Category Archives: Cheaters

Why Spot-Fixing Offends

When a spot-fixing scandal emerges (and it seems to happen with an increasing frequency lately), cricket fans turn to their ethics textbooks. Is there a moral distinction between throwing a game (“match-fixing”) and throwing a wide, no-ball, or a given number of runs (“spot-fixing”)? If spot-fixing aims to ‘fix’ such small, mundane events, is there really cause for life-bans or moral opprobrium? This was the source of the argument between Harsha Bhogle, who pointed out the degree-of-difference on Twitter, and Dale Steyn, who replied that stealing a dollar or a bank still amounts to stealing.

I’m not that invested in this discussion because spot-fixing offends me for another reason. Cricket is now a modern game, which means that we have professional athletes who make a difficult bargain: In return for two to three decades of hard work, many injuries, and terrible odds for national selection, we offer them (a small group of them, anyway) money, fame, and the chance to be part of a country’s biggest moments. The money comes from the fans (mostly from their televisions), and advertisers. Policing these new commercial boundaries is difficult and often incoherent: We are willing to accept loud, incessant ads between overs, but we’re uneasy about inserting them into the game (“Karbon Kamaal catch,” “Yes Bank Maximum,” etc.). We’re still not sure how we feel about a player abandoning his country’s Test side for a made-up IPL franchise, but we’re extremely uneasy about an Indian team that either hides or misdiagnoses injuries for fear it may hurt a player’s chance to play in the IPL. We also understand the need for sponsors, but we’re not happy to see one of them own both an IPL franchise and head the organization that owns the IPL and the Indian national team.

So now we have spot-fixing, which offends me because it basically abolishes these commercial-athlete boundaries (however made up they may seem). In essence, a bookie turns an athlete into a private employee and asks him to do his bidding over the most trite affairs — Place your towel into your pants! Shake your wristband! Give me a no-ball! The player becomes a financial product — a secret investment akin to an insider trading scheme. What’s forgotten is that a player (presumably) worked hard to reach his particular level, and his skills are now not subject to chance or fate or another player’s abilities, but to some shady operator at the end of a cellphone. What’s also forgotten, of course, is that a fan fully expects to see these skills. To watch the best do their best — that’s what a spectator can reasonably ask for.

Spot-fixing enrages me because it makes explicit what I’d prefer to repress. I know that cricket is a commercial game now, just as another modern sport is, and that it has been so for a long, long time. But I still prefer not to think of the game as a series of financial transactions, even though increasingly, the money equation seems to determine what we watch on our screens. We’ve made all sorts of bargains ourselves, as my second paragraph indicates, that we forget how much we have given away. The real difference here isn’t match-fixing v. spot-fixing; it is trