Cricket in a fix, again

By Ant Sims 16 May 2013

It’s scandal time all over again after three IPL players were arrested on Thursday on suspicion of spot-fixing. Delhi police have said that there will be more arrests, with as many as 12 matches reportedly under scrutiny. While it’s no surprise, the incident has once again highlighted the need for a more stringent anti-corruption unit across the board. By ANT SIMS.

Last year, Ed Hawkins, who writes mostly about betting, published his book Gambler, Bookie, Fixer, Spy – a journey into cricket’s underworld. His claims about the reach of fixing in cricket stretched far and wide and were largely dismissed as sensationalist, improbable and attention-seeking.

Today, he’s probably shrugging his shoulders and saying: “I told you so”.

Former India Test bowler Shanthakumaran Sreesanth and two other players were arrested by Delhi police on suspicion of spot-fixing in the Indian Premier League on Thursday. Sreesanth, along with Rajasthan Royals team mates Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila, was subsequently suspended by India’s cricket board (BCCI).

The notion that “one shouldn’t be surprised, because it’s the IPL” is a tired reaction. Cricket is a sport designed for betting and that sort of reaction shouldn’t be reserved for a specific tournament or format of the game. While spot fixing is likely far more prevalent in the shorter format of the game, due to bracket fixing, it’s certainly not exclusive to T20 and most certainly not the IPL.

Bracket fixing is where the real problem lies. It’s easy to execute, difficult to prove (unless there are recorded conversations correlating with the given “signals”) and worth a lot of money for those who set the odds, especially the shorter formats of the game.

Brackets refer to a certain number of overs, or a duration of overs in the game, and bookies give a set-about of runs to be scored in those “brackets”. Bookies set the run-margins for those brackets and “predict” how many runs will be scored. For instance, for the first five overs of a match, bookies might set the bracket at 35 – 55, and those who place bets can choose whether they think a team will score less than 35 or more than 55, and the bracket adjusts itself according to what happens in the preceding overs.

If, for instance, a bowler starts off well and concedes just a few runs in his first over, the bracket will move to a lower number, and those placing bets might adjust their bets accordingly. Unless, of course, a fix is in place. Signs or signals from players indicate to those setting the odds that a player is about to “live up to the fix”.

According to the police, those players involved in the alleged spot fixing gave certain signals. The fixing took place across three different IPL games and Neeraj Kumar, Delhi Police commissioner, explained in detail on Thursday how it all unfolded.

“In the first game, Pune Warriors and Rajasthan Royals on May 5, 2013, Chandila gave 14 runs in the second over of his spell. However, he forgot to give the predetermined signal,” Kumar explained.

This meant that the bookies couldn’t bet were demanding refunds from Chandila as a result. Twenty lakh were paid to the player in advance.

“Chandila told him (the bookie), ‘I will lift my shirt, and then will look skywards before the over. That will be the indication.’ Chandila forgot to give the indication. He did give away those 14 runs, but forgot the indication,” Kumar explains.

The second instance, on 9 May 2013, where the Royals played the Kings XI, Sreesnath put a towel in his trousers before the start of his second over and give the bookies enough time for “heavy booking”.

“He asked for the towel before the second over. He went into warm-ups and stretching after that and conceded 13 runs,” Kumar said.

While the agreed “bracket” was 14, bookies keep a cushion. They might tell the bowler 14, but they usually can keep it to 13. There are a number of factors at work, so they keep a cushion.

The third and final match took place between the Royals and Mumbai Indians on 15 May 2013, and according to Kumar, Chandila was acting as a go-between for Chavan and the bookies. Chavan was asked to give at least 13 in the second over of his spell. He went for two in his first over. He was hit for a six off the first ball of his second over, then a two, then a six, and then controlled his bowling and gave away only one run.

Police had been working since April and knew that the mastermind behind the operation lived abroad somewhere. This fact was also cited in Hawkins’ book, which claimed the big decisions are made in Dubai. Kumar refused to confirm whether the head of this specific operation lives in the United Arab Emirates.

Delhi police say they chanced upon this while investigating the Mumbai underworld’s links with cricket, and discovered three players repeatedly involved through taped phone conversations. Police waited for all three of them to act before “getting the clearance” to make the arrests. Kumar also said that there would be more arrests, with 12 other games reportedly under scrunity, but for now there is no evidence implicating any international players or even franchise owners.

While bracket fixing can be hard to prove, it’s not too hard to spot peculiar betting trends. Former New Zealand fast bowler and TV pundit Iain O’Brien has been keeping a close eye on the goings on of the competition, with one eye on a betting site, and says that he notice some odd trends.

“I’ve watched this IPL, with a betting web site open next to me. I’ve seen odds that don’t add up and the odds move in a way that would suggest that someone, outside, knows what’s about to happen. I don’t like seeing this, I don’t like feeling the way I do about some domestic T20 matches. I see things that don’t add up, a lot. Maybe it’s just cricket, maybe it’s not,” O’Brien told The Daily Maverick.

While many believe spot fixing (under-performing in one over or in one match) and match-fixing (throwing a match) are two different things, O’Brien believes that they are one in the same.

“To spot fix is to match fix. I don’t care what anyone says otherwise. To under-perform, even for just one ball, is to change the course of a period of play, and therefore the match,” he added.

The incident does not stand alone in tarnishing cricket’s reputation, but it has once again highlighted just how much those in charge of anti-corruption are failing the game. In 2011, it was a newspaper that uncovered a betting ring involving three Pakistani players, and last year English police investigated claims in county cricket involving a county cricketer.

None of the recent cases blowing the lid off anti-corruption has involved any sort of anti-corruption wing, which once again highlights just how much these institutions are failing the game. It’s largely to no fault of their own, though; the anti-corruption organizations are chronically understaffed and underfunded, and while the ICC isn’t exactly rolling in cash, reconsidering the distribution of funds will go a long way in stamping out corruption, if only the game could be policed properly.

Of course, the game, in all formats, will never be “completely clean”. There are far too many ways to do dodgy dealings and far too many players, leagues and friends to keep track of, no matter how much funding is in place.

But, as with every fixing case brought to light, at least it will rid the game of a few more bad apples. DM

Photo: Demonstrators shout slogans as they hold a placard and posters of former India test bowler Shanthakumaran Sreesanth during a protest in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad May 16, 2013. (REUTERS)


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