Today saw the start of an International Cricket Council (ICC) tribunal in Bangladesh, which will investigate claims of match fixing in the 2013 Bangladesh Premier League (BPL). Amongst the individuals being investigated is Kent all-rounder Darren Stevens, who is not charged with match fixing, but with failing to report a corrupt approach made to him while he was playing for the Dhaka Gladiators. If he’s found guilty then he faces a ban of up to 5 years, which, for a player approaching 38 years old, would surely mean the end of his career.
I should declare an interest here. As a Kent supporter, Steven’s rambunctious batting displays over the last few years have been a source of rare pleasure. He’s a fine batsman, in both the short and long forms of the game and a useful medium pace bowler. This season has probably been his best ever; scoring a blazing 44 ball century as Kent successfully chased down a seemingly impossible target of 337 against Sussex in the YB40 competition, and a mature, unbeaten 205 to give Kent their first home County Championship win in their last game of the season. These performances are even more incredible when you consider that he has had the threat of this investigation hanging over him for most of the season.
At first glance, his punishment might seem harsh, considering that he hasn’t actually done anything corrupt, except that is the problem, he is alleged to have done nothing, when he should have done something. In this case (as in most), ignorance is no defence. Passage 2.4.2 of the ICC code of conduct is very clear on this matter, all approaches should be reported without undue delay. As a Kent player, Stevens would have been well aware of these rules as the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is very pro-active in educating county cricketers about their responsibilities in this area.
Stevens has said that he will plead not guilty to the charge, and in his statement, insisted that he had not been involved in any corrupt activity. The fact that Stevens has pleaded not guilty is interesting, not because I’m suggesting he’s guilty, but because he has stated publicly that he is going to Bangladesh to save his career. The maximum punishment is a 5 year ban, but, typically, somebody pleading guilty would likely get a reduced sentence. However, even a two year ban for Stevens would mean he would be turning 40 by the time he was allowed to return to playing professional cricket, so pleading not guilty and aiming to be cleared by the tribunal may be his best option of saving his career.
Many fans are critical over the way that the global sport is run, and have questioned the success of the ICC, and it’s dedicated Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (the ACSU), which led the investigation into fixing in the BPL. It has relatively small resources to deal with a global problem and often seems to be several steps behind those that it is trying to police. It is not helped, of course, by the fact betting is illegal in Bangladesh (and, more importantly, in India), which makes it impossible for the authorities to have a constructive relationship with bookmakers, as they do in the UK, where bookmakers are legally obliged to report suspect betting patterns.
One of my other great sporting passions is professional cycling, which as I’m sure readers will know, is a sport that seems irrevocably tainted by the problem of doping. For a long time, cycling’s governing body, the UCI and those working within the sport seemed happy to brush the problem under the carpet. Even when testing was made more rigorous after the infamous Festina scandal of 1998, there remained stories of positive test results being suppressed and shady deals being done. The UCI seemed to think that it was better to keep negative stories out of the public eye, which in turn made the problem worse as riders felt they could get away with cheating and fans started to lose their faith in the sport.
The Hansie Cronje scandal blew the lid off the murky world of match fixing in cricket, but nobody seemed entirely surprised, even some of his fellow players. Many believe that the sport is still deeply corrupt. No matter how well the ACSU do their job or how stiff the penalties are, there will always be those greedy enough to risk their careers to make extra money by either fixing matches, or just providing valuable information to bookmakers (which is also an offence under the ICC code of conduct). What cricket must learn from cycling is that a credible zero tolerance policy is the only way of ensuring as few people are tempted as possible. Rules must be strictly enforced and those who are found guilty need to be dealt with as severely as possible, or the whole system will be undermined if the rewards continue to appear to outweigh the risks.
This might seem tough for those players unwillingly caught up in scandals, but by doing this it means that those seeking to corrupt the game risk exposing themselves every time they approach a player to fix a match or to provide information. It is possible that players may be scared off reporting approaches if those who approach them threaten them with reprisals. Put yourself in the place of a cricketer, playing T20 cricket in a foreign country, surrounded by people he doesn’t know. Then imagine an approach by people, who by their very nature are likely to be unscrupulous; it’s not a position I’d like to find myself in. For the system to work, authorities must be aware of this and show a commitment to protecting those players who are brave enough to speak out. Fans and other players must also do their bit, by not scapegoating those who speak out, as happened in the case of Tony Paladino, the Essex cricketer who reported Mervyn Westfield.
As I mentioned above, it’s hard to imagine cricket making a significant impact on taming corruption, when gambling is illegal in India, the country that dominates the sport. This is, of course, out of the hands of the ICC, but as we saw in Ed Hawkins’ excellent “Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy”, the Indian gambling industry is large and well organised, prohibition has failed and actually makes the problem of sporting fraud worse, especially when the police themselves are often seen to be corrupt. One wonders how long the Indian government can continue to overlook the economic and legal benefits of legalising the gambling industry in deference to those who cite moral and religious reasons for not doing so.
Like most fans, I abhor the idea of sport being corrupted, but I’m not naïve enough to believe it is not widespread. When a player like Darren Stevens, who represents all that is exciting on a cricket field is drawn into this world it does test your loyalties. I would be very sad if I could never see Stevens in action for Kent again, but IF he is found guilty then I accept that our loss is cricket’s futures gain.