Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1)

There are few ideas regarding cricket that no-one will dispute. One of them, however, concerns “match-fixing”. It is universally agreed to be an evil, and is often described as a “cancer”, the implication being that, if it not excised, if a “cure” is not found, then it will spread, and kill the game. The reason most often given for this opinion is that the spectators “have to believe that what they are seeing is real”.

It is not my intention to write a contrarian piece, arguing that there is nothing wrong with match fixing : on the contrary, I regard what I have written above as an “obvious truth”. However, like other “obvious truths”, it is worth examining closely, if only for its rarity value, and in the hope that it might, as it were, crack apart to reveal some hidden truths.

In this first post, I shall begin with a provisional definition of what “match-fixing” is, and attempt a taxonomy of it, by distinguishing nine types. In a subsequent post, or posts, I shall attempt some analysis, some unpicking of threads. So …

A (broad) definition of “match-fixing” in sport : any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match.

Nine types, of increasing ambiguity :

1. The Fix Proper.

Where one or both teams, or one or more individuals, contrives to achieve a particular result to a contest. The motive is usually financial and will result in the players perpetrating the fix, some outside party, or both, making money by betting on that outcome. The more unlikely the result, the greater the profit will be, though also the more likely to be detected.

This form of fixing is traditionally associated with sports, such as boxing and horse-racing, which attract, or exist largely to facilitate, betting, which take place in a milieu hospitable to organised crime, and in which one individual can achieve a result on their own (a boxer “taking a dive” or a jockey reining in a favourite).

In team sports, individuals may be able to influence the result by underperforming (goalkeepers in football are a common target for fixers), but, in cricket, the individual best placed to achieve a result, without collusion with the other side, is the Captain. The best-known recent instance in cricket involved Hanse Cronje, the South African Captain, setting England what would, in other circumstances, have been considered a sporting target, because he had accepted payment to ensure that the match did not end in a draw.

This form of fixing is universally disapproved of (except, presumably, by those who profit from it).

2. The Coercive Fix.

In which an outside agency, often a government or some other political figure, but sometimes the owners of a club, seek to achieve results for the side which represents them by means of threats or bribery, usually of the match officials or the opposition. It has often been suggested, for instance, that Real Madrid and Dynamo Moscow benefited unfairly from the patronage of General Franco and the KGB respectively, and Italian football has been dogged by various scandals involving the bribery of match officials.

The closest equivalent in cricket might be the once-frequent suggestions of political interference with Pakistani officials, though it was not easy to distinguish this from the suspicion of biased umpiring in other countries in the days before neutral umpires were introduced.

This form of fixing, too, is universally condemned, though the players and officials involved attract less opprobrium, being seen as victims rather than perpetrators.

3. The Spot-fix.

Apparently the most common form of fixing in cricket in recent years, this is similar to the first type, except that the agreement is to pre-arrange a part of the game and not its result. The element of the game that is fixed may be significant enough to effect the final outcome, or it may be completely insignificant (Matthew le Tissier, for instance, has admitted to trying, but failing, to kick the ball straight into touch from a kick off, and it is possible to imagine a fix that could have no effect on the outcome of the game at all, such as a bet on the number of players wearing hats at 3.15).

Although apparently, in most cases, more trivial in its effects than match-fixing proper, it attracts a similar level of condemnation, and, as the Pakistani trio discovered in 2010, may even lead to criminal prosecution.

4. The Tactical Fix.

This involves a team, or an individual, choosing to lose a particular match because they believe that, in the longer term, this will result in some advantage for them. An example would be a team who choose to lose a game in the qualifying round of a competition because they believe this will give them a more favourable draw in the next round, and thus a better chance of winning the tournament.

A related phenomenon is when, rather than actively “throwing” a match, a club fields a weakened side in a cup competition which they see as a distraction, thus increasing their chances of winning another, more significant, trophy.

A variant is when two sides collude to achieve a result which is to the benefit of both and, usually, the detriment of another (the best-known instance being the match between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 football World Cup).

Although this type does attract condemnation, it is generally less intense, and different in kind, from that which attaches to match-fixing proper, being seen more as a form of sharp practice, and easily eradicable by amending the rules of the competition.

5. The Tacitly Accepted Fix (“Sports Entertainment”).

A term coined to describe professional wrestling in the U.S.A., “sports entertainment” indicates that, even though a bout may have the appearance of a sporting contest, the participants are following a script, and that both the outcome and the narrative of the match have been agreed in advance.

