Hardman's Thoughts

Pretty much everything…


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No panic necessary – why betting shops aren’t worried by cricket scandals

In the last six years since Pakistan toured England, a new word dominated coverage of the sport. So, how are those handling money dealing with potential corruption?

Any cricket fan can tell you where they were on the morning of the 29th August 2010.

England’s Lords Test against Pakistan that year should have been remembered for the host’s first innings, as they recovered from 102-7, to post 446. Mohammed Amir, then 18, had ripped through an impressive top order, before Trott and Broad rescued England, with the latter scoring his first (and to date only) test century.

Pakistan collapsed when replying. And by lunch on the fourth day, England had won by an innings and 225 runs, yet the mood was far from celebratory.

Why?

Just a few hours earlier, three members of the Pakistan side – Amir, fellow fast bowler Mohammed Asif and captain Salman Butt – had been accused of cheating. The News of the World ran a sting operation against a Pakistan agent, who claimed that certain balls were going to be no balls.

Spot fixing.

The term, relatively unheard of away from the subcontinent before, has dominated cricket news for the last six years, culminating in Mohammed Amir’s return from his ban. In a coincidence to end all others, his first test match just happened to be where he played his last.

All sports fans want to watch a contest, trusting that every moment is genuine, that no battle is decided prior. So, need they be worried? Is the integrity of cricket beyond all help?

Rupert Adams, the media relations officer at William Hill betting company, has a reassuring message for worried followers: “It is extremely hard to defraud the industry for certain sums. The reality is, the turnover is tiny.”

William Hill, and Rupert assures me they aren’t alone, have a method for detecting and flagging suspicious bets.

“We have risk systems which are extremely good. They are based on an algorithm which knows what average bets and payouts are likely to appear from every outcome.” He explains: “If there is a deviance, even of not that much, the bet is red flagged.

“We put these in front of our senior compilers and see if they can find a reason. If there is no explanation, we speak to our competitors and see if they are witnessing an abnormal pattern. If they are, we speak to the gambling association and say the bet is not up to scratch.”

If that is the case, the company will suspend betting. Rupert describes these occasions as “rare”.

Even so, recent years have shown that spot fixing happens at the highest level. Essex bowler Mervyn Westfield admitted to accepting money in return for conceding a certain number of runs during an over of the Pro-40 match against Durham. Over in India, numerous editions of the IPL have been hit by spot-fixing allegations, suspensions and arrests. So clearly, despite Rupert’s confidence, spot fixing still goes on.

He concedes that his assurances are only valid for professional, legal bookmakers: “The illegal bookmaking side is where it happens. The illegal bookmakers are run by gangsters.”

Organised crime. A murky theme that has run through sporting contests for generations; one which is yet to fade.

As recently as 2014, the director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, told a conference that criminal groups control “at least 25% of the world’s sport”. Ranging from drugs to fixing, it’s a shadow that will be hard to cast.

Nevertheless, Rupert’s overall message can be summed up in his line: “We think it’s a lot less endemic than people think.”

But what is the view within the game? Alastair Cook caused some controversy this summer when, on the eve of Amir’s return, he declared: “If you are caught match-fixing you should be banned for life.” He later confirmed that he was fine with Amir playing, as the Pakistan bowler had served his sentence.

There are, however, huge waves of support for Amir. Simon Goodley, wrote in The Cricketer: “Amir made a reprehensible mistake – but which of us does not regret any actions at that age?”

He went on to say that the story has been reported wrong – that it isn’t a betting scandal and that without the News of the World’s intervention, nothing illegal would have happened.

While possibly a fair point, it won’t undo the damage that the last six years have done. Has the fall-out turned punters away from betting on cricket?

Rupert doesn’t believe it has: “We feel largely comfortable with all sports. If people are betting on sports, they know what is going on.”

Indirectly referring to the Amir incident, he states: “We don’t bet on no-balls, but if we did, even £15 on the next ball to be a no-ball would be too much, and we would red flag it.”

At any one time, William Hill will have as many as 30 live markets running on cricket matches. These include outright winner, first or second innings score, lead by and next dismissal.

Rupert said that they don’t bet on the “minor moments” which could be fixed, adding: “A batsman could potentially impact on how he gets out, but it would still be difficult to make sure he’s caught or bowled etc.”

In a summer dominated by a major doping scandal before the Olympics, Rupert recalls a meeting with the IOC during which “a man stood up and said fixing was the biggest threat the Olympics face, not drugs”. Rupert remembers thinking that none of their evidence suggests that. Interestingly, Rupert can’t recall ever having a meeting with cricket’s authorities regarding any suspicious betting patterns.

