Stephen Brenkley: England has cheats too. That's the lesson

 

Until the dramatic turn of events at the Old Bailey yesterday, match-rigging was something that was perpetrated by people from other countries. Perception and reality changed as soon as Mervyn Westfield admitted in court to taking bribes to bowl badly.

His plea of guilty after two years of denying all wrongdoing made him the first English cricketer to be convicted of such a crime. It was somehow appropriate that the case should be heard at the most famous court in the world.

Westfield, 23, will be sentenced on 10 February and faces a prison sentence. He was accused of accepting £6,000 in return for leaking a guaranteed number of runs in two NatWest Pro40 matches for Essex – against Durham and Somerset – in September 2009. Two months ago, three Pakistani cricketers were jailed after being found guilty of cheating in a Test at Lord's in return for money. Westfield's offences were committed a year before Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were involved in a plot to bowl no-balls at Lord's but the trial was delayed by legal wrangling.

It is a salutary lesson for English sport. The world of county cricket is not cosy – England would not have become the best Test team in the world if it were – but it has always given the impression of being pleased with itself, of being a bastion of continuity and solidity in a rapidly changing world.

When the Westfield case first broke, it was evidence that the domestic professional game was a target. A Pro40 game at the fag end of a long season might not stir many hackles but many of these matches are televised. They attract betting, not least in the Indian subcontinent, where the market on cricket shows no sign of diminishing. This is partly because there are so many aspects to bet on, such as the number of runs scored in an over, which is what Westfield's case hinged on.

He took the money after agreeing to ensure that the first over of his spell in the match at Chester-le-Street would go for 12 runs. In the event it went for 10. It was, ironically, at Chester-le-Street where Westfield had made his first-team debut for Essex as a promising fast bowler, a month past his 17th birthday, in 2005. The world was before him then.

It is to cricket's credit that it acted quickly. Since Westfield was accused, the Professional Cricketers' Association has increased its educational programmes for young cricketers. These explain not just what is wrong but the sort of approaches that might be made.

They also stress the need for players to report any untoward activity. That is what happened in the Westfield case. It emerged at a pre-trial hearing that he had told his team-mate Tony Palladino about the fix and shown him the money. Palladino reported the matter and was due to be a prosecution witness until Westfield changed his plea yesterday.

Cricketers are thought to be vulnerable at the beginning and end of their careers, first when they might not be earning much money and then when they feel they have nothing to lose. The PCA is anxious to promote an atmosphere in dressing rooms where approaches are always rebuffed. The PCA's chief executive, Angus Porter, said: "I am sure there are people willing to make approaches. We have to make sure we lock our doors, turn on the burglar alarm and make the burglar go away because it's not worth bothering."

Full details of Westfield's case will be revealed at the hearing next month and a man who allegedly corrupted Westfield will be named. Judge Anthony Morris said: "The alleged corrupter is a man known to me and many people interested in cricket."

Granting him bail, the judge said he could hold out no promises for Westfield when he returns to court. The likelihood is that illegal activity in county cricket is not widespread but when a young player is handed £6,000 for a dodgy over, nobody can be sure.

Cricketer guilty, News, page 7

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