Return to dark ages for tainted spectacle

Cricket in Crisis: Onerous and lengthy task faces those seeking to restore rose-tinted image to a game now shattered by corruption
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"This game's fair name and image will not suffer as a result of unacceptable behaviour in any quarter," Jagmohan Dalmiya, the president of the International Cricket Council, proclaimed yesterday in the conference room at Lord's, in the middle of his announcement of the new measures proposed to expose and eradicate the virus of match-fixing. To which one can only respond, what fair name? What image?

Dalmiya was striving for a suitable resonance, but ended up sounding merely ponderous. Nevertheless it was not hard to sympathise with his predicament. Men who believed they were simply administering an agreeable sport now find themselves responsible for the investigation of criminal activity. Few would change places with them today.

But imagining that the game's "fair name" remains unscathed is not a useful way to start. Grievous damage has already been done to the public perception of cricket's upper echelons, thanks to the activities of some of those lucky enough to earn a legitimate living from it. With each rumour and revelation, one of the stitches holding its elements together has been unpicked. No one knows how long the overall fabric of the game can withstand such an assault.

Goodness knows what it must feel like to be the current editor of Wisden's Almanack, in effect the curator of the game's records. He must be horribly aware that a small but significant proportion of the statistics contained in the last few editions are tainted not by typographical error but by the result of human greed. Along with some of the individuals involved in the game, a part of its history has been corrupted.

"The constant habit of betting will take the honesty out of any man," wrote the Reverend James Pycroft, a West Country parson who, in 1851, provided cricket with its first historical overview, a book called The Cricket Field, and who needed no urging to identify that particular threat to the game. "The lovers of cricket may congratulate themselves at the present day that matches are made at cricket, as at chess, rather for love and the honour of victory than for money," he continued.

Peering back into the game's dark ages, three or four decades earlier, Pycroft listened to the testimony of William Fennex, a Buckinghamshire all-rounder who invented the front-foot method, and who told Pycroft of having thrown - or "sold", in the perhaps superior terminology of his time - matches, including one in Nottingham in which both sides were bribed to lose. "The match was sold for Nottingham, too," Pycroft reported, "and that with less success, for Nottingham won; an event the less difficult to accomplish, as Lord Frederick Beauclerk broke a finger in an attempt to stop a designed and wilful overthrow; and played the second innings with one hand."

We read that now, and we smile - as we smile at descriptions of Dr W G Grace having his wicked way with umpires' decisions. In a hundred years, it will all seem funny. But not in our lifetimes. Not when the innocence of a much-loved game is at stake.

For we are back in the dark ages now, when the point of sport is increasingly to provide a pretext for gambling. The few who feel that a contest of skill and character has no need of a secondary sub-narrative have long since been shouted down by the many who believe that the morals of horse racing should be applicable to all games. Who'll score the first try for England? How many double faults will there be in the men's singles final at Wimbledon? Topics that were once the subject of pleasant conjecture have been turned into matters of commerce, thanks mostly to the rise of spread betting - a deceptively toxic hangover from the Thatcher years.

Once upon a time, as Pycroft knew, cricket was just about as corrupt as a game could be. That was because it came into existence at a time of gambling fever. Then, with the Victorians, the mood changed. Most of the people who play or follow cricket today absorbed their feeling for cricket's special atmosphere and codes of behaviour during schooldays, and it was school discipline that Dalmiya and the ICC's chief executive, David Richards, principally evoked during their announcement of the intention to establish of an independent anti-corruption investigation, to be headed by a senior legal figure.

"Now, boys, who sawed through the leg of Matron's chair? Come on! Hands up!" No headmaster worth his salt would expect much of a response to that request. A similar silence is likely to greet the ICC's invitation to current international players, match officials, team officials and other administrators to divulge details of any approaches that might have been intended to lead to behaviour contravening the established code of conduct. Should any declarations indeed be made, they will be considered by the head of the investigation (referred to, incidentally, as "he", although no appointment has yet been made, and a woman's objectivity might be welcome).

Dalmiya and Richards, speaking at the end of a one-and-a-half day meeting of the ICC's executive board, have no recourse to the old sanction of keeping the whole school in until someone owns up - although a whole summer without cricket, or cricketers, might indeed have a paradoxically rejuvenating effect on the tired old game, just as the major league baseball strike of the mid-1990s, which was assumed to be dealing the sport a mortal blow in the United States, served instead as the preface to a magnificent renaissance.

More promisingly, the head of the inquiry will also examine the reports into corruption being produced in India, England, Australia, Pakistan, and South Africa, and will have the power to require countries implicated in any findings to conduct further investigations, while attempting to co-ordinate their activities. For this, he (or she) will require the epic patience of Chris Tavaré and Geoffrey Boycott combined, as well as the forensic intuition of an Hercule Poirot. And, perhaps, a high threshold of boredom.

Cricket's rose-tinted self-image has been shattered. The game of sudden spring showers and long summer evenings, of soggy cucumber sandwiches and lukewarm pints, of public school opening batsmen and pit-head fast bowlers suddenly finds itself stripped of the one thing that seemed inviolable - its very ethic, which in better days stood as a symbol of some of humanity's better instincts.

Perhaps that was always too much of a burden for any sport to bear. But it was something to be proud of, and now - for the present, and for the foreseeable future - it has gone. Speaking within the very precincts which are supposed to embody the durability of the old virtues, the officers of the international governing body were unable to provide a persuasive argument for their ability to identify the villains within the game, or to inflict the punishments set out in a list of supplementary regulations. The game will have to wait and see what the various national reports reveal, and whether there are solid legal grounds for handing out the lengthy bans and the unspecified fines listed in yesterday's document.

And as for the bookmakers whose activities have brought the game to this pitiful state and who, despite the efforts of the Indian police investigators, are probably even more remote from the possibility of facing justice than those players they seduced - well, cutting off their hands would hardly seem too fierce a punishment.

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