´╗┐

Saving Cricket's Soul

  • Share
  • Read Later

He was seen as one of cricket's most respected sons: captain of South Africa, God-fearing and charming. Then Hansie Cronje's dirty secret was exposed: for years he'd been making clandestine deals with bookmakers. At first he denied all. But as the evidence mounted he confessed, blaming the devil and his own "unfortunate love of money." Last June, in Cape Town, he wept on the stand at the King Commission of Inquiry into match-fixing. Months later, he was kicked out of cricket for life.

Cronje admitted pocketing about $100,000 from bookmakers in return for insider information on his team, promises to under-perform and approaches to teammates to do likewise. His fall shook the cricket world as probably no other event has. But the game's worst scandal did not begin and end with Cronje. Life bans have since been imposed on two other former national captains-Pakistan's Salim Malik and India's Mohammad Azharuddin-for similar offenses to Cronje's. And the International Cricket Council's new anti-corruption unit is investigating a veritable roll call of cricket luminaries. Within a game that once prided itself on gentlemanly conduct, reaction ranges from concern to misery. Says former Indian captain Bishen Bedi: "The game has been gang-raped."

Cricket will take a small step toward recovery on Feb. 12, when eight of the world's 10 Test captains gather in Melbourne for their annual powwow. The anti-corruption unit's head, Sir Paul Condon, a former chief of Scotland Yard, will ensure that the current skippers have something besides their gripes to chew on: two days before, also in Melbourne, Condon will deliver the first review of his team's probe into alleged improper dealings between the now notorious former Indian bookmaker Mukesh Gupta and some of the game's biggest names, including Brian Lara (West Indies), Mark Waugh (Australia), Alec Stewart (England), Martin Crowe (New Zealand), and Arjuna Ranatunga (Sri Lanka).

Fans have struggled to comprehend what possessed some of the world's best cricketers, handsomely rewarded for their prowess, to succumb to the approaches of subcontinental bookmakers. Bob Simpson, Australia's coach from 1986-96, acknowledges the theory that there are too many one-day games, the results of which are consequently of little importance even to the participants."But, in the end," says Simpson, "I think it's just player greed."

When Australia's Waugh and Shane Warne were revealed as having accepted thousands of dollars each from a bookmaker while in Sri Lanka in 1994-an episode that was covered up for three years by the Australian Cricket Board-most observers scoffed at their defense of having been "na´ve." But Christopher Doig, chief executive of New Zealand Cricket, argues even the more worldly players can be seduced by professional charmers. He cites the case of New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming, who was targeted by an Indian bookmaker in London in 1999: "Fleming is an exceptionally intelligent, capable man, but it still took him two or three conversations with this gentleman before he recognized there was something improper about him." Fleming promptly-and properly-reported the approach to his board.

It's tempting to believe, with match-fixing exposed and the image of Cronje's courtroom breakdown burned on the memory, that no player would dare give a bookmaker the time, let alone his team's batting order. "Money makes people do silly things," says Zimbabwe captain Heath Streak, who adds that young players can feel compelled to follow even the worst example of their captain. (South Africans Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams were suspended for accepting money from Cronje to play poorly in a one-day match against India last year.)

Part of the solution to match-fixing is education. "Players often enter international cricket sheltered and sequestered from normal life," says New Zealand's Doig. "We should be giving them mechanisms to rec-ognise improper approaches and spell out to them the appropriate response in the event of one."

But education must be backed by the strongest penalties, says former West Indian fast bowler Colin Croft. The ICC, derided for its inaction over the years on issues from bribery to illegal bowling actions, has flashed a sharp-looking claw by setting up its anti-corruption unit; but that should be just the start. "I believe the ICC must be like FIFA [soccer's all-powerful ruling body]," Croft says. "It must run the sport, not just exist because of it, which is the case now." Says India's Bedi: "What is required is strength of character from admin-istrators to pursue investigations to their logical conclusion." Croft, and some of the game's administrators, would like to see a uniform approach to punishing offenders-one that makes no distinction between providing bookmakers with information and throwing matches. "If anyone is found to have compromised the sport," he says, "they must be banned for life."

The world's bookies aren't about to disappear. Soon enough, new players will face ancient temptations. "If integrity is to return to the game, it will start with the captains," says Croft. In Melbourne, cricket's onfield generals will have the chance to atone for the sins of their fallen predecessors.

-With reporting by Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi