Illegal betting syndicates target MSL cricket

Hansie Cronje during cross-examination at the King commission of inquiry into allegations of cricket match-fixing. (AFP)

Hansie Cronje during cross-examination at the King commission of inquiry into allegations of cricket match-fixing. (AFP)

It was a sweltering, late-winter day on March 19 2000 and India were playing host to the Proteas in a one-day international on a dry Nagpur wicket. The air was thick, but it had less to do with the humidity than what was about to transpire on the field.

Having set India a target of 321 to chase, South Africa captain Hansie Cronje tossed the new ball to off spinner Derek Crookes to open the bowling. It was a radical move, even for the forward-thinking Cronje.
Commentators and analysts were confused. Such chutzpah was out of place here in a staid sport that barred the same Cronje from wearing an earpiece on the field a year earlier in the 1999 World Cup. In the evolutionary cycle of world cricket, today’s cheats are tomorrow’s innovators.

The introduction of Crookes so early in the innings was the smoking gun Indian police needed to prove a conspiracy to fix a match, having earlier inadvertently stumbled across telephone conversations between Cronje and well-known Indian bookmakers.

A compromised cellphone handed to London-based businessman Sanjeev Chawla exposed Cronje’s dealings with Chawla and the grimy underbelly of cricket match-fixing in recordings that shocked the cricket world at the time. At that moment, the aura of integrity and wholesomeness assigned to South Africa’s post-apartheid golden boy evaporated. Still, Cronje had the backing of his bosses in the beginning.

The death of innocence

In April 2000, then United Cricket Board president Ali Bacher came out to bat for Cronje, saying: “The allegations are outrageous. Hansie Cronje is a man of unquestionable honesty and integrity.”

But for many who followed the investigation and read the transcripts of the recordings, the innocence of cricket died on that day in 2000, when Cronje and many others fell from grace. The subsequent investigations by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation led to the downfall of Saleem Malik, Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and Manoj Prabhakar, legends of the game whose contribution will forever be tainted because of their willingness to corrupt it.

At the time, cricket was being fattened up by TV rights and sponsorship deals and carved up by corporates, broadcasters, marketers and gambling houses linked to questionable figures in the Indian criminal underworld. As audiences grew, advances in technology and digital communication meant more entities were invested in cricket’s lucrative future — except for the fans, who were being hoodwinked by fixers and pliable players.

Nearly two decades later, not much has changed. If anything, the stakes have increased exponentially.

Cricket’s market value today sits at around $5.3-billion, according to recent studies. The game makes more money in sponsorships than Major League Baseball in the United States and boasts a global audience of more than two billion people, mostly male and living in South Asia. The hold betting has over the game of cricket at various levels is vice-like and unrelenting. Cricket, wittingly or unwittingly, is host to an alternate society of parasitic fixers, gangsters and business people who trade in extortion, sucking the life out of competitive cricket in the process.

Fertile ground for fixers

The introduction of T20 leagues around the world has created fertile ground for illegal betting syndicates to take root. This is the quandary that Cricket South Africa’s new Mzansi Super League (MSL) finds itself in right now.

A reasonably successful MSL tournament in 2018 was tainted by the arrest of several individuals suspected of being involved in an illegal betting practice known as courtsiding — taking advantage of the delay between the live action on the field and the TV broadcast, by feeding information directly from the stadium to bookmakers by telephone. Large bets are placed on details of the game such as no-balls, runs per over, runs scored by batters and runs conceded by bowlers. This is known as spot betting, dishonestly determining the outcome of a certain aspect of a match.

Officially, four suspects were arrested during the MSL: two in Durban during a match between Durban Heat and Jozi Stars, and two at Boland Park while Paarl Rocks and Tshwane Spartans battled it out on 18 November last year.

But it’s believed that more than 10 individuals were arrested and deported for illegal betting activities during the MSL, a number Cricket South Africa (CSA) has yet to confirm.

