It was not the foul stench of corruption, only the stark nature of the evidence that startled: the sight of the now disgraced young Pakistan quick Mohammad Aamer sticking his front foot so far over the crease there was more chance he would step on the batsman’s toe than fail to deliver the promised no-ball.
For all the grim expressions on the faces of the purists in their egg and bacon ties, cricket no more lost its innocence at Lord’s than Britney Spears lost hers last weekend. Eight years after the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje plummeted to his tragic death, cricket’s corruption is about as well concealed as Merv Hughes’s moustache.
There has been, for those who take comfort in Australia’s supposed isolation from international sport’s deep-rooted gambling problem, a comforting tone in the descriptions of the off-field players in this latest drama: ”Corrupt agents”, ”illegal subcontinental bookies”, ”mafia stand-over men”. Figures from a shady foreign underworld, not the bright lights of our ubiquitous, regulated sports betting industry.
Even the dismal prospect that Australia’s famous victory over Pakistan in Sydney in January was tainted will be dismissed by many as merely a foreign transaction conducted on local soil. Australian players have been approached but not implicated. Thus the naive assumption – exploited on a different issue by both sides in the election – that you can wipe your hands of a global problem by keeping it offshore.
For Australian sport, now awash with betting cash, that self-serving argument might have prevailed had the Pakistan sting not occurred in the same week the NRL was probing a plunge on an unusual points-scoring option in the recent game between Canterbury and North Queensland. Whatever that inquiry reveals, the mere perception and, increasingly, likelihood Australian sport will be corrupted should ring alarm bells.
Instead, it is the cash registers that are ringing as bookmakers, sporting bodies and media profit from the growth of sports betting. Rather than operating on the fringe of Australian sport, betting has become the heart and soul. It is almost impossible to watch or listen to sport on a commercial network without being bombarded with betting information. Rather than trusting their own judgment about games, media pundits – this one included – lean heavily on the accessible and often sponsored odds-makers’ assessments. Increasingly, punting is the lingua franca of Australian sport.
It could be argued that sport is entitled to grab its piece of the gambling pie. However, surely, the growth in sports betting pools and the types of betting options increases the chances of corruption.
And sports betting in Australia has exploded. In May, analysts IBISWorld told the Herald Australians would gamble $2.9 billion on sport in 2009-10 compared with $1.6 billion in 2004-05, with an annual growth of 12 per cent for gambling on sport far more than for the pokies (1.2 per cent) and horse racing (0.5 per cent). Figures such as these are typically used to demonstrate the potential growth of problem gambling. Equally, they show why a potential cheat might think he can prosper.
Australian sports bodies reason that it is better to keep the money changers – and, as a pleasant consequence, their money – inside the temple; that by signing deals with corporate bookmakers who in turn grant access to gambling records, they are better placed to monitor players and officials.
However, as the AFL’s punishment of a handful of players and officials who have made minuscule and sometimes inadvertent bets on games demonstrates, such monitoring seems only likely to catch the stupid and the clumsy. It might help identify players with gambling problems who can be counselled but will it stop match-fixing or the type of spot-betting conspiracy of which Pakistan is accused?
At the very least, the perception of corruption is powerful. A dubious penalty. A big no-ball. A couple of double faults. Three putts from inside a metre. What are the odds it was just a coincidence?