Cricket, the game which used to be a sport but is increasingly a body of litigation, suffered a further depressing blow yesterday. Claims were made that parts of Friday's one-day match between England and Pakistan were subverted, and the International Cricket Council, whose processes for this kind of thing are now well-rehearsed, duly announced an investigation.
This inquiry, which immediately triggered calls for Pakistan's remaining two fixtures to be abandoned, now joins the one of last month, when several Pakistan players were accused of accepting bribes to fix elements of matches against England. Police were called in, interviewed four players under caution, arrested a businessman, and an initial file of evidence has now been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. And, on Friday, former Essex county cricketer Mervyn Westfield was charged with fraud at the conclusion of a separate inquiry. He will go on trial over claims that he deliberately played poorly during a match between Durham and Essex last year. There are also rumours that a recent match between Pakistan and Australia was rigged.
The allegations about Friday's one-day game, published by The Sun, centre on Pakistan's innings, and involved what the paper called "an illegal betting syndicate" having prior knowledge of the pattern of scoring. A popular bet by gamblers is on how many runs will be scored during a 10-over segment, and the paper claimed its "undercover team" had discovered a plan by bookies to fix the number of runs scored in one such part. It reported that the details were passed to ICC officials before the match, and added: "Cricket chiefs then watched as Pakistan's score mirrored the target that bookies had been told in advance by a fixer." England lost by 23 runs.
Those familiar with conventional betting may wonder why any bookie – however illegal – would accept a bet on a match involving Pakistan, such is their present reputation. But the suggestion in this case is that a Dubai-based "fixer" and a Delhi bookie paid for a certain scoring rate in one 10-over segment, and either backed this with other bookies, or adjusted their own odds so that gamblers were tempted to back other segments. The Sun said: "The probe centres on an individual within the team camp ... taking money from bookies and ensuring their orders are carried out." Such is the frenetic and widespread illegal betting on cricket on the sub-continent that practices like this can, apparently, be hugely profitable.
ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat said: "Following information received by the ICC from a British newspaper and its source, the ICC now believes a full investigation is warranted. A source informed The Sun newspaper that a certain scoring pattern would emerge during certain stages of the match and, broadly speaking, that information appeared to be correct. We therefore feel it is incumbent upon us to launch a full inquiry into this particular game, although it is worth pointing out at this stage that we are not stating as fact that anything untoward has occurred. Only in the fullness of the investigation can that be established.
"The ICC maintains a zero-tolerance approach to corruption in cricket and, as a matter of course, follows up on all credible information that is received, whatever the source. Any player or official found guilty of an offence will face the full rigour of our robust anti-corruption code."
As far as the earlier allegations go, Scotland Yard said evidence that there was a conspiracy to defraud bookmakers will be considered by the CPS. Detectives interviewed four players under caution and arrested businessman Mazhar Majeed as part of the inquiry. Mr Majeed is accused of accepting £150,000 to fix the actions of several players during a Test at Lord's. The allegations, in the News of the World, accuse him of accepting cash to ask players to deliberately bowl no-balls during their tour of England. Captain Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz have all been interviewed under caution. They have been suspended by the ICC, but deny any wrongdoing. Some insiders believe the affair was a case of an alleged "fixer" trying to impress potential "investors" (in reality, undercover reporters), and that no bets were actually placed.
In the case of former Essex player Mervyn Westfield, the pace bowler faces claims that he acted dishonestly during a one-day, 40-over match between Durham and Essex on 5 September 2009. Police investigated allegations surrounding spot betting, a niche area of gambling where people bet on specific occurrences in a game. It is alleged that he agreed to bowl his first over in such a way as to allow a certain number of runs to be scored. Westfield conceded 60 runs in seven overs during the match, with four wides and two no-balls. It was broadcast live by Sky around the world. A second player, Essex and Pakistan leg spinner Danish Kaneria, 29, was questioned over the claims but has been told he will face no further action.
And so, as the sound of leather on willow fades from the summer scene, it is replaced by the crunch of approaching flat feet, and the rustle of lawyers' papers. For the forces of law and order, the cricket season is only just beginning.
There's a nasty smell, but the game is far from dead
Stephen Brenkley cricket correspondent
So, yet more evidence has emerged of dodgy goings on in the noble summer game. To listen to siren calls being made on almost an hourly basis there are more fixes taking place than in an inner-city back alley. Such has been the frequency and insistence of the allegations that the ICC had no option but to announce an investigation. Had it done otherwise there would have been a feeding frenzy.
Ten or so years ago when the fix was really in on cricket the ICC did nothing too often to try that one again. It had to act decisively. What this will elicit is difficult to tell but an early estimate would suggest not much. Pakistan's innings at the Oval on Friday might have followed a course that a newspaper's informant said it would, but – if so – it was achieved with extraordinarily good luck. The tourists lost three early wickets, one batsman edging a ball swinging away late, another being bowled off his pad and a third adjudged lbw which, on another day, might have been given not out.
There remain approaches to players by illegal bookmakers. There may still be elements of matches which are fixed – as they were, it is alleged, in the News of the World sting a few weeks back. But there is a danger of painting a picture of a game out of control. It is not.