Alex Massie

Prohibition Doesn’t Work: Cricket & Gambling Edition

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The News of the World's revelations about connivance between cricketers and bookmakers is dismaying; the story can't alas, be considered wholly surprising. If proved - and on the face of it there's every reason to suppose that the allegations are accurate - then it's difficult to see how Salman Butt and the other players implicated can escape heavy punishment (and perhaps in the skipper's case a lifetime ban).

The consolation, in as much as there is one, is that the evidence points to spot-fixing rather than match-fixing. Saying that the former is not as serious as the latter does not mean it's unserious. It just means that matters could be worse. And perhaps they are, given how much we don't know. (For my part, I don't much care if meaningless One Day fixtures are corrupted - not least since they only exist for commerical reasons - but I'd hope, optimistically it seems, that the players might have enough respect for themselves and for the game to recognise that Test cricket is a different beast that should be played honestly.)

There are different kinds of cheating and some offend us more than others. Cheating to win, while regrettable and reprehensible, is one thing, cheating to lose quite another. Few sports are entirely free of the former but the latter form of cheating is vastly more insidious since it undermines the whole point of the competition in the first-place.

That is, cheating to gain an advantage doesn't guarantee victory but conspiring to throw a game is both easier (in some sports anyway) and makes a mockery of everything. That's one reason why match-fixing in cricket is more offensive than, say, drug-taking in cycling. The same is true in horse-racing: doping to win is reprehensible but it doesn't rob the public as surely as a non-trier does. It's easier, perhaps, to prevent people from cheating to win than to stop cheating by losing deliberately.

There's a policy aspect to this latest crisis too: prohibition does not work. At least some of the problems associated with spot-fixing are intimately connected to the fact that gambling on sports is an underground industry in India and Pakistan. A legal gambling industry - that is, one less in hock to and controlled by gangsters - would surely be better placed to combat this kind of corruption. Prohibition is far from the only villain but it certainly exacerbates the problem.

Primary responsibility lies with the players, of course, but the problems associated with cricket and gambling cannot be divorced from the nature of the betting industry on the sub-continent. Fixing that won't solve everything but it would be a good place to start.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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