Dylan Cleaver's Midweek Fixture
The latest Al Jazeera match-fixing investigation raised almost as many questions as answers. Here's just a few of them.
Are the claims credible?
On the surface they seem to be. Without access to the cache of documents and recordings they have been leaked – the so-called Munawar Files named after the central protagonist, match 'setter' Aneel Munawar – we can't know whether there have been elements of re-writing history.
Why then have the England and Australia boards in particular been so dismissive of the claims?
Part bluster, part genuine frustration and, unfortunately, part racism. There is no question that if this investigation had been carried out by BBC's Panorama programme or ABC's Four Corners, it would have engendered a lot more respect from authorities, but by golly they won't be backed into a corner by an Arab network who wouldn't know the difference between a Kookaburra and WG Grace's beard.
England and Australia have arguably the most to lose. Cricket is under threat from other sports and from the pace of life itself in the western world – its pre-eminence is, arguably, fading. A corruption scandal that makes people question whether what they're seeing is real would be a catastrophe.
England bowler said he paid the story no heed because it was "like the boy who cried wolf". Does he have a point?
Not sure Wood is the best point man for this discussion. The short answer is no, he doesn't have a point, because in terms of cricket and match-fixing, a hell of a lot of wolves have been seen in the area. To ignore them would be foolhardy.
So the Al Jazeera work is bang on then?
Um, no. As a journalist that has covered a match-fixing investigation and the attendant fallout, I found some of the material jarring and counter-productive if the aim of the documentary was to expose the cheats and effect change.
For one, the trumpeting of the photos of Munawar and associates purportedly mixing with cricket stars in hotel lobbies was plain silly. Some of them looked like nothing more than badly executed photo-bombs. It is well known that illegal bookies work the lobbies but this was evidence of nothing. If anything, the photos would have been used for two purposes: to impress potential betting clients by implying access; or to try to use as a bribe later against the unsuspecting players. Neither of those scenarios would implicate the players in anything other than walking through the lobby of a hotel where they were staying.
Secondly, and this was the most crucial takeaway for me, I began to doubt whether Al Jazeera fully trusted their material. If they did, why then, for the second show in a row, did they happily name the off-field protagonists yet hide the identities of those who were supposedly doing their work on the field? The obvious answer is to protect themselves from defamation lawsuits, but if they were comfortable in their material, truth is the ultimate defence.
So no players were named… again?
Pakistan batsman Umar Akmal was shown receiving a package in the lobby of a hotel and the players in the photo-bombs were named. There was a brief re-litigation of some historic cases, including those exposed by the Sun newspaper, but no Australian or English players were named.
However, in one scenario mentioned, slow scoring in a test match between England and Pakistan in the UAE, if you go back through the Cricinfo ball-by-ball commentary you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that they can only be referring to one player. If Al Jazeera wasn't brave enough to name him with a box full of documents, I'm not either, but you do wonder why they made it so easy to find out.
Are the fixing scenarios believable?
Absolutely they are and, in fact, they're so believable you do wonder if some of it is setting or just playing the percentages.
For all the talk of the purity and sanctity of test cricket, it is by some stretch the easiest to corrupt. There are long periods of play where it is accepted not much will happen. All the sets talked about in the investigation revolved around the batting team scoring less runs in a block of overs than an arbitrary figure selected by bookmakers - this feature is described as a manda.
For this to have close to a foolproof chance of working, you only need the complicity of one player. You can argue that there are times in a test match when you don't even need a corrupt player to be confident of an outcome.
What is more frightening and harder to wish away however, is when specific overs were predicted to have a certain amount of runs scored off them and those predictions played out to a T. For that to work, you need some fairly high-level rottenness.
Will the investigation have a big effect on cricket?
I suspect not. It might, if Al Jazeera ever names the players, have a big effect on individuals, but again I question why they haven't already done that if the evidence was so compelling.
The International Cricket Council's investigative powers are limited, as has been proven time and again, so don't expect them to pick up the baton and run with it.
Most of Al Jazeera's material pertains to a time more than five years ago, when fixing was clearly rife. There is a school of thought that the sands of cricket's match-fixing have shifted from international, where it is getting easier to detect, to the proliferation of T20 tournaments, with this televised match in the UAE held up as an example of how not to play cricket.
One thing is certain: as long as there is betting on cricket, there will be attempts at corruption. The roots of the corruption might not be as deep as feared, but they are nevertheless strong and well established.
Undoubtedly, the ICC must do a better job of digging them out to avoid being embarrassed by the likes of Al Jazeera and the dear old Sun, who appear more adept at catching the cheats than they do.
THE MIDWEEK LONG READ...
For generations, a share in Arsenal was the ultimate fan souvenir, until a rich American took them away. From the New York Times.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's message to NBA rookies in the Guardian is thoughtful, and universal.
The Boston Globe's deep dive into the life and death of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is stomach-churning (partial paywall).
This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission.