What is match fixing in cricket?
On the 19th June 1998, under blue skies in London NW8, Lord’s was the only place for a cricket lover to be. South Africa, on their second tour of England since re-admission to the ICC, were rebuilding their innings after early difficulties with Dominic Cork. Their captain, Hansie Cronje, and star fielder Jonty Rhodes were forging an entertaining partnership of 184 that enabled the tourists to surge back into the match.
It was Test cricket at its best, the magnificent, sunlit old ground studded with attractive strokeplay. Too bad that the initiative England had gained on the first morning was being wrested away from them; this was top class, competitive cricket, fairly played and amiably observed by the grey-headed MCC members perched on their tall chairs in the Long Room. When Rhodes was out shortly after reaching his hundred, they stood as one to applaud him as he returned through that hallowed hall.
Cronje had matched Rhodes stroke for stroke, and although he fell 19 short of a century, his reputation was near its zenith. Here was a God-fearing cricketer of considerable talent, touted (if the word is appropriate in this context) for some years as his country’s captain before the retirement of his predecessor, Kepler Wessels. He had the full respect of his team and his opponents, and was playing an influential part in what was to be a convincing win at the “Cathedral of Cricket”. All, it seemed, was well with the world.
Tragically for Cronje, and for the game that he and countless others dragged through the mire, it was less than two years before the world was shocked to an unprecedented degree to discover otherwise. On the 7th April 2000, it was claimed by the Delhi police in India that they had recorded mobile phone calls between Cronje and a member of an illegal betting syndicate. Charges followed of criminal conspiracy relating to rigging matches and betting. Cronje denied any wrongdoing, and such was his standing that he was widely believed.
The moment four days later, when he decided to come clean, was a watershed in cricket’s history. Quite apart from finishing Cronje as a cricketer, it set a chain of events in motion that led to substantial fines for some players, and lifetime bans for two of them. It placed under a dazzling public spotlight claims, hitherto hazily shrouded, that were later described by Lord Condon, who headed the Anti-Corruption Unit set up by the ICC, as “the tip of the iceberg”.
It may never be known where this peculiarly malevolent species of ivy sank its roots, or how intricately it spread, indeed still spreads, its tendrils. Undoubtedly the explosion of one-day international fixtures, with venues added to the list as far afield as Sharjah, Singapore and Toronto, was a factor. The potential for betting on cricket had been grasped by a Delhi bank clerk, Mukesh Kumar Gupta (alias “John” or “MK”), as far back as the mid-1980s, and a decade later he was performing on a crowded and massively lucrative stage. Asia, where match fixing was known to be an issue well before Cronje’s involvement surfaced, was his heartland.
The allegations made by Shane Warne, Mark Waugh and Tim May in 1994 against the Pakistan captain, Salim Malik, had already prompted an enquiry in Pakistan. That eventually led to the Qayyum report, which triggered a life ban on Malik. In the meantime Waugh and Warne were both fined for receiving money from an Indian bookmaker in exchange for information. However it was Cronje’s actions, entrapment, denial and subsequent confession that were the catalyst for the King Commission in South Africa, the Central Bureau of Investigation’s report in India and the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit.
Staggeringly, it emerged at the King Commission that the entire South African team had considered an offer to throw a one-day match in 1996. The CBI report led to the admission by the former Indian captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, that he had been involved in fixing matches. Like Malik, he was banned for life, left immortally and tantalisingly poised one short of a hundred Test caps. It detailed a series of meetings that Gupta claimed to have held with high-profile cricketers from all over the world. England’s Alec Stewart was one who denied ever knowingly meeting Gupta and was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing.
But the bigger picture emerging from the separate inquiries was a far from pretty one. Players underperforming, information bought, new cars presented. Like a virulent flea Gupta hopped from one cricketer to another, and in 1996 he achieved, through Azharuddin, an introduction to Cronje, the root of whose problem, as he later admitted, was “an unfortunate love of money”. He took it, although he later claimed he lied to Gupta about match fixing. And having become addicted Cronje could not stop. In 2000 he accepted 53,000 rand and a leather jacket for his wife from the bookmaker Marlon Aronstam, in return for “making a match” of the rain-ruined fifth Test against England at Centurion Park.
Soon afterwards Cronje was introduced to the Indian businessman Sanjeev Chowla, and it was the mobile phone conversations with him in India that were recorded by the police. Unaware that the phone, which belonged to Chowla, was tapped, Cronje was encouraging various members of his team to under-perform. After coming clean he was banned for life, and his teammates Henry Williams and Herschelle Gibbs for six months.
In an almost incredibly cruel twist of fate, Cronje himself was later killed in a plane crash on a domestic flight in South Africa. His legacy, far from what might have been imagined by a dispassionate spectator at Lord’s on that sunlit June day in 1998, is a dark one. What lurks behind the apparently innocent scenery of a cricket match? How significant is it that a batsman was out for less than 20, or that the first over wasn’t a maiden? Post-Cronje and perhaps for as long as the game is played, we may well wonder.