Butt & Co. ignore Cronje’s warning

Justice Jeremey Cook touched a raw nerve when he spoke of young fast bowler Mohammed Aamer’s social background. “You come from a village background where life has been hard.. Compared with others, you were unsophisticated, uneducated and impressionable…,” he said last week when he sentenced the three cricketers and a bookmaker to imprisonment for cheating and conspiracy.

And, at once, many started using this information when painting a prototype of the cricketer who could fall prey to temptations. The sketch that emerged was one of a rustic cricketer who was poorly educated and could be easily manipulated. We seemed to forget that greed does not look at the upbringing or sociological, educational or economic background of the cricketers.

Perhaps the likes of Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamer had not heard of former South African captain Hansie Cronje, let alone his warnings. Back in June 2000 when he confessed to accepting money from bookmakers, Cronje hoped his experience would serve as a lesson to all other cricket players and administrators.

“I think a serious effort should be made to educate and warn players of the dangers posed by sports betting and gamblers. Most young professional cricket players have little experience of the hard realities of commerce and the gambling world. They are easy prey,” he said.

Talking of prey, just as a lioness spends time identifying the weakest deer in a herd before setting off in pursuit, those who indulge in sharp practices look for the emotionally most vulnerable. As Cronje admitted, the level of temptation placed in front of a cricketer for doing, or not doing, what can easily be presented as furnishing information is enormous. Once money has been accepted, even for what appears to have been something innocuous, one is compromised and it becomes difficult to turn back.

After all, cricketers are a part of such a society in which the game is played – and, in the sub-continent, they are drawn from all strata of society, irrespective of social background. It must also be remembered that cricket is not played in a vacuum and reflects the society in which it is played.

When he first propounded this line of thought in the epochal Beyond A Boundary, cricket’s most famous sociologist CLR James may not have anticipated such a turn of events that led Justice Cooke to wrote: “The image and integrity of what was once a game, but is now a business is damaged in the eyes of all, including the many youngsters who regarded three of you as heroes and would have given their eye teeth to play at the levels and with the skill that you had.”

The instances of match-fixing have come to light only in the past 12 years, though the first known instance of players’ association with bookmakers was in 1994 when Shane Warne and Mark Waugh received money from one such in exchange for information passed on to him. The growth of cricket from a mere game to an industry, coinciding with the evolution of technology, has also opened avenues for the corrupt to try and influence the flow of events. As Justice Cook said what ought to be honest sporting competition may not be such at all.

Yet, given the nature of the game, it is hardly surprising that cricket was conceived to delight and be the despair of bookmakers and plain fans, innocent of such vice. In fact there is evidence that The Laws of the Noble Game of Cricket, published in May 1809, provided for bets to be laid.

The law declared: If the Notches of one Player are laid against the another, the Bets depend on the First Inning, unless otherwise specified. If the Bets are made upon both innings, and one Party beats the other in one inning, the Notches in the First Inning shall determine the Bet. But if the other Party goes in a second time, the Bet must be determined by the number on the Score.

The Financial Action Task Force, an inter-Governmental body that plays a key role in the development of policies to combat money laundering and terrorist financing has said sport, just like any other business, can be used by criminals to launder the proceeds of crime or to perpetrate illegal activities for financial gain.

“Sports that could be vulnerable to money laundering problems are either big sports (worldwide like football or on a national basis like cricket, basketball or ice hockey), sports like boxing, kick boxing and wrestling (sports that have traditionally links with the criminal milieu because of the relationship between crime and violence), high value sports (such as horse and car racing where there are ample opportunities to launder big sums of money), sports using (high value) transfer of players, sports where there is much cash around, which give criminals opportunities to turn cash into non-cash assets or to convert small into large bills. This fact means that virtually all sports could be targeted by criminals, although for different reasons,” it said in a report in 2009.

A careful look at the past will reveal that the never-say-die efforts of bookmakers to protect their own money dates back more than a century and a quarter. Back in 1879, when Lord Harris was touring Australia with an English team, there was trouble at a Sydney ground over an umpire’s decision that did not satisfy the barrackers.

Led by bookmakers who were losing money over a decision, they swarmed onto the pitch and tried to lynch the umpires. Ringed in by the two teams, the mob attempted to overwhelm the players. The game had to be stopped and the umpires escorted indoors. When an Australian ringleader followed, he was picked up and flung bodily through the committee room window by English batsman A.N. Hornby.

It can be now said that the efforts of Salman Butt and company have once again sought to throw cricket – and its tenets – out of the window. Hopefully, cricket will pick itself up and regain its place in the social circles so that the adage “It is not cricket” continues to have significant meaning.