Overall, Rupert Adams is very confident that punters can continue betting on, and watching, sport, without fear that their money is being wasted on an already decided outcome. More so, he doesn’t believe that continued scandals will turn people away from sport. The only worry comes from illegal dealings.

Mohammed Amir accepted money as an 18-year-old in return for bowling no balls. It will almost certainly happen again in the future, but the message from bookmakers is clear: there is no need to worry; these incidents won’t affect the future of cricket.


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Ramble #16

The Derby

I wonder what it must be like to wake up on derby day morning and actually feel like your team has a chance of winning?

Everton have not won one since 2010, we’ve only won four in this millennium and the last victory at Anfield saw Francis Jeffers sent off. Our last three performances at Anfield are amongst the worst I’ve ever watched (Jagielka’s last minute leveller two years ago was brilliant but lucky). 

So I’m not excited for today. I’m not even expecting a draw. We will lose, there’s no doubt about that. Especially without Seamus Coleman and Morgan Schneiderlin. 

But BBC Breakfast’s coverage has annoyed me. They started the segment on the derby by talking about how Liverpool have lost two key players, therefore making today harder for them. But they didn’t mention in the same breath how Everton have also lost two key players (and, for the record, Funes Mori and James McCarthy as well). 

They ended it by finally talking about Coleman, except they even got that wrong. They said Koeman had an argument with Martin O’Neill over the Irish managers treatment of Seamus. I mean, did the writers ever stop to ask themselves if that made sense? The argument was about the Irish treatment of James McCarthy who they selected even though he wasn’t 100% fit. For all of O’Neill’s faults, he couldn’t predict Coleman’s leg break! 

I don’t mind that we’ll lose the derby, I’m honestly used to that. I mind when the coverage is biased and wrong. Both clubs have pretty big histories, both clubs are in the top half of the biggest league in the country. Neither have ever won the Premier League, so give both the same level of detail and fairness to your coverage. 

If organisations like BBC can’t give fair coverage, then we have to get all our news about our club from local sources and the club itself, which is far from ideal.


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Everton Goalscorers

At the weekend, Everton beat Hull 4-0. In the process, they became the first Premier League side this weekend to have 15 different goalscorers. For a team apparently too reliant on Romelu Lukaku, this is definitely a positive sign!

Of course, the reliance is obvious when you look at the number of goals scored by each player. Lukaku has 21, the next best is four.

But how many of those 15 players can you name in 15 minutes? Click the link below to have a go!

//www.sporcle.com/framed/?v=7&pm&gid=10cf754849b4&fid=58d3a6dd6ea5a&width=580


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Three sports, three players, three hundred words

Romelu Lukaku has now scored more league goals than any other Everton player in the history of the Premier League. People are, ridiculously, making a big deal about it. Let’s put this into some perspective. He’s scored 61 goals, one more than Dixie Dean scored in the 1927-28 season (yes, football existed before 1992). Everton have been in the top flight since the PL was created, along with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Their top goal scorers have 175, 180, 128, 147 and 97 goals respectively. Yes, Lukaku breaking Ferguson’s record is a little bit of history but that doesn’t mean we should be celebrating it.

Eoin Morgan scored another one-day century this week. Only seven players (four from South Africa) have scored more runs than him in the format this year, and only one from the same amount of innings. Our captain is fourth on the all-time list for English players, while the century in the first match against West Indies pulled him level with Kevin Pietersen. It means only Marcus Trescothick has hit more tons. Trescothick’s 12 centuries is well within reach, as is Ian Bell’s record of 5400 runs (Morgan is about 900 behind). England’s greatest? Possibly, at least until Joe Root catches up!

Andy Murray has remained at number one for the 18th week in a row. That makes it sound defensive, the truth is he’s comfortable there – at least until the French Open! Djokovic has points galore to defend at the next two tournaments – Indian Wells and Miami, where Andy lost in the third round at both last year. Andy won in Dubai last week as Djokovic lost to Kyrgios in Mexico. Djokovic will almost certainly still finish the year top of the pile, but March is a great chance for Murray to continue cementing his place in tennis history.


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The Struggles of Cricket

The walk to the crease is a long one. There is so much that can go wrong. Even before you get to the middle. Not easy on a good day, if you are a batter struggling with form, the walk can feel like a marathon. Every step will pose a new question, every breath a new worry.

When Jonathan Trott quoted stress as the reason for leaving the 2013-14 Ashes, he followed Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy as England players leaving overseas tours in the past ten years. But then, every sport has stresses. Every sport will produce struggles. If that’s true, why do more cricketers seem to stumble and quit at the highest level?

“I think the nature of the sport means that players are away on tour, or travelling a vast amount of the time.” Russell Discombe is a lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Winchester, working in cricket for the past 15 years: “Cricketers are used to living in hotels and having to make do with Skype or phone calls to loved ones for a large amount of the Summer, if not year round.”

