The cricketing story at the moment is the revelation in the News of the World that a betting syndicate had suborned some Pakistani cricketers to influence the outcome of the Lord's Test Match against England. The allegation is that the individual, Mazhar Majeed, offered to fix matches for a payment of £150,000. As an earnest of his ability to arrange this, he offered to predict three no-balls in particular overs.
A no-ball occurs when a bowler gets too close to the batsman when delivering the ball. To control this a whitewashed line is drawn in front of the wicket (called the batting crease) Some part of the bowlers front foot must be behind that line when the ball is bowled, and if it is not, the umpire calls, "No-ball!" and the ball has to be delivered again and an extra run awarded to the batting side. On most occasions when a no-ball is balled the bowler's foot is a fraction of an inch over the line and sometimes the umpire misses the offence, so difficult is it to judge. In fact the cricketers have this part of the game well sorted and no-balls are a rarity in the game. Fewer than 1% of the balls bowled are no-balls.
Unfortunately for Mazhar Majeed the people that he was trying to sell his influence to were undercover reporters of the News of the World. He was being subjected to a sting. He claimed on film that he had control of 7 members of the Pakistani team. His boast that he could produce no-balls at will was confirmed when no-balls were bowled at precisely the predicted points. Such a coincidence could not have been produced without collusion.
In this particular Test Match England scored 233 more runs in one innings than Pakistan scored in two innings, so the defeat was overwhelming and three no-balls hardly affected the outcome. It seems like a trivial offence and so it would be were it not for the advent of spot-betting. Rather than gamble on the outcome of a match. punters bet on trivial events like whether rain will stop play during the second session of the day, or whether a particular player will be wearing sunscreen of how many wide balls will be bowled in an innings. If you can predict that the third ball of the fifth over will be a no-ball, you could easily get odds of 50 to one with bookmakers from the Indian subcontinent.
At the moment three Pakistani cricketers, captain of the Test team Salman Butt and fast bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir have been interrogated by Scotland Yard detectives. We have to be careful to continue to refer to 'alleged' offences, but TV replays of the no-ball show that the fast bowlers were over-stepping the crease not by fractions of an inch but by feet, so that there was no question of the umpire missing the offence.
There is some sympathy especially for Mohammad Amir who is only 18 and a fine prospect, but this is not the first time that the Pakistani team has been involved in cheating. Tampering with the ball to make it behave unpredictably when it is bowled has become very common, leading to Pakistan forfeiting a Test Match in 2006 and in 1987, before they introduced neutral umpires there was an an outrageous incident of partisanship by Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana.
One feels for Pakistan. Following the machine-gunning of the bus of the Sri Lankan Test team, Test Matches are no longer played in Pakistan. With terrorists controling the North West frontier and an area the size of England submerged beneath the flooded Indus river, Pakistan is not a happy place. Cricket is the national game in Pakistan and for many years one of their players, Hanif Mohammed, held the world record for the highest score (365) in Test cricket. They are a proud nation and this incident has been the final straw in a bleak year.
The background to this story is that gambling is illegal in Pakistan - which does not allow bookmakers legal redress. Pakistani cricketers earn much less than their counterparts in other cricketing nations, which leaves players more open to temptation. Corruption is rife in Pakistani life. It is said that fifty families exert feudal control over everything that happens in Pakistan and each has its fingers in the corruption pie. In the past Pakistan has made examples of individuals with life bans for cheating cricketers, but by toppling a fallen idol, the authorities are not dealing with the foundations of the problem.
I might imply that this problem as its roots in Islam, but that would be unfair. The most notorious example of match fixing was by the South African captain Hansie Cronje, who was supposedly a devout Christian.