While the Supreme Court still sits on the names of the players involved in murky deals, Lou Vincent has added a new dimension of controversy with his ‘confessions’. Arunabha Sengupta says that betting and fixing, though deplorable, are nothing new in cricket.
So Lou Vincent’s ‘confessions’ have added a new dimension of filth to the muck and vulgarity that surrounds modern day cricket. The Supreme Court still sits on the six – or more – names associated with murky dealings. New scandals are unearthed and new names shamed almost every day.
And the laments grow increasingly louder, about how the gentleman’s game has been dragged into the quagmire of filthy lucre by blatant commercialisation and naked greed. In short, we continue to hear echoes of an imagined past of pristine purity in which cricketers were angels just short of sprouting wings.
Or did old cricketers indeed possess wings, that wrapped their mortal selves and protected them from all the temptations that have plagued mankind since the dawn of civilisation?
Yes, betting and fixing in the game are indeed deplorable. But, to claim that it is a modern day vice in cricket is another facet of the favourite pastime of the cricket fans – closing collective eyes to history and basking in the manufactured mythology surrounding the supposed noble game.
Cricket enjoyed no so called age of innocence, no matter what romantic fascination may have fabricated down the years. From the earliest days, in that era of ‘pristine village cricket’, it was a game championed by land-owning elites and executed through their hired and trained professionals because huge stakes were played for.
How huge were the stakes? In 1751 – no typo there – a match between Old Etonians and ‘England’ featured a wager of £1,500 plus side bets totalling £20,000. In the Hambledon matches, in the so called cradle of cricket, £500 a side was the normal wager. In 1794, the Earls of Winchilsea and Darnley wagered 1,000 guineas on a match between their respective sides.
Not only money, land and property were also staked. And as can be expected, there were plenty of professional palms adequately greased so that matches slipped through and were thrown. England in the 18th century had drawn up an expensive legislation dealing with crimes against property, including poaching and squatting. The same landed gentry who passed these laws in the Parliament also codified the elaborate laws of cricket.
Simply because of the enormous amounts over which betting and fixing were involved in the game.
And no… unlike popular perception, shorter versions of the game including Twenty20 did not provide new opportunities of staking money. From the earliest days, cricket’s unique two innings format made it ideal for gamblers. It made wagers more complex and results more random. The conclusion of the first innings provided the opportunity to increase stakes or revise odds.
The first detailed guide of the game was drawn up not in England, but in the Bavarian village of Schnepfental. This was in 1796, the work of a teacher named Johann Christian Friedrich Gutsmuths. This document called cricket ‘a magnificent game which lends itself to being played even without money. As a game for money it is greatly preferable to cards.’
Down the years, cricket was played as a team game as well as single and double wicket face offs, drawing huge crowds, not least due to the enormously heavy bets placed on the games.
“A set match at Lord’s for money, hard money, between a certain number of gentlemen and players, as they are called – people who make a trade of the noble sport, and degrade it into an affair of betting and hedgings and cheatings, it may be, like boxing or horse racing,” lamented novelist Mary Russell Mitford – in the 1820s. Sounds so much like the modern day proclamations of cricketing doomsday, doesn’t it?
The first instance of fixing in First-Class cricket was encountered in 1842, and featured Alfred Mynn, a man who was almost as big a name in the first half of the 19th century as WG Grace was in the second half. After this match between Kent and England XI charges of fixing made sinister rounds and ‘Alfred Mynn was hissed at in Maidstone Market.’
“Cricket has become such a business that there arises doubts in the minds of the amateurs whether they can continue the sport,” wrote novelist Anthony Trollope in the 1860s.
When the first ever Test match was played at Melbourne in 1877, England had to make do with a makeshift wicketkeeper. Ted Pooley, their regular stumper, was in prison in New Zealand after some severe altercation surrounding betting.
Plenty of early Ashes encounters were cloaked in suspicion of murky dealings, rampant betting and suspicious performances. Match-fixing, betting and blatant commercialism is as old as the game itself.
It is not by any means an effort to justify the increasing corruption that one sees in the game, but to put the shady business in a proper perspective. The dark, sinister shadows are not cast by the glittering spotlights of the present, their origins are literally older than the first invented electric lamps.
So what do we make of the rants full of rhetoric doing rounds in the recent times?
‘The great gentleman’s game has been brought into disrepute’ … Yes, there is no doubt about the disrepute, but it was never a gentleman’s game except in the wishful imaginations mingled with the gross neglect of actual history in public perception.
‘Cricket, played with the loftiest ideals from the pristine days of the past, has had its spotless image grotesquely tarnished by the huge ugly smudges of money grabbing palms. Spot-fixing and betting scandals have taken the game to an unprecedented low.’ - All that is incredible nonsense, basking in the afterglow of a manufactured perfect past of rosy retrospection, denigrating the present with caustic criticism.
It is analogous to saying the modern age of jet-setting travellers has given rise to the ignoble trade of prostitution.
Yes, betting and fixing are likewise parts of one of the oldest professions in cricket.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)