Why Cricket Will Survive the Shock of Scandal

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"Just not cricket" is shorthand throughout the former British Empire for behavior that, while not quite criminal, is beyond the pale of social acceptability. To Americans it may be a quaint but unfathomable game of bat and ball that can last up to five days, replete with daily breaks for luncheon and tea, without producing a result; but for the British and their erstwhile subjects cricket is more than just sport — it is a cultural ritual that encapsulates the Kiplingesque virtues of fair play, decency, subordinating one's ego to the greater good, fighting hard but fair for victory and remaining eternally gracious in defeat. And that accounts for the social anguish caused by the international match-fixing scandal currently unfolding in South Africa, on top of similar allegations that surfaced recently in Pakistan, India and Australia. South Africa's captain, Hansie Cronje, supposedly a paragon of the game's finest virtues, has fallen into disgrace, his fate sealed by an inquiry this week that heard other players on the national team testify that their captain had been the conduit for match-fixing offers to his team from bookmakers.

The South African inquiry has lifted the lid on a multimillion-dollar betting racket that has offered large amounts of cash to players who'll ensure that a favored team will lose a game, or simply that those players will perform below par. Cronje, who claims to have been led into the scheme by "Satan," is unlikely ever again to don his country's cap, and he may well have helped end the careers of some of his most promising players. The financial scandal may in fact be a reflection of changes in the game over the past three decades during which it evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry, particularly the lucrative one-day form that evolved in 70s. "The endless round of one-day matches has taken its toll on the players who see pots of money coming in, but not too much reaching their pockets," says TIME New Delhi bureau chief Michael Fathers. Rather than being paid on a scale comparable with soccer players' wages, say (let alone the sums earned in most U.S. professional sports), cricketers are encouraged to seek sponsors and burnish their income with product endorsements. That has led a growing number of players to take money from bookmakers for predicting the outcome of matches, and in some cases for throwing the game.

But fears that the bribery scandal might kill the game may be overstated. The current inquiries are forcing the cricket authorities to clean house, and to warn players that taking bribes could end their careers. And the game's mysterious allure runs deep. "Cricket will survive," says Fathers. "For people who can appreciate a game that lasts five days and still ends in a draw, the fascination will always be there. Some cricket writers believe that's because the game is a metaphor for life, in which not everyone can be a winner but nor do they have to be losers — they can live a decent life and come out with an honorable draw."