CSA, the South African Police Service and local authorities have been monitoring all MSL matches, scouring the modest crowds in search of suspicious behaviour such as constant phone chatter during a match. While CSA’s approach to match-fixing and spot betting has been more proactive than in the past, the governing body has the almost impossible task of preventing illegal betting syndicates from getting their tentacles into a fresh, new tournament.

The local game, too, has shown a weakness for the overtures of match-fixing and serves as a constant reminder of how easily things could go wrong for cricket in South Africa. CSA, to its credit, has dealt with corruption more clinically than most cricketing bodies, with some success.

Officially, 41 cricketers have been banned from the sport for contraventions such as passing information to bookmakers, agreeing to underperform and failure to report an approach. Of the 41, 10 are South African: Cronje, Henry Williams, Herschelle Gibbs, Gulam Bodi, Thami Tsolekile, Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Alviro Petersen, Ethy Mbhalati, Jean Symes and Pumelela Matshikwe. Bodi will know soon whether he will spend time in a prison cell for attempting to fix Ram Slam T20 games in South Africa in 2015.

‘Cash in hand’

Bodi appeared in the Pretoria Commercial Crimes court in November, where he pleaded guilty under the Prevention of Corrupt Activities Act for his role as middleman in the months leading up to the 2015 Ram Slam T20. He became the first South African to be criminally convicted of match-fixing.

Mbhalati, Symes, Tsolekile, Petersen and Matshikwe are currently serving bans ranging from two to 10 years, effectively ending their professional careers. When asked at the time why he was tempted, Bodi said: “Cash in hand, boss, cash in hand.”

The King Commission of Enquiry into Cricket Match Fixing and Related Matters found that Cronje had taken $15 000 (about R100 000 at the time) from a bookmaker. “Money for jam,” as Cronje put it.

Herein lies the dilemma for CSA. In dealing with an industry that is worth billions and operates using untraceable cash, how does it begin to clean up the game that is now infiltrated by syndicates and underworld characters? How does it stop cheaters who sit among the general public and operate in invisible networks? Advances in technology allow syndicates to be more sophisticated and make prosecution nearly impossible.

In 2000, when South Africa toured India, Cronje was following a plan for fixing the one-day international in Nagpur. The team was to score more than 250 runs, but less than 270 runs. If the Proteas scored more, the deal was off.

Cronje approached three South African players. One of them was bowler Henry Williams. “He [Cronje] said to me I must go for more than 50 runs in my 10 overs. So, what he basically said is that I must underperform in that game, and the team mustn’t score more than 270,” Williams said in a TV interview in 2000.

Williams was promised $25 000 for his participation. “I thought ‘it’s a lot of money’ but I didn’t think what the consequences would be.”

Williams and Gibbs agreed to underperform in the ODI against India in Nagpur, but in the end didn’t do so for vastly different reasons. Gibbs later claimed he forgot to underperform and instead scored 74 runs off 53 balls, while Williams retired hurt after bowling 11 legitimate balls and six wides. Both players were banned for six months, but not before implicating Cronje as the protagonist in the dressing room who offered them money to fix matches.

The plan to fix the game failed. South Africa won the match by 10 runs and no money was paid. Crookes, by the way, finished on 1/69 after 10 overs and denied ever being approached by Cronje. It was later revealed that Cronje had been receiving money from bookmakers since 1996 and, by 2000, had received approximately $100 000.

Cronje sings for King

In one instance, the King commission heard how a day before South Africa’s tri-series ODI game against Zimbabwe on 1 February 2000, Chawla handed Cronje $15 000 at a Durban hotel.

In June 2000, two months after being exposed, Cronje confessed. “Words cannot begin to describe the shame, humiliation and pain which I feel in the knowledge that I have inflicted this on others.”

It was cricket’s most famous mea culpa, the most public admission of guilt by a leading cricketer. It blew the lid on cricket’s dark art of match-fixing and influence peddling and tarnished the reputation of key players in world cricket.

