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.
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.
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.