was supposed to concede 12 runs in his first over in the Pro40 match against Durham at the Riverside on 5 September 2009 but in actual fact he only conceded 10:
The over in question:... wide 4.41
Westfield finished the match with figures of 0 for 60 in seven overs, but it should be pointed out that his performance was not that outrageous in the context of what was a high-scoring match.
5 September 2009 (Riverside)
Essex bt Durham by seven wkts; Durham 276-6 (P Mustard 102, I D Blackwell 59); Essex 279-3 (A N Cook 104, J S Foster 83, G R Napier 63)
Essex bowling figures
D D Masters 8-1-33-0
G R Napier 7-0-58-2
M S Westfield 7-0-60-0
Danish Kaneria 8-0-58-2
T J Phillips 7-0-41-1
V Chopra 3-0-18-0
Durham bowling figures
M E Claydon 5-0-27-0
W R S Gidman 5-0-24-1
L E Plunkett 4-0-43-0
B W Harmison 5-0-46-0
G R Breese 7-0-40-1
I D Blackwell 6-0-30-1
S G Borthwick 4.5-0-63-0
A cautionary tale: Cricket's reaction
"£6,000 for a sporting life ruined. Mervyn was one of the most talented youngsters you would have seen.
"He was special. He really was. His parents will be gutted. It's a sad day for him, his family, for Essex and for the game. I hope and pray this is only one, but maybe others will come out. Mervyn's got to let us know why he was influenced and who influenced him, and we've got to get to the bottom of it. We need to learn from the experience that Mervyn Westfield's been through."
"[The ECB should] use him, take him around to counties, do a video with him. [They should] use him as an example for future generations of cricketers that if you do get a call in your room saying 'bowl a bad over and we will give you £6,000', this is what happens to you. Instead of just parking him away somewhere to be forgotten, try to use the lad to make sure future generations don't make the same mistakes as he has made."
"The ECB has been pretty vigilant. I am sure that the players are as armed as possible against these incidents should they come along. There are always temptations and there always will be."
Angus Porter (Chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association)
"The world has moved on quite a long way since he committed those offences. We've invested a huge amount in educating players as to their responsibilities, but I think that none of us can be complacent. We are all very mindful of the need to make sure that sport is played properly."Reuse content