Now that the US Supreme Court has allowed gambling on sporting events, a lot more money will be wagered on the outcome of games. As soon as a lot of money is at stake on the results, it is also likely to increase the chances of attempts to fix the outcomes. In cricket, there have been cases of players being bribed by gambling interest to affect their performance, to score slowly or deliberately lose their wickets or bowl badly. Yesterday a new and different type of scandal emerged, one that involved something peculiar to cricket where it was not players who are alleged to have been bribed but the ground staff at a particular venue in Sri Lanka.
The latest scandal emerged from an Al Jazeera investigation.
In the investigative documentary, “Cricket’s match-fixers,” the person Al Jazeera says is Tharanga Indika is seen in conversation with an undercover journalist posing as a prospective bettor. Two other men, who are also identified as fixers, are also present in the room. Through the course of this conversation, Indika claims to have doctored the Test pitches for the 2016 match against Australia and 2017 match against India, according to Al Jazeera. The investigation describes Indika’s actions as “unlawful”, the implication being, the doctoring was for the benefit of bettors.
I wrote a post earlier this year about how the state of the cricket pitch can have a big influence on the fortunes in the games by being prepared in such a way that it favors batters over bowlers or vice versa or favoring fast bowlers over spin bowlers or vice versa. The home team has control over ground preparation and they are allowed some leeway in preparing pitches to suit the home team, though they can face censure if the resulting pitch is deemed not up to certain standards. As a result, if the home team has (say) good spin bowlers but the visiting team has good fast bowlers, the groundskeeper might be instructed to prepare a pitch that favors slow bowlers so as to give the home team a slight edge, but only within limits.
The two Test surfaces in question, meanwhile, had not raised the officials’ eyebrows at the time. In fact, ESPNcricinfo can confirm the Sri Lanka team had requested a spin-friendly surface for the Australia match in 2016, and a batting friendly surface against India in 2017. Immediately after that 2017 game, the captain Rangana Herath had said: “I think we made this pitch because we had a plan. I said before the match that it will be a track that’s good for batting. We should take the main responsibility for the nature of the pitch.” The ICC had rated that pitch as “very good”.
The 2016 pitch for the Australia match had also escaped ICC censure, though it was very spin friendly, and had been described by Sri Lanka’s then-captain Angelo Mathews as an “extreme pitch”. In that game, although Australia slumped to 106 and 183 all out, Sri Lanka ad made 281 and 237 in their innings.
“There are standards for every pitch that we have to follow,” Dabrera said. “The ball can’t skid along the ground. It can’t jump up at batsmen. It can’t have inconsistent bounce. Those things are regulated by the ICC.”
The question being investigated is whether the person being bribed in this case was someone who actually had the ability to adjust pitches or, as the Sri Lankan cricket authorities allege, was merely a low-level worker making such claims to bettors in order to attract bribes.
It seems to me that the solution to this problem is to set clear and narrow limits on the range of variations that are allowable, plus complete transparency about how the pitch is being prepared. If the home team authorities say that they have given the ground curators instructions to prepare pitches that slightly favor spin bowling, then the visiting team can adjust accordingly to try and neutralize that factor.
But the larger question of the pernicious influence of gambling is a problem that is unlikely to go away. Ed Hawkins explains why match-fixing is so lucrative. Apparently India has a vast illegal cricket gambling underworld, with rival gangster killings and all. But he also argues that making gambling legal might make the situation better since it would make the flow of money easier to trace and thus spot match fixing.
The shocking Al Jazeera expose of the various ways that cricket has been corrupted by gambling can be seen below. It is utterly disgusting.