The reality is, we’ve heard all this before. Why, despite years of coverage, does nothing appear to be changing?

Russell describes cricket as a “unique sport” when it comes to the length of tours, but believes the concerns do not stop with visiting foreign countries. He explains: “You are an individual within a team environment. You are part of the team, yes, but there is a lot of pressure for you to produce individual performances. It is also a lot easier [nowadays], with stats for example, for the media and fans to pinpoint players that might be letting the team down.”

The format hasn’t changed, the sport hasn’t altered, and therefore the problems still occur.

Does the combined pressure of being away from families for long periods of time and being out of nick in the public eye make cricket mentally a tougher sport than others? Russell pauses for a moment to consider that: “That’s a hard question to answer. The game is much longer so you might argue that this is more challenging than other sports.”

When this question has been approached in the past, the tendency has been to look at cricket and where cricket can go wrong, rather than compare it to other sports. A comparison with other team, and individual, sports could be necessary to understand as to why cricketers face more battles.

Again, Russell considered this for a minute before answering: “I think all of the on-field challenges are very similar. You still have an opposition doing their best to try and beat you, and you still need to be mentally prepared to perform.” This would imply there is something fundamentally different about cricket, which Russell goes on to explain: “Having said that the games can last for up to five days, so the ability to manage concentration – not switching on and off – is vitally important.”

Concentration. It’s the buzzword of cricket psychology. Alastair Cook, England’s highest run scorer of all time, is renowned for his concentration whereas the opening partners he’s had since Andrew Strauss retired have all suffered from vital lapses in it at crucial moments.

Retaining concentration for one ball is a little thing, however, when repeated for hours on end can become a huge problem. It’s along this path where Russell believes cricket is fundamentally different to other sports.

“I do feel that there are a lot more organisational stressors placed on cricketers. Things such as travel, living in hotels, living with teammates, short contracts, training all winter indoors, the hectic schedule, switching formats etc. These can all impact on the mental health of the individual. They might seem like small things but after years of doing this they can be impactful.”

Short contracts are an interesting factor. Rarely mentioned in most discussions regarding mental struggles, Russell believes they bring uncertainty, explaining: “Unless you are a well-established player or international you might go through your career and not receive a contract longer than two years.”

This factor is made more worrying given Russell’s belief about when complications are more likely to manifest: “I think these issues can happen at any point during a career. However, I believe they are particularly prevalent during transitions within the game. Changing or uncertain times can certainly add pressure or worries to the players.”

Russell points out that depression can have a disastrous effect on a player’s career, adding: “It can bring careers to a premature end.” And that is a terrifying prospect, given that Russell believes not every sufferer is aware of his or her problems.

Why is this? “I think in general the public knowledge of mental illness is very poor, and there is a lack of awareness and stigma attached to mental illness.” Russell adds that more education is needed. He even makes hints during our conversation that this is necessary within the game itself.

A, not entirely unexpected, recurring theme during my chat with Russell was the issue of family. Touring takes the player away from their, sometimes young, family, and it is the family who has to deal with the brunt of the illness. This means a stress-related illness can have a negative effect on life at home.

“Mental illnesses don’t just affect the on-field performances; these issues encompass all aspect of the individual’s life.” Russell explains: “It can affect relationships, jobs/careers; sleep patterns, general health and fitness etc.”

On top of his lecturing, Russell is a coach at a local cricket club, where he also plays regularly. As part of these roles he has played with, and coached, many youngsters looking to make their way in the game.

I asked whether he thought the fact that cricket publically struggles with mental health is putting children off taking up the sport. In positive news, he wholeheartedly believes it doesn’t, but warns that more needs to be done.

“I feel that numerous younger players view travelling as one of the exciting ‘perks’ of the sport. They often don’t realise, however, that the novelty of it and being away from family can soon wear off. I think we could do more to educate younger players about cricket’s stressors.”

So, why do cricketers seem to struggle more than other sportspeople? When disclosing their troubles, Russell doesn’t believe that cricketers are necessarily more honest than other athletes. So, this could mean that the answer lies with the unique nature of the sport. This may lead to challenges that other athletes don’t face. While it can be said about most sports, the difference in cricket is, as Russell mentioned, the organisational stressors stemming from long tours and three formats.

From the travelling involved with international cricket, to the media pressures that come with being out of nick, to the short contracts handed out to the young professionals right down to just switching formats. Through the eyes of a psychologist, cricket’s problems are prevalent everywhere and at every level of the sport.