The revelations in 2000 made a mockery of the traditions and culture of the sport that so many millions held in high esteem. Unlike football, cricket was seen as more cerebral, more nuanced and a class above, where excellence is rewarded with material trappings and deity status — particularly on the subcontinent, but also at the tip of Africa. To excel is to be treated with the kind of reverence reserved for royalty, replete with endorsement deals, retweets and likes. In Nelson Mandela’s South Africa in the mid to late-1990s, to be an international sportsperson was to be a role model of the highest order and beyond reproach.

Those days are all but over, lost to cynicism because of what unfolded on that day of disbelief in Nagpur and the year to follow.

But gambling in cricket has evolved, even grown in market share. There is barely a first-class game or limited overs match that one cannot place a bet on, from Dhaka to Durban. Betting houses are now so inextricably linked to cricket that they quite literally own and sponsor franchises across the globe. That in itself is not detrimental to cricket, it’s when fixers and courtsiding come into play that the game is affected.

Anti-corruption protocols

In August 2018, Sri Lankan cricket’s anti-corruption unit detained two Indian spectators on suspicion of match-fixing during a domestic T20 league game. The men were caught after officials spotted them behaving suspiciously and making repeated phone calls.

In 2017, three international captains reported being approached by match-fixers. Former Zimbabwe Cricket official Rajan Nayer offered Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer $30 000 to fix the result of the two-Test series against West Indies. Nayer was banned from all cricketing activity for 20 years after accepting a charge of attempted match-fixing.

CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe said anti-corruption protocols had been enhanced during the MSL. The CSA also called on fans attending games to be vigilant and report any betting-related activities.

“The protocols included the sighting of any person deemed to be engaging in betting activities or the facilitation of betting activities within stadiums,” Moroe said. “Such persons will be removed from the stadium and face possible arrest. With the use of enhanced technology, match-fixers are using people posing as fans in the stadium to relay live data to illegal betting houses functioning abroad. To prevent such activities, we have strengthened our in-stadium monitoring and protection capabilities, including the active surveillance of crowd activities.”

The problem is so massive that CSA can only do its bit to root out corruption by watching the viewing public like lifeguards on a crowded beach. There is little else the cricket governing body seems capable of doing other than expelling suspects from stadiums.

India’s illicit gambling market is reportedly worth up to $100 billion a year in a country where gambling remains illegal and therefore difficult to audit, let alone regulate, the more than 100 000 bookmakers. There are no betting shops, so there is no way for gambling houses to track large bets. Every transaction is dealt with on the phone and cash changes hands.

Explosive allegations

Al-Jazeera’s recent explosive documentary links England, Australia and Pakistan players to an infamous match-fixer named Aneel Munawar. The documentary claims evidence of spot-fixing in seven England matches between 2011 and 2012 and claimed their source “successfully predicted 25 out of 26 scoring patterns in a total of 15 international matches”.

Naturally, England and Australia denied the allegations. The ICC’s Anti‑Corruption Unit has been unable to reveal the true identity of Munawar, saying only that “he plays a significant role in the programme, yet inquiries with law enforcement and immigration sources have not identified or located him”, according to Alex Marshall, general manager of the unit.

Illegal betting and match-fixing have latched on to the growth of Twenty20 all around the world. Syndicates operate outside of normal business practices and skirt the law with deft precision. All that exists are dense webs of deceit that have proven impenetrable to a large degree.

South Africa’s laws — such as the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, 12 of 2004, The National Sport and Recreation Act, 10 of 1998, the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, 121 of 1998 and the National Gambling Act, 7 of 2004 — have so far only been applied to Bodi and seem incapable of securing the convictions of fixers relaying live information from the stands.

The rot is deep, and while CSA seems to have exorcised the ghost of Cronje from its game, new arrests and fresh revelations in recent years have raised the alarm as the MSL prepares for its sophomore year in the global T20 cauldron. — New Frame

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