Billy Pratt, who is currently taking the Masters in Corruption & Governance at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, reflects on how the changing nature of broadcasting professional sport affects match-fixing in cricket and the corruption risks posed by the emergence of the professional women’s game.
Professional cricket may be currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but corruption news never ceases. Towards the end of April, the Pakistan Cricket Board charged one of their own international players, Umar Akmal, for failing to report approaches to fix cricket matches, banning him for 3 years. News of Akmal’s suspension is welcome and strengthens the narrative that the governing bodies of cricket are taking action to root out match-fixing, from the game.
While professional sport faces several forms of corruption, match-fixing, or the act of playing a sporting contest to a pre-determined result in order for private gain (usually a bribe paid by a bookmaker), has been a scourge of cricket for decades – along with spot-fixing, in which a small incident is rigged rather than the whole game. In response to a high-profile fixing scandal centred around South Africa captain Hansie Cronje, the International Cricket Council (ICC) established an Anti-Corruption Unit in 2000 to prevent, detect and investigate match-fixing in the game. Akmal is now the third high-profile figure to be suspended internationally since 2017, joining Bangladesh captain Shakib Al Hasan and Sri Lanka legend Sanath Jayasuryia.
As positive as these signs are, there is an inevitable risk that as cricket expands to new territories and markets the opportunities for corruption will also grow. The rise of T20 and T10 cricket (shorter, more marketable forms of the game) has led to the creation of numerous franchise leagues around the world. Several early franchise leagues in established cricket markets had well documented match-fixing scandals, with the Indian Premier League, Pakistani Super League and South Africa’s Ram Slam T20 challenge suffering. Due to their high-profile status, these scandals prompted changes in domestic cricket anti-corruption policy, and so these leagues may no longer be the best place for match-fixers precisely due to the rise in scrutiny.
Outside of the core markets of the big cricket-playing nations, there have been new franchise leagues in territories such as Afghanistan, Canada, the UAE, Qatar, Hong Kong and Nepal. Out of sight from the more developed and better-funded governing bodies of cricket, these new leagues represent an exciting opportunity for those who want to fix cricket matches. The bizarre sight of Dubai Stars being bowled out for 46 against Sharjah Warriors in 2018 is – the media have widely alleged – a tragicomic symbol of this problem.
There are now more corruption risk factors facing cricket because of the expansion in these franchise leagues. The most obvious is that the opportunity for corruption has increased greatly because the number of live broadcast cricket matches to bet on has increased greatly. Before the advent of franchise leagues in 2008, corruptors relied on internationally televised matches to reach their betting markets and were therefore limited mostly to matches between nine international teams whose make-up of players remained stable throughout. Today, the corruptor can choose from a plethora of teams, players, tournaments and territories, with the rise of live streaming making it possible for a live coverage of a cricket match to reach any betting market.
The most pressing issue is perhaps that of player vulnerability. The growth of leagues in small cricket markets increases the number of players less familiar with anti-corruption codes and less well paid. For players based in these markets, less developed cricket infrastructures provides fewer pathways for advancement, making them more reliant on franchise leagues both for earning and developing a career.
Basic training and awareness are considered by the ICC as key tools in preventing the corruption of players. Yet while cricketers in England & Wales must undertake anti-corruption training before even setting foot on the field every season, the level of training in some newer territories hosting franchise leagues is much smaller. Peter Della Penna of ESPNCricinfo suggests the extent of anti-corruption training in the ICC’s smaller member countries is limited to 30-minute PowerPoint presentations before international events, meaning only players who play internationally receive any kind of training. Even then, it is much more limited than their counterparts in bigger cricketing territories.
Cricket authorities in England and Australia put player welfare at the centre of anti-corruption policy with education initiatives and well-advertised reporting channels. The wealthier, more developed cricket boards have started to make awareness of match-fixing – expressed as anti-corruption – an essential part of being a professional cricketer, in the same way that nutrition or fitness is. It is these players that are best equipped to avoid corruption.
This has not prevented a handful of high profile players from major cricket nations being suspended for match-fixing, showing us that cricketers can succumb to match-fixing even if they are familiar with anti-corruption codes or if they are well paid. However, given the levels of training and scrutiny, it is feasible that Sanath Jayasuryia, Shakib Al-Hasan and Umar Akmal are now the exception rather than the rule. By contrast, in the same period those players were suspended, no fewer than 8 players from the UAE, Hong Kong and Oman (countries with far less developed and rich cricket boards) have been charged with match-fixing.
The conclusion must be that a combination of factors – creation of franchise leagues, expansion into new territories, increase in player numbers, poor training and financial incentives – means that global franchise leagues have created a new army of cricketers vulnerable to corrupt approaches, and that the newer leagues with less sophisticated oversight are particularly at risk.
This is something cricket boards must consider with the next likely big area for expansion: women’s cricket.
The last big cricket event before the COVID-19 pandemic was the Women’s T20 World Cup, the final of which was attended by over 86,000 people. Professional women’s cricket is a relatively new concept with the game still transitioning from amateurism even in the wealthier territories. As women’s cricket is televised more and more, it will become more of a target for fixers. It is imperative cricket boards commit enough resources to ensure the transition from amateur to professional happens not just in nutrition and fitness, but in anti-corruption training too.
The case of Emily Smith, who was suspended for posting team line-ups before officially announced, suggests this transition may not be happening at the same pace as other aspects of the professionalisation of women’s cricket. As ESPNCricinfo’s Isabelle Westbury argues, her transgression was not motivated by corruption but was a light-hearted gesture more at home in the amateur game. Cricket’s governing bodies must ensure this transition takes place across all territories, leagues and genders if it stands any chance of making the game corruption-free. If cricket authorities fail to do this, the rapid expansion of the game risks reducing cricket in these territories to the ‘kayfabe’ (staged performances) of professional wrestling. Cricket matches played in the interests of unregulated betting markets rather than fans paying for a genuine contest will do little to serve the commercial viability of the sport.