The break in play caused by coronavirus might appear a curious time for the International Cricket Council to be reminding players of their duty to report corrupt approaches, but a sport that sits dormant is still vulnerable. The illegal gambling market on the Asian subcontinent has no live action at present and when play resumes there will be an appetite among bookmakers and punters to make up for lost time. What chance a spike in nefarious activity as a knock-on effect?
This threat is something that anti-corruption units around the world are wary of, not least with cricketers, like many of us, on their mobile phones more than usual during the lockdown. The loss of lucrative deals, as tournaments are postponed, could make some more amenable to alternative sources of money, too.
“Corruptors will be losing income and they might see it as an opportunity to reach out to players,” Hayley Green, anti-corruption manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board, told the Observer via conference call.
“The longer the lockdown continues and certain tournaments don’t take place, absolutely it will be going through their minds when and how to reach out to players. That’s not just cricket, you might expect a trend across sport. We’re planning for that.”
For players, officials and agents in England and Wales there are myriad ways to report suspicious contact, including a 24-hour hotline, six anti-corruption officers allocated to work with three counties each and an ICC Integrity mobile app.
Under the ECB and ICC anti-corruption codes it is their duty to flag up potentially corrupt approaches too. In recent times two high-profile suspensions from cricket, in Bangladesh’s superstar all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan and Sanath Jayasuriya, the former Sri Lanka opener turned national selector, serve as a reminder of the consequences for not doing so.
That both bans were triggered by failure to report, as well as a refusal to cooperate in the case of Jayasuriya, is noteworthy. Since Alex Marshall, the former British chief constable, took charge of the ICC’s anti-corruption unit in 2017, there has been a clear shift towards this side of the problem, as well as increased efforts to disrupt corruptors.
It makes sense, too. Demonstrating definitively that games or passages of play are fixed remains labyrinthine work, even if there has been recent successes in exposing schemes in the Pakistan Super League (2017) and South Africa’s Ram Slam T20 (2016).
But now armed with the technology to trace communications – to the point that even the information on a deliberately damaged sim card can be recovered – it has become easier for investigators to prove an approach has not been escalated, so we are seeing the bans this commands – six months to five years – being dispensed more regularly.
James Pyemont, the ECB’s head of integrity, says: “That offence [failure to report] is a standalone one but it is also a way of trying to identify and catch corruption early. There are many reasons why that’s a sensible approach. From a historical look at match-fixing in cricket, there are always opportunities for intervention and prevention before that corrupt event happens, so it’s working in that space and seeking to be proactive rather than reactive.”
The ECB is understood to have seen the number of approaches being reported roughly double in the past two years. The figures, not disclosed, are said to remain relatively low overall, however, and the increase is not necessarily viewed as a sign of more activity.
Rather they say the feedback from the Professional Cricketers’ Association is that trust in the process has gone up, as well as awareness given education programmes that include seminars, online modules and contact with their local anti-corruption officer.
English cricket is taking a more bespoke approach, too, recognising that different players require different messaging at different times, be it the academy graduate starting their career or the seasoned pro heading off to play in a domestic Twenty20 competition overseas.
The T20 leagues have opened up new commercial opportunities but also a fresh avenue for fixers. As well as lavish gifts and fictional sponsorship deals, a new method of approach is to promise a player they will be signed in a draft. The ECB says it will happily investigate any offers that feel remotely suspicious, even if simply to provide peace of mind.
Pyemont adds: “We are trying to work in the background and it’s a balance of how much headspace we can occupy with players. We don’t want them to be paranoid but we also want them to recognise if something is not right and pass that headache on to us. We want to be a drum beat in the back of their minds.”
“It’s also very clear that if they make a mistake in this area, it can be very difficult to come back from. So we want to work in support but there are severe consequences that can be career changing or even life changing.”
In short, there has never been an easier time for players to report an approach, nor a more punitive time if they don’t. The sport is on hold but the drum continues to beat.