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Another tip of the iceberg

Another tip of the iceberg

A rant on the latest bout of fixing in cricket

Last year I went to a live recording of the venerable and hilarious Jed Thian. For those who don’t know who he is, he is the voice of Alternative Rugby Commentary. Among the current wave of “fans tired of inane established commentators, taking up the role themselves”, his was a pioneering voice. During the commentary of a Bledisloe Cup game, he questioned the moral fortitude of the referee. He followed that up with a greater insult; he called him a Pakistani. This, of course, was not the first time someone from New Zealand had questioned the ethics of Pakistanis. When I asked him about that comment after the match, he half-apologized but said that the reputation wasn’t exactly ill-deserved; which, I thought, was fair enough. I was reminded of that yesterday.

I was also reminded of the thousands of words I wrote – most in great vengeance and furious anger – in the aftermath of August 2010, and the trio being caught; and of a certain ad by a NZ-based company. But more than anything else, I was reminded of an article by Brian Phillips, one of the best football writers in the world today, where he summed up the state of the game in one line: Soccer is Fucked.

They say it’s always enjoyable to be proven right, but that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you dread being proven right. Yesterday I, like most Pakistanis, were proven right: the IPL stick is slightly crooked.

Photo: Indian Express

For those who have been living under a rock over the past few days: on Thursday it was revealed that three Rajasthan Royals players, including S Sreesanth, had been arrested by the Delhi Police for “alleged fulfilling of promises to alleged bookmakers” during this edition of the IPL. Another scandal to rock cricket was how it was described. For the suspicious minds, who assume all domestic T20 leagues to be more corrupt than a Pakistani politician, this was proof that their suspicions weren’t based on nothing.

There have been statements and press conferences, reactions and castigations; but were it not for the outstanding work of Delhi Police, this would have never come to light. The reaction brigade might be in full swing, but it will die down soon enough. Cricket, it would seem, is fucked — and content that way.

Football, toom should be in the doldrums. The Spanish game is fucked. The Italian game has been fucked for ages. Despite claims after claims of the English game being bent, the issue is never taken up by anyone bar Declan Hill. Football is in a crisis. But it lumbers on, seemingly more strong with each passing day. The number of unaware or willingly-ignorant fans grows by the day, making the number of those questioning pale in comparison. How is this not considered at part with what Bernie Madoff did?

There are those who would argue that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill. They said the same in 1999, in 2000, in 2010, in 2012, and now in 2013. To the skeptical mind, there are instances which rankle: some which are questionable, others which are downright outrageous. But of course, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And no one, in any administration ever knows about any of this. You can’t call them bent (for legal reasons as much as anything else), but you sure as hell can say that their priorities aren’t right. If they aren’t corrupt, then they must be incompetent. But as scandal after scandal is revealed, it seems we would be better off assuming everyone to be guilty until proven innocent.

To celebrate, as some Pakistanis have done, the fact that the game isn’t being hurt by our lot, for once, is slightly childish. As Umair Javed pointed out, this was the equivalent of celebrating the Boston Bombers not being Pakistani. The sport that you claim to love got kicked in the nuts, and you’re happy that it wasn’t you who was doing the kicking?

So what happens now? On one hand, there will be frivolous proclamations about zero-tolerance. On the other, there already are some outstanding pieces asking the bigger questions – Sidvee and Subhash Jayaraman questioning the BCCI and its practices in particular. But they are the closest cricket has to David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Isn’t there anyone on the ground asking those questions? Moreover, the responsibility for cleaning this mess doesn’t lie with the journalists, surely. Where are the whistle-blowers and the proactive lovers of the game?

Cycling, much like cricket, refused to front up to its problems for decades. From the death of Tommy Simpson on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1967 to  the Festina Affair in 1998, cycling kept being given the opportunity to sort its mess out; instead the authorities found messiahs (from Eddie Merckx to Lance Armstrong) who could save the reputation of cycling without the authorities having to do anything. Sweep it under the carpet, and move on – the motto of sporting bodies the world over, it would seem. In the end it came down to people like Jonathan Vaughters to save the sport. Cycling now is cleaner than it has been in modern times (which doesn’t mean it is completely clean), and that is down to people like him who’ve entered the post-Armstrong age with a clear anti-doping agenda, and prospered. Where are cricket’s equivalent of Jonathan Vaughters?

Why does it matter? At the end of it, the fairness of sport is all we have. It is escapism from the rigors of everyday life – even if it represents life more than we would like to admit. The arbitrator is neutral, the rules are set out, and everyone has to follow them; and everyone starts off at zero. Unlike other important stuff in life, sport can be free and fair. This is the idealized utopia that some amongst us dream of. It is free and fair, even if little else in life is. And fixing, even more than PEDs, strikes right to the heart of all that is good about sport. At least in professional wrestling the spectators are in on the joke. Cricket without competition is just a bunch of jumped-up half-fit blokes walking around in their pajamas in acres of real estate.

So it is imperative that Sreesanth and the other two are punished – but don’t make example out of them. There have been enough examples made; it never works. No band-aid ever cured cancer. If the authorities really want to eradicate this disease, they could start off by listening to people who’ve been clamoring about solutions for years. Rashid Latif has recommended having a 24-hour hotline available to any player who wants to report something fishy; in fact, why not make not-reporting-while-knowing-about-it a crime, as happens in Italian football? Sure, there are ways that this could be manipulated and sabotaged, but the cricket world will be better for it. And if the ICC, the BCCI and everyone else is really serious about sorting this problem, they could start by implementing the Ten Commandments as recommended by Declan Hill – the one-man crusade against fixing in football.

But I fear none of this will happen. We will move on, just like the cycling and football fans always do. Sport can never be free of corruption until society is too. But the people in charge of our sports could at least try, or even pretend that they care enough to actually do something about it. Lest we forget, the News of the World sting came out of a tip from a member of the Pakistani contingent on that tour. For how long will the honest players have to go tabloid hacks for justice rather than their bosses and boards? That’s a question the men in suits must answer.

About Hassan Cheema

The writer is a sports nerd, and does not believe that opinions other than his own are valid.

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