Spot-fixing, land taxes and Sky TV
Imagine. You are 18 years old and you come from a poor village in the Pakistani Punjab. You have a rare talent for swinging a cricket ball and you are being hailed as a future megastar. But sporting careers, particularly fast bowlers' careers, can be cut short by injury: think of Simon Jones, a hero of England's Ashes series in 2005 who has never played an international since. You are always a hamstring away from sinking back into poverty and obscurity. Wouldn't you be tempted by wads of cash for bowling a few inconsequential no-balls?
I am referring, as you have probably guessed, to the allegations against Mohammad Amir, the Pakistan bowler. To explain his alleged behaviour is not to excuse it. If sportsmen do not - subject to fitness, form and mood - always try their hardest to win, they are defrauding the paying public, jeopardising the livelihoods of fellow players and perhaps threatening the survival of their sport.
But it is all very well for prosperous folk in blazers to adopt grave expressions and wag fingers. Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has such a reputation for corruption that he is known as "Mr 10 Per Cent". A few weeks ago, he was welcomed at Chequers.
Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, assumed a look of patrician disdain as he presented Amir with a cheque and medal for Pakistan's Man of the Series. Clarke, an alumnus of Rugby School and Oxford University, a former investment banker and chairman of several companies, in effect "sold" the England cricket team in 2008 to Allen Stanford, a sleazy American now in the Federal Detention Centre, Houston, Texas, awaiting trial on fraud charges. Clarke, as an older man who should be wiser, has no right to claim the moral high ground over Amir.
Cricket was virtually invented as a vehicle for gambling, and match-fixing was there from the beginning. At least one player for Hambledon, Hampshire, supposedly the first village club (in fact, it was set up by toffs from London who recruited local farmworkers and artisans to their team), admitted in old age that he sometimes "sold" matches. Cricket's first historian, James Pycroft, writing some decades later, stated: "The idea that all the . . . rustics should . . . resist temptation to sell is not to be entertained for a moment." Eighteenth-century bookmakers told professionals on nine shillings a match at most - less than the toffs spent on dinner each night - that "my Lord this and the Duke of that" were throwing matches, so why shouldn't they get a share of the plunder?
Then, as now, cricketers lived in a world of gross inequalities. Significantly, even the best Pakistan players are relatively poor by international standards, partly because they can't, for political reasons, appear in the lucrative Indian Premier League. Sportsmen are often criticised for greed. But if investment bankers take what they can get, why shouldn't cricketers and footballers? The domination of sport by money and the sad infection of corruption are among the many downsides of unrestrained capitalism.
Though India allows lotteries and bets on horse racing and Goa has casinos, gambling is otherwise illegal on the subcontinent. The entire industry, therefore, is in the hands of criminal gangs, which use any means, up to and including murder, to maximise profits. Because betting is outside the law, nobody who is swindled, whether bookmakers or punters, will complain to the authorities, and contracts must be enforced by violence, not by the courts. Those involved, being already in illegal territory, have nothing more to fear from suborning and sometimes intimidating cricketers. If players are corrupted early in their career, they are sitting ducks for further bribery, because they dare not risk threats of exposure.
The position is similar for drugs, which are illegal in the west as well as in Asia. One day, governments across the world will recognise that banning what we imperfect humans find pleasurable - be it placing a wager or taking
a mind-altering substance - is a foolish enterprise, with consequences more dangerous than the forbidden activity itself. But that day will not, I fear, come soon.
With globalisation making it easy to shift income and profits offshore, tax is now the most important issue for a centre-left party to get to grips with. Innovative, carefully thought-out solutions are badly needed, but the Labour leadership contest has shown scant evidence of them. So I turned with interest to a Guardian article by Andy Burnham that began: "Today, I am setting out a plan for a radical reform of the tax system. At its heart is land-value tax."
The attraction of taxing land is that land cannot be moved offshore. Some years ago, during my editorship, the NS campaigned for such a tax - and began with an article by the present editor. Disappointingly, the rest of Burnham's article contained sparse details, along with banalities about crime and whines about the media.
I looked up Burnham's manifesto in the hope of further and better particulars. "I am exploring the introduction of a land-value tax," he proclaims and that's, er, it. If I am to switch my vote from the sainted Ed Miliband, Burnham will have to do better.
Pie in the Sky
The BBC director general, Mark Thompson, should be careful what he wishes for. In his attack on Sky TV at the Edinburgh Festival, he criticised the company's failure to generate more original UK content. Given the content that Sky's proprietor Rupert Murdoch generates in his newspapers, it seems wiser for us all to keep quiet on this subject.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005