Sunday, February 20, 2011

'FIXING' THE BETS

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    Even though the shadow of the 'spot fixing' scandal, which led to the suspension by the ICC of three top Pakistani cricketers, will be hanging over the cricket World Cup, it is not going to be enough to dissuade the bookies from 'fixing' the odds and taking bets on each and every match that will be played during the World Cup. After all, the World Cup is the biggest event in cricket and the bookmakers are not going to let anything come in the way – the law being only a minor inconvenience, easily circumvented – to rake in the big bucks. Just as officially, record monies are going to be involved in terms of sponsorships, TV rights and what have you, cricket betting too is expected to break new records even though there will be 'nothing official about it'. In fact, despite not being legal in South Asia, betting has pretty much become such an integral part of the business of the game that it has almost acquired the status of becoming a part of the extended merchandising industry associated with cricket.

    Unfortunately, in the subcontinent, which is today the Mecca of the cricket world, betting and bookmaking are held synonymous with 'match fixing'. Whether this is a sign of the growing lack of common sense or the outcome of the murder of English language in South Asia, the fact remains that these are two entirely different things. The fixing of matches is of course linked to the betting industry. But to extrapolate this to label all betting as match fixing is ridiculous. In a sense, cricket betting can be compared to the stock market. Match fixing is to betting what insider trading and market manipulation to make super-normal profits is to the stock market – essentially a criminal activity.

The problem is that the huge sums of money involved in cricket betting, coupled with the fact that owing to the legal ban on cricket betting it is completely an underground activity (and hence controlled by the underworld), has meant that the incentive for cheating is that much greater. Since there is no transparency in the betting industry, it becomes so much easier to 'fix' the outcome of a game and make enormous profits. And this is where the players get sucked in the vortex because games cannot be fixed without buying out players who can be game-changers.

But the seriousness shown by the ICC in the spot-fixing case, the spate of sting operations ensnaring cricketers, the hawk-eye that is likely to be kept by the law enforcement agencies on all players in the tournament, the procedures laid down for restricting contact with players are all going to make it very difficult to buy out players (who too will be extremely cautious) to make them throw matches in the current World Cup. Unless, of course, the 'setting' has already been done, which appears to be just too long a shot to be possible. Therefore, the odds are that matches will not be fixed during the current World Cup. Even betting innovations like spot-fixing are unlikely. But does this mean that there will be no betting? Far from it, betting will in all likelihood touch new heights both in terms of money and variety (runs per over, number of no balls in a match, number of fours and sixes, you name it and you can place a bet on it).

The bookmakers would have already put in place their systems and would have deployed the latest technology to ensure that they are one step ahead of the law enforcers trying to stop them. Advances in communication technology has led to both a widening and deepening of the betting industry and introduced new and innovative 'instruments' of betting. From a time when bets were placed on chits and for the whole match to the use of pagers and then mobile phones to now when bets can be placed on every ball and in a secure chat room on the internet, there has been a virtual revolution in this industry. What new innovation will be used this time remains to be seen.

Leaving aside the mens rea behind fixing matches, the fact remains that working out the odds in a cricket match is a highly technical job which involves evaluating bench strengths of teams, form of players, playing conditions (weather, pitch etc. and depending on this the toss and the decision on whether to bat or field), crowd support – the list is endless. Crunching all these factors into numbers to work out the odds and to keep changing the odds as the game proceeds would be challenging for even a trained actuary. The trouble is that since betting is considered illegal, the information that bookmakers require to fix the odds comes at a premium and anyone parting with such relatively harmless information (which is technically not a state secret and is known to people like the ground staff or met department etc) becomes an accessory to the crime especially since the law enforcement machinery in India proceeds on the presumption that 'all betting is setting'. But then why is betting on horse-racing allowed? After all, there are instances of horse races also being fixed.

If only the governments in South Asia were to give up their antiquated notions of guarding public morality and legalise betting, the fascinating world of cricket betting would become far more transparent and would actually earn revenue for the game and the states. Would that end the phenomenon of match fixing? Certainly not, because someone somewhere (including players) will always try to make a quick buck by short-circuiting the system. But remember, there are far fewer cases of match fixing in countries like England, Australia and South Africa where betting is legalised than in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where it is illegal. Perhaps the time has come where a more liberalised attitude should be adopted on the issue of betting, and at the same time no mercy whatsoever should be shown to any player found to be indulging in throwing matches or spot fixing.

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    <1025 Words>                         17th February, 2011

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1 Comments:

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