Cricketers must have known of the cheats for years

Two huge moments in the history of the game of cricket. The first was charged with wonderful moments and democratic elegance: the choice, by a multinational panel, of five of the greatest cricketers to grace the game over the millennium. Perhaps there was surreptitious betting. Who cares? Under the guidance of Matthew Engel, editor of the cricketing bible Wisden, the exercise seemed as clean as the Old Testament.

And then came the affair of Hansie Cronje, the South African captain who admitted to taking money from bookmakers, thus bringing to cricket the greed cultivated in the free market.

Columns of copy have given us the details and then the hysterical opinions that our cherished game of glorious uncertainties is in a fundamental crisis.

Not so. Cricket has survived many things: its origins, when gambling was one of its main purposes; the odious class distinctions between amateurs and professionals which survived into the 1960s; the racial prejudice in the Caribbean that, again until the 1960s, kept black men out of the captaincy; the international political crisis created by the Bodyline series in the 1930s; assorted riots and mayhem in most countries where the game is played. I do not believe it will now succumb to a handful of poisonous cheats.

C L R James, in the finest piece of cricket literature of the millennium, wrote of how he went to a baseball game in the United States and discovered that Americans took it for granted that players would throw games. He was appalled. In Beyond the Boundary, published 42 years ago, he wrote: "Both [my sons] are readers and will read this book, and if there is a proposal to sell a game I hope this book will help them not merely to say no, which I expect from them, but to convince the others that 'it isn't cricket' to sell a game at baseball or basketball or whatever the game may be."

To throw a game was then unthinkable. But I cannot say I am surprised by the Cronje scandal. During Test Matches and one-day internationals, I am in constant contact with my friend Tim Hector, an opposition senator in Antigua and the finest mind to grace cricket commentary and journalism. I have called him on several occasions in the past three years to talk about moments in the game when I suspected cheating. I warned him that betting was rife. Any cricketing aficionado with a discerning eye would know that something was up.

Cricket commentators - from whom I heard for the first time the term "spread betting" - would make the flimsiest of excuses for a blatant example of cheating. On the tour to South Africa by the English team, Cronje deliberately ran himself out. The commentators delved into psychiatry rather than face the music.

I saw my first Test Match at the age of eight, and played the game at a reasonable level with Deryck Murray and Charles Davis, who became West Indian Test players. I cannot be deceived. If a player in my team had been trying to throw the game, or to ensure that a batsman made fewer than 20 runs, or that a bowler took fewer than two wickets, I would have been bound to know.

So how could other players, or for that matter the commentators, not have known what Cronje and others were up to? It is clear to me that cricketers in general have known of this sore for years now. So many have kept silent for this or that reason. Several justify the cheating by pointing to the riches of other sportsmen. I have heard that siren song.

Only we the spectators can save the game, bringing terror to the players who conspire to deceive.

We need whistle-blowers from within the game. The gentlemanly approach that we should deal with the issue in the cupboards of committees can no longer be advanced. Bring them all out of the closet and let the devil take the hindmost. But ultimately only the vigilance of the spectators can right this wrong.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?