Football: Just the ticket for a crack at the Aussies

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The Independent Online
Now that the apparently innocuous, but lucrative, sideline of helping bookmakers with their enquiries has been elevated to cardinal sin status, we shall have to revise yet again what constitutes a sporting scandal.

While we must never relax in our pursuit of a perfect world, this constant updating of what we should be getting indignant about has become a tiresome business.

Only last Sunday, I was labouring to understand the widespread foaming at the mouth over Wimbledon players having a little flutter on themselves to win the Worthington Cup at 66-1 at the same time as the loud slurp of fortunes being siphoned out of the game via the boardrooms was being steadfastly ignored.

If anything, the slurping noise became louder last week but no one seemed to notice because our attention was directed towards Australia where it was revealed that cricketers Shane Warne and Mark Waugh had been fined four years ago for supplying information about ground and weather conditions to an Indian bookmaker while they were on a tour of Sri Lanka.

The amount the players received from the illegal bookie for their assistance - no more, they say, than they would have told the media - was around pounds 2,000 each. When they admitted this folly to the Australian Cricket Board, they were fined and the ACB, with the knowledge of the International Cricket Council, neglected to inform anyone else about the fines or the offence. The incident, which wasn't even minuted, is detailed and discussed fully on page 11 and we are more concerned here with the mushroom-cloud reaction.

We have long been aware of the growing number of mediamen in our midst who have become conditioned to turn puce at the very whiff of shame. But to sniff it on someone else's doorstep is a nostril-inflamer of more exquisite fragrance. And for the source to be Australian... If our bowlers can't duff them up, stand back and let our pundits have a crack.

There seems to be a strong case for concluding that the cover-up was worse than the crime and that the players, two of many to have been tempted by early overtures from a Middle Eastern bookie intent on building up a more profitable relationship, pulled back in time.

But the temptation of a free tilt at two of our most persistent tormentors on the cricket field has proved irresistible; nowhere more so than in that holy land occupied by the tabloids and, particularly, the Mirror.

Probably still smarting from the moral advantage gained by the Sun when they sacked Geoff Boycott as columnist after he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, the Mirror decided to fight ire with ire. "We sack Aussie star at centre of betting scandal" read their headline on Friday. The reasoning behind this bold move was that "millions of our readers could not stomach the hypocrisy of Warne". So Warne, who had been hired as exclusive Mirror correspondent for the Ashes series for a fee of pounds 60,000, was chucked out, thereby allowing the newspaper to save a nice few quid on the budget and get closer to God at the same time.

Whether Warne will get another newspaper contract when this blows over probably matters less to him than the fact that Nike have decided to proceed with their pounds 500,000 sponsorship deal with him. He would have been further comforted by the words of the former captain of Pakistan, Imran Khan, who said on Friday that it was a trivial episode blown out of proportion and did not amount even to a fineable offence.

The source is as important as the comment because Pakistan have a genuine cause for outrage against the ACB. Waugh and Warne are among the Australian players who have accused another former Pakistan captain, Salim Malik, of attempting to bribe them in 1994. Judgment in that affair is expected in two weeks' time, which adds a curious coincidence to these revelations. But to suggest that the Australians would make such allegations knowing that they'd committed a heinous crime themselves is taking hysteria beyond the limit. That the cricket authorities deserve the flak, however, is beyond dispute.

But if they were prepared to overlook the notorious incident of 1981 when Australians Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh won a 500-1 bet on England to win the Test match they were playing in we shouldn't expect too much in the way of control.

But how many governing bodies have got control these days? Profiteering at the top in football is rife and, as our sister paper The Independent revealed so comprehensively, the battle against drugs is in total chaos.

The real scandal is our inability to identify which are the ones worth fighting.

Along with many who backed Manchester United to beat Bayern Munich on Wednesday - I had them to win 2-1 at odds of 7-1 - I was far from enthralled by the non-aggression pact entered into by both teams during the final 10 minutes or so. When news reached the Old Trafford dug-outs that Juventus had beaten Rosenborg, thereby guaranteeing that a 1-1 draw would see both through to the quarter-finals of the Champions' League, the desire to win immediately evaporated and game petered out to sounds of frustrated annoyance from the crowd.

None of us would have been happy if United had lost in those closing minutes but as much as we are thrilled by the league format of the European Cup it does carry the flaw that meaningless passages of play are inevitable. We may have even more to contend with next season when Uefa plan to expand the Champions' League from 24 to 32 teams and four groups of eight instead of three.

It will mean an extra English club competing, plus another three in the Uefa Cup, and an increase in European involvement that is going to clog up the domestic programme even though the qualifying matches will be starting as early as 14 July. We are going to have to get used to a changing menu with different priorities (even to the extent of depleted teams in the Premiership) but we must assure ourselves that it is all in a good cause and learn when to expect victory and when not to.

Tonight's Sports Personality of the Year award on BBC television will be spiced up by the introduction of telephone voting for the first time. Viewers will be able to support one of a shortlist of six who received most votes in the poll which closed on Friday.

The lines will be open for 10 minutes but, regrettably, no votes will be accepted for Tom's the Best, a greyhound who has won the English and Irish derbies this year. Although the bookmakers had the dog at 33-1 to win the award, the BBC have ruled that only two-legged candidates are acceptable.

This is a slur not only on the excellent Tom but on all sporting animals. If you can win the award on four wheels why can't you win it on four legs? A greyhound, furthermore, doesn't need human assistance. And what about horses? If a jockey can win the title why can't the poor beast carrying him? After all, the award is specifically to do with personality and an animal can have as much, if not more, of that quality than a human. Just compare Red Rum or Desert Orchid with some of the past sparkless winners and I'll rest my case.

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