Russell clearly does not believe that cricketers are born more vulnerable to mental illness. However, for every bad shot, or every drop, the walk to the middle gets longer, the struggles, as Russell referred to, become greater. Yet, the question still remains – how do we help those who are suffering? Is the sport doing enough? How do we make sure that another promising career doesn’t come to a devastating, premature end?


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Ramble #15

The English are coming

Nothing quite splits opinion in the sporting world like the Indian Premier League. Similar to marmite, you either love it or you hate it. Personally, I’ve always loved it but have been disappointed with the lack of English players. 

That has now all changed. Traditionally, Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen were regulars with Andrew Flintoff playing the first season. But outside of those three, who let’s be honest, are all pretty box office names, no English players were ever represented. 

At the latest auction, taking place as I write, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Tymal Mills, Chris Jordan and Jonny Bairstow joined Eoin Morgan in putting themselves forward. Only Hales and Bairstow haven’t been sold, with Ben Stokes becoming the most expensive overseas player. 

With Jos Buttler and Sam Billings being held on by their franchises from last year, the vast majority of England’s T20 outfit will now be plying their trade on the biggest T20 stage of all. And most of them can expect to be regular overseas picks for their franchises.

The most important two will be Stokes and Tymal Mills. Mills was a priority for Royal Challengers Bangalore, who were willing to spend as much as possible to get him. He’s a T20 specialist, with genuine pace which will suit the tracks in Bangalore. He can’t play first-class or 50-over matches so the England set-up will be delighted he was wanted. The more games he plays in this environment, the better for England. 

And I’m delighted that Strauss has convinced the England bosses that the IPL is the way forward. Played in front of consistently big crowds, the teams can only field four overseas players per match (but can have a max of nine in their squad). Therefore, the competition for places is high. The English contingent will have to be at their absolute best in every training session to secure those all important places, while competing with huge names such as Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Trent Boult. But while these players would have expected in the past to breeze into the side ahead of English players, it is no longer the case. 

Our revolution started with the Bayliss/Strauss/Morgan trio of leaders. It showed potential with a surprise appearance in the final of the Worlds last year and now it’s affirming itself on the world stage with the level of demand in English players at the IPL auction. The competition may not be your favourite, but the sudden acceptance of English players can only be good for the game in this country. 


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Joel Robles

Whisper it quietly, but Everton have been performing quite well recently. We sit pretty atop of the form table over the last five games and fourth in the table concerning the last ten.

There’s a mixture of reasons for the fact we’ve only lost one game in those ten. Firstly, our central midfield has become a pillar of strength, with Koeman spoiled for choice amongst new signing Morgan Schneiderlin, young star Tom Davies, the ever-consistent Idrissa Gana Gueye, improving Ross Barkley, livewire James McCarthy and the experienced Gareth Barry. We found success while Gueye was on international duty using a 5-3-2 system, but the Senegalese rock’s return has seen an indifferent return to the 4-3-3 with Barkley on the wings rather than in the centre. Hopefully the, by all accounts, lacklustre draw away at Boro is the end of that.

Secondly, and what I want to focus this blog on is the improvement at the back. Mason Holgate and Ramiro Funes Mori have come in to replace Phil Jagielka, and Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman appear more at home as wing-backs rather than full-backs but neither of those changes have made the biggest difference.

That, instead, lies with the goalkeeper. First choice at the start of the season, Marteen Steklenburg got injured in the Merseyside Derby, and was replaced by Joel Robles. Many Everton fans, myself included, as harsh as this sounds, were relieved because, quite frankly, Stek is a liability and Robles is something of a rock.

In his ten matches this season, nine in this current run, one against West Ham earlier, Joel has kept six clean sheets. He’s conceded seven goals. Ok, so seven goals in four games isn’t a great record but looking individually at the goals it’s hard to pinpoint any of the blame on Joel.

In 16 matches earlier this year, Stekenlenberg conceded 20 goals and only kept two clean sheets. He became a little bit of a hero against Manchester City with two penalty saves, but that was more of the exception than the rule.

With Joel between the sticks, our defenders look much more solid. And that allows our attacks to be more fluid. Which, unsurprisingly, has led to better results. Joel makes an average of 3 saves per match, Steklenberg only 2.1. Joel’s seven goals conceded in ten matches is the fewest of any goalkeeper to have reached double figures for appearances this season. There’s no question that Joel deserves to be, and should be for a very long time, Everton’s number one.

Personally, I’m a massive fan of the Spaniard. When Everton were collapsing last term, he was conceding three or four goals every time we played away. And yet he was consistently our best player. Without him, our goal difference last season would have been negatively astronomical. That went unnoticed by most, so I’m glad he’s now starting to prove himself with a decent defence who actually want to play for the manager.

And just to top it all off, his celebrations are boss.