England Cricket on the Spot

Spot-fixing scandal

Three English cricketers have been accused of spot-fixing. We ask: What is it? And what lessons can other sports learn from it?

For England cricket supporters the summer could not have got off to a worse start. The first test match saw them humiliated by Pakistan – the 7th ranked team in the world – inside four days and now they are facing match-fixing allegations, with accusations that three England players were paid to fix sections of a test match in India in 2016.

What are the accusations?

The accusations, made during a documentary on the Al-Jazeera channel, alleged that the unnamed players were paid by criminals linked to Indian bookmakers to fix the number of runs scored during a specific ten-over period of a test match – so-called spot-fixing. The match in question took place between India and England in Chennai in 2016, a game that England lost.

According to the documentary, sums of up to £750,000 ($1m) had been paid to England cricketers, with gamblers who were part of the conspiracy claiming to have made millions from placing bets with bookmakers. Similar accusations were also made against some – again unnamed – Australian cricketers.

What was the reaction?

Exactly as you might expect, furious. While the International Cricket Council (ICC) said – as they must – that they were taking the allegations “extremely seriously”, both the English and Australian cricket boards were vehement in their denials. England captain Joe Root described the allegations as “outrageous.”

No smoke without fire?

But cricket, sadly, has something of a reputation for fixing, especially spot-fixing. Hanse Cronje was the captain of the South African cricket team, and one of the biggest sports stars in the country, but in 1996 he was introduced to an Indian bookmaker, which ultimately led to a catalogue of match-fixing charges, forcing Cronje to resign the captaincy and quit the game before he tragically died in a plane crash.

Since then there has been a long list of allegations and rumors in the game. Former Essex fast bowler Don Topley claimed that two of his county’s games against Lancashire were fixed, and two other Essex players, Danish Kaneria and Mervyn Westfield were arrested following allegations of spot-fixing in 2009.

Why would a cricketer cheat?

Surely as professional sportsmen, cricketers are well paid and therefore have no reason to accept bribes to influence the result of a game? No, they’re not, is the short answer.

At the top end of the game cricketers are very well paid: just before the recent Ashes series, former captain Alastair Cook was on a “central contract” with the English Cricket Board and received £1.5m ($2m) a year. Joe Root, the new captain, was on £900,000 ($1.19m), plus a match fee of £15,000 ($20,000) for a test match, £7,500 ($10,000) for a one-day international and £3,500 ($4,600) for a T20 game.

Add in earnings from sponsorship, endorsements, advertising and the inevitable ghostwritten autobiography and for the top players that will add up to a very good living.

But there are two significant points to be made. First of all, even for the top players, cricket is a poorly paid sport. Top footballers will earn in a month what Joe Root earns in a year. Star players in the NFL, NBA, or MLB – as well as sports like F1, golf, and tennis – would laugh at a cricketer’s earnings.

Yes, top cricketers may be paid more elsewhere (especially in India) but below the elite level, those earnings quickly tail-off. A recent article in the Daily Telegraph stated that the average county cricketer in England Division Two was paid £37,000 ($49,000) a year.

It is hardly surprising then that over the years many cricketers have been tempted to try and earn a little extra cash by influencing not the result of a whole game – but a small part of it that was under their control.

How does spot-fixing work?

It is difficult to fix the result of a whole match: you need the complicity of at least half your team mates, you need to be sure that the weather doesn’t intervene and you need to make sure the other team – albeit unwittingly – plays its part. At the moment, deliberately losing to the England cricket team might be difficult, to say the least…

But spot-fixing – fixing the outcome of a small portion of the match – is a very different matter. In a high-profile cricket match, you can bet on a batsman’s individual runs, on how many runs are scored in a certain passage of play, on how many runs are scored off an over (six deliveries) or even how many runs are scored off one ball.

I doubt that bookmakers would accept big bets on how many runs would be scored off one single delivery – but how many runs are scored off say, overs 41-50 might be very different. This is what the current accusations against England center on, and yes, you could see how three players could easily influence this market.

At between three and four runs per over, you would expect around 30-40 in this ten-over session. But if gamblers had bribed the bowlers who were likely to bowl those overs – and bribed them to bowl a few loose deliveries – then they could bet on say, more than 50 runs with a good degree of confidence. Would an extra 20 or 30 runs in a ten-over session affect the result of the game? Probably not – but knowing the runs were going to be scored offers a significant betting opportunity.

Is there a lesson for other sports?

As we have reported previously, sports betting has been given the green light in the United States, with many states now likely to legalize it. But you can understand the misgivings from a sport like baseball. Like cricket, it is broken up into clearly defined sections. Like a bowler in cricket, the pitcher in baseball has sole control over what he bowls or pitches.

Bookmakers have been quick to complain about spot-fixing: but you cannot create a wide range of markets which make spot-fixing possible and then complain that spot-fixing is taking place. Maybe that’s the lesson that baseball can learn. It would be very hard to fix the result of the New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox. It would be very easy to fix a series of five pitches in the 6th inning of an end-of-season game which had no bearing on the play-offs…