28 Jan 2021

Bidwell: The problem with international cricket right now

5:38 pm on 28 January 2021

Opinion - A former Bangladesh head coach once explained spot fixing to me.

Shakib Al Hasan

Bangladesh cricketer Shakib Al Hasan. Photo: Photosport

Entire games of international cricket are harder to corrupt - although not impossible - he said, but that still left all manner of minor things ripe for exploitation.

What colour sunglasses will player X wear? Is he in a floppy hat or a cap? Are there sweat bands on his left arm or his right?

There will always be a market for random wides or sixes off the first ball of an over, but they're not foolproof. It's far easier, for instance, to manipulate a player into using a yellow batting grip instead of a white one.

I was on my way to Bangladesh to cover an ICC T20 World Cup. The coach was scarred by his own exposure to these practices, but said I'd get a better appreciation of why players could fall prey to bookies once I'd spent some time there.

One of his former players, batsman Mohammad Ashraful, was suspended soon after for spot fixing.

"People like Ashraful, he's got 15 people living in his house, he feeds probably five families and on a cricketer's wage over there it's near impossible, so you can almost [understand]. It's a different world that we live in, it's a tough world for him,'' the coach later told me.

"He's a great young kid so I'm really disappointed for him. He probably got roped in as a 15-year-old when he first started by some other people.

"I feel a bit sorry for him but I don't condone it at all."

Bangladesh's best player - Shakib Al Hasan - is just back from a ban for breaking the International Cricket Council's anti-corruption code, after not disclosing to authorities multiple approaches from bookmakers.

This is a player who made the "Team of the Tournament" at the 2019 Cricket World Cup and is sought after by various Twenty20 franchises. And yet.

It's easy to look at some of New Zealand's performances and the enthralling series between India and Australia and conclude that international cricket is in great heart.

But for every one of those games, you have absurd series, such as those between Bangladesh and the West Indies and Sri Lanka and England.

In Bangladesh, Shakib and company are thrashing a Windies team without 12 of their best players. Ten declined to tour because of Covid-19 concerns, with two others unavailable for personal reasons.

Without naming all 12, we're talking about pretty much every good player the Windies can boast right now.

Is that good for international cricket? Can the results then be taken at face value?

Similar could be asked about the just-completed test series in Sri Lanka, where England emerged 2-0 victors thanks to some perplexing cricket from the hosts.

In both matches Sri Lanka produced one lamentable innings - 135 in the first test and 126 in the second - that seasoned observers struggled to explain.

Speaking on Sky Sport, former England captains Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain were unable to comprehend Sri Lanka's batting. Just as they were baffled by their tactics in the field, as England sought to chase 164 to win the second test.

Cricket is not a level playing field. While India, England and Australia get rich by continually playing each other, the rest of the cricket world are struggling.

New Zealand - as we're justifiably proud of - punches well above its weight at home and is mounting the only credible challenge to the game's so-called "Big Three".

But cricket in South Africa, for instance, has become embroiled in continual administrative turmoil and their ability to host international matches has been severely compromised by Covid-19. Not only are they losing matches, but they continue to haemorrhage players to other nations and coaches too.

Jacques Kallis, for instance, lost his place on South Africa's coaching staff and was immediately snapped up by England.

Look at day one of South Africa's test against Pakistan in Karachi, where the Proteas were bowled out for 220 and the hosts went to stumps at 33-4.

Was that good bowling? Poor batting? A difficult pitch? Two teams not quite at test standard? What?

The ICC needs to be careful here. We get that it has minimal clout and that the bigger nations - India in particular - call most of the shots.

But if you leave the other teams to feed off crumbs, then you create an environment where strange things can happen. Where inexplicable sessions of cricket occur and outcomes emerge that cause people to raise their eyebrows.

We get that sport is increasingly played for revenue's sake, but if a day ever comes when the integrity of the contests is questionable, then you're not left with any sport at all.

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