The Last Word: Cricket and F1 in desperate fight for legitimacy

Match-fixing claims no longer shock us while any Alonso win today will be tainted amid cries of 'fix'
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The Independent Online

The most dangerous moment for any sport is when the hackles decline to rise and the eyeballs proceed to roll. In that instant, as the righteous anger is finally negated by a disinterested acceptance, a sport must see that its credibility is broken. The public simply don't believe any more.

Many feel professional cycling is already doomed in this unequal struggle of reality versus appearance, and the last week has only strengthened this conviction. Disciplinary proceedings have been opened against Alberto Contador and if the doping-test failure is upheld then it will pave the way for a second Tour de France winner to be stripped of his title in five years. Considering Contador was also the yellow-jersey winner in 2007 and 2009, the stench would be irrefutable.

As it is, Contador may well get off. He argues the clenbuterol discovered in his blood samples was the merest trace of a trace and, rather bizarrely, has produced a four-month-old butcher's receipt for the meat he claims was contaminated. Yet whatever the strength or otherwise of his defence, Contador should appreciate one thing, no matter how unpalatable and unjust it may seem. The man in the High Street sees the words "drugs" and "cycling" in the headline and that's it, guilty. Cycling would be the sport which cried wolf and, just like the protagonist in that fable, would only have itself to blame.

Admittedly, the International Cycling Union are now tackling the drugs issue more vehemently than almost every other sport, although they must realise that because of their own stringency, the problem must be perceived as becoming worse before it becomes better. Integrity is years, and probably more scandals, down the road. It would be wise for other pursuits to heed the lessons of cycling and act quickly before they, too, find themselves in a desperate fight for legitimacy. At least two of these sports happen to be at critical stages at this very moment.

The first is cricket, which is worryingly close to achieving "unshockable" status. A few years ago the tale of a Test wicketkeeper fleeingPakistan because of threats made to him and his family from match-fixers would have dominated back pages for days. Now, in this post-Hansie Cronje age, the extraordinary story of Zulqarnain Haider has been treated as a curio. Worse still, the disgraceful reaction within Pakistan to the news of one of their sporting representatives seeking asylum in the UK has gone largely unchallenged.

Ijaz Hussain Jakhrani, the country's minister for sport, spoke for macho morons the world over with his statement. "Why didn't he come to us? He didn't have confidence in the nationalteam management or Pakistan Cricket Board," said Jakhrani. "If he is such a weak and scared person he should not have played cricket in the first place for the national team."

Jakhrani seems to be suggesting that it is part and parcel of an international cricketer's job to deal with personal threats from bookmakers. Perhaps it is, although surely the question should be why Haider did not have confidence in the management or the PCB. It is one which we can only assume the International CricketCouncil's anti-corruption unit is considering as it remains in touch with the in-hiding Haider.

At the very least his claims need to be examined hard. The controversy is clearly escalating, although already it is at a level where many distrust each and every game Pakistan contest. Yet the truth is that spot-fixing is not the exclusive preserve of Pakistan or even of the subcontinent; but that is the way the sorry saga is being reported. It might be focused there, but only a naïve fool would believe it is contained there.

The ICC are being urged to make an example, yet the problem runs far deeper. The case of Mervyn Westfield, the fast bowler who is on a charge of conspiracy to defraud over an allegation of spot-fixing during a 40-over match between Essex and Durham last year, shows just how far the suspicions have travelled. No doubt the upcoming Ashes willrestore plenty of the game's appeal – in this country, anyway – but even the most successful series must not persuade the ICC into nonchalance. Sporting euphoria can last a few months, but distrust lasts a lifetime.

No sport should know this better than Formula One. Today's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix promises a thrilling finale,but the chances are that the aftermath will be marked by recrimination. Again, "fix!" could be the outcry, although in the parallel universe of motor racing, the "fix" will not only have been known about and punished, but will also have been accepted by most in the pitlanes. Indeed, it could well turn out that another "fix" today will end up being applauded.

There is not the space on this page to deal with the ethics of "teamorders", but the fact is under the F1 rules they are banned. If Fernando Alonso wins the Drivers' Championship by seven points or fewer, the spotlight will fall on the German GP, when Felipe Massa was instructed to allow his team-mate to win and the toothless authorities let Alonso retainthe points, instead issuing a paltry $100,000 fine to Ferrari. Whatever Alonso or anybody else claims, his achievement would be tainted, as would the standing of the sport.

Conversely, Sebastian Vettel, if his title chances are gone, may wave Mark Webber through and see to it that his Red Bull team-mate pips Alonso to the championship. Cue the cries of "rough justice". Of course, it would be no such thing and the eternal shortfall of two wrongs adding up to a right would be appropriate, regardless of the absence of direct team orders.

F1 promotes itself as a race between drivers, has sold itself as a contest between characters, and has thus been complicit in moving the generally held perception away from it being a team sport. So they can hardly complain when the layman expresses his disgust at results – and indeed, championships – being contrived in such a transparently crass manner. On the back of a driver purposefully crashing into a wall, F1's credibility will be weakened yet further.

How long until the thread snaps irrevocably? F1 can only pray it is not about to find out.

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