Mammon at the wicket

Published : Apr 29, 2000 00:00 IST

In cricket, as elsewhere, customary ethical considerations of fair play have been blown away by the whirlwind of an unchained global capitalism, and the game has fallen victim to the spread of a market-driven culture of cynicism, hype and hustle .


IN recent years, the one thing cricket bosses in all countries have agreed upon is the need to "globalise the game". Each new international cricket venue - Dhaka, Dubai, Disneyworld - is hailed as a beach-head in an epic campaign for planetary status. Bu t as bribery and match-fixing allegations surface in country after country, global pretensions are degenerating into global farce.

In Britain, the media's handling of the Hansie Cronje revelations has been distinctly colour-coded. Initially, the claims made by the Delhi Police were greeted with indignation and dismissed out of hand. Commentators found it "unthinkable" that a straigh t-talking Afrikaaner Christian like Cronje would sully himself and the game he had so ably represented. Cronje's subsequent confession has been repeatedly described as the most shocking event in cricket since the Bodyline Affair in 1932. Even now, a numb er of Britain-based columnists gamely argue that Cronje remains "essentially decent".

All of which is in sharp contrast to the attitudes witnessed when similar allegations (usually backed by less forensic evidence) were made against South Asian players. Already the focus in the British media has shifted from Cronje to the newly discovered but still shadowy "Asian bookmaking syndicates". There has been much chatter about the mysteries of spread betting but little analysis of the social and economic factors that have permitted big-time gambling to infiltrate cricket.

In itself, the presence of bookmakers in the game is an old story. Cricket evolved in the 18th century from being a folk pastime to a modern spectator sport under the impetus of the high stakes wagered by cash-flush British aristocrats-turned-capitalists . In their quest for high-return speculative investments, they staged the matches, employed the players, put up the stakes and bet profligately on the results. Since then, gambling on matches, legally and illegally, has formed part of the culture of the game in virtually every country in which it is played.

What is new is the impact of globalisation. Thanks to the convergence of a deregulated financial regime and the spread of information technology, substantial sums of money now flow from one account to another with blithe disregard for national boundaries or legal niceties. The Dubai-based gambling syndicates are only some of the enterprises among many exploiting this environment. As seen so often in the globalised economy, information is not only the driving force but a precious commodity in its own rig ht: informants inside the dressing rooms or the press box provide bookmakers with a precious advantage, and are rewarded accordingly.

Satellite television and the globalisation of media ownership have transformed the economic value of international cricket. In South Asia, the game's largest market, international cricket has elbowed aside just about every other sporting activity. The un derground bookmaking syndicates are merely some of several big players seeking to exploit this phenomenon: multinational corporations investing through sponsorship, advertising and corporate hospitality; global media empires, not least the Rupert Murdoch s; politicians and demagogues who value association with the glamorous national standard-bearers.

All of this has turned international cricket in South Asia into something of a three-ring circus of corporate, national and individual self-aggrandisement. It is one of the victims of the spread of a market-driven culture of cynicism, hype and hustle amo ng the South Asian elites. As individual financial success is elevated above other aspirations, there is ever greater acceptance of the ethics of the quick fix, the fast buck and the big score. In cricket, as elsewhere, customary ethical inhibitions have been swept away by the whirlwind of an unchained global capitalism.

Cricket and cricketers have become apt symbols of the fusion of consumerism with national chauvinism. Meanwhile, corruption runs unchecked in the wider world of politics and business, and mechanisms of accountability are persistently sabotaged by the ric h and the powerful. The inquiry by the Y.V. Chandrachud committee is only one of many bribery investigations - in areas of social life far more important than cricket - to have come to nothing after a brave start.

Viewed in this light, the only surprise in the Cronje affair is that the Delhi Police seem, for once, to have caught a real felon. Whether they would have been willing to pursue the case as far as they have, had it involved an Indian cricketer remains in doubt.