Although such “sports” are regarded by many followers of “serious sport” as risible, they are not disapproved of in the same way as match fixing proper, in that there is no element of deception involved.

6. The Mutually Agreed Demi-Fix (“Contrived Finishes”).

Very common in the English County Championship, this involves the Captains of the two sides making an agreement that the side batting last will be set an agreed target, usually achieved by one side gifting the other runs, or forfeiting an innings, and is a tactic used when there is otherwise little likelihood of either side winning.

Attitudes to this vary. Those watching the game tend to approve of it, seeing it as a legitimate tactic to avoid the game petering out into a draw, and regard the ability to negotiate a favourable deal as a legitimate skill of Captaincy. Although there is often some grumbling about having to watch a prolonged spell of “declaration bowling”, it is only usually disapproved of when one Captain is felt to have been overly generous, or when the contrived finish is seen as being to the detriment of another County.

7. The Fix of No Significance.

Where, in a match that is that is not intended to be a serious contest between two teams, but a form of exhibition or spectacle, the course of the game is manipulated in the interests of entertainment. There is no real evidence, for instance, that W.G. Grace ever refused to leave the wicket, having been dismissed, saying “they have come to see me bat, not you bowl”, and, although he was capable of all sorts of sharp practice, it is improbable that he would have done so in a serious First Class game. If, however, he had said “they have paid to see me bat …” in one of the many exhibition games (often against odds) from which he made most of his money, that would have been a simple statement of truth, and there would have few complaints from the audience.

Though many “serious” fans of sport will find such games tiresome, there is no real disapproval involved, because it is felt that the course of play is being fixed in, as it were, a good cause.

8. The Professional Fix.

Imagine that you have been employed, on a very generous salary, as a bowler in a franchised T20 competition. Perhaps you have been employed because, in spite of the fact that you aren’t very good, you are capable of bowling the odd delivery at 95 mph, which, with a bit of fiddling with the speed gun, can be passed off as 100 mph (and replayed endlessly to publicise the competition).

It is more likely, though, that you are a moderately talented local seamer, there to make up the numbers, and soak up some loose change. Your employer, the franchise owner, has a quiet word in your ear, and reminds you that the crowd (not to mention the TV audience and the sponsors) has come to see the star batsmen bat and not you bowl, and that it might be a good idea if you could provide the opposition’s “gun bat” with a few well-pitched up deliveries in his favoured area, rather than striving too officiously to get him out. As a professional, you recognise that your first duty is to your employer, and that your salary depends on the success of the competition, so you comply.

Or do you?

9. The Regulatory Fix.

So, you have decided that your real duty is to the Spirit of Cricket, and you try, to the best of your ability, to get the batsman (Kohli, Warner, de Villiers or whoever) out, or, at least, restrict his scoring. What do you do? You could try bowling wide outside off-stump to a packed off-side field. You could try bouncing him repeatedly, to test his physical courage, or induce a mis-timed hook. You could try some leg theory. You could aim to restrict his scoring by packing the outfield with fieldsmen, or slip him the odd full toss. As a last resort, you could even try bowling underarm.

Except, of course, that you wouldn’t be able to do any of those things, because some combination of the “Laws” and the playing regulations would prevent you (and if you did succeed in hitting him on the head, he would be wearing a helmet, and any edges you might induce would be thick enough to send the ball high into the exultant crowd). You would, in fact, be in exactly the same position as someone who had accepted inducements to bowl hittable balls, and you would find yourself in, precisely, a bit of a fix.

(What the general attitude to the last two types is, or should be, and whether, or why, anyone should care, are questions I shall attempt to address in a subsequent post …)

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5 thoughts on “Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1)

  1. Is there space for the history-making (or posterity-calling) fix? Such as, scoring a numerically significant century against selected opposition at one’s home ground. As a 9 year old, beginning to take an interest in cricket, I thought it was suspicious that the victory margin in the Centenary Test was identical to that of the 1st Test. 40-odd years on, I believe highly improbable things happen more often than we tend to think they do.

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    • That’s an interesting point. I think one of the appeals of sport is that it suggests that highly improbable things (including good things) can happen, and one of the problems of fixing is that it suggests that those things are fictions.

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