In every country, the local cricket establishment has done its best to silence whispers, suppress evidence, isolate and ridicule whistle-blowers. Those who have read Pradeep Magazine's eye-opening book Not Quite Cricket will know how resistant the Indian hierarchy is to any serious query about gambling or match-fixing. Similarly, it now appears that the cricket establishment in Britain hushed up Chris Lewis' allegations for eight months, and only began looking into them after they were exposed in the press, while for more than three years the Australian cricket board kept the confessions of Shane Warne and Mark Waugh secret.

Who then is to sit in judgment on Cronje and other cricketers accused of misbehaviour? Jagmohan Dalmiya, a construction tycoon whose methods of doing business and politics have been repeatedly questioned? The elected president of the Sri Lankan cricket b oard, owner of the country's largest chain of (legal) bookmakers, currently suspended and under investigation for bribery? Lieutenant-General Tauqir Zia, the head of Pakistan's cricket board, who was imposed by the military dictatorship? Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who also happens to sit on the board of Vodafone, Britain's fourth largest corporation, which just happens to be the sponsor of the English team?

The media and business interests that run the game are worried because their product may become devalued. Cricket fans should worry because if the action on the field of play is not genuinely unpredictable, it fails to sustain interest and a sense of dra ma, and ceases to give the marvellously pointless pleasure to humanity which is its sole justification.

The Cronje affair is yet another reminder of the folly of elevating sports performers to the dubious status of "role models". Cronje's sin is not that he slipped from imaginary heights, nor that he compromised cricket's mythological moral code. If the pu blished transcripts are a true record of the phone conversations, it is clear that Cronje intended to perpetrate a fraud on spectators (and punters). As a result, he undermined the authenticity of the competitive spectacle, which is as important to sport as the willing suspension of disbelief is to the cinema.

This is the real danger facing cricket and other big-time spectator sports. The competitive display of skill, strength and stamina is being distorted by an increasing resort to contrivance in different forms. The model of the sporting future sometimes se ems to be the World Wrestling Federation, with its ever-escalating hyperbole, commercially packaged heroes and villains, multiplication of climaxes and inflated but entirely facetious drama. Cricket has a long way to go before it plumbs these depths, but there are forces driving the game in this direction, and the bookmakers form only one section of them.

The latest round of allegations has once again exposed cricket as a global game bereft of a credible global authority. Of course, among international institutions, cricket is hardly unique in lacking effective, transparent and accountable governance. Lik e public administrators in other spheres, the cricket bosses are putty in the hands of the multinational corporations. For the most part, they seem to believe that their job is to give big business whatever it wants. Confronted with a challenge from an i llicit big business like bookmaking, they have no idea how to respond.

Precisely because it is so interwoven with the fabric of our times, there is no simple panacea for cricket's match-fixing malaise. However, the lifting of the prohibition on gambling in India and Pakistan would surely undercut much of the power of the un derground syndicates. All that prohibition achieves is the criminalisation of a long-standing popular pastime and a massive loss of potential revenue to the public purse. A legalised industry can be subjected to some regulation. In Britain, the high stre et bookmakers have a powerful vested interest in policing the competitions on which they accept bets, and will not pay out if there is a suspicion of collusion.

Somehow, in the end, cricket fans worldwide have to find means to hold cricketers and administrators to account. Meanwhile, professional cricketers would be ill-advised to wait for the International Cricket Council to polish the game's tarnished image. P erhaps they ought to consider electing a committee of current international cricketers, backed up with real power and substantial resources, to investigate and adjudicate on gambling and bribery allegations.

Sadly, it is unlikely that anyone in the game will take meaningful action. The illegal bookmaking syndicates of South Asia are merely the dark underside of a deregulated global marketplace. Hansie Cronje is just the Nick Leeson of the affair - the small fry who got caught with his hand in the till, a cynic and a hypocrite, but in the end merely an excrescence of a larger system.

Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties is pubished by Seagull (Calcutta). It was recently voted one of the 25 "books to remember" of 1999 by the New York Public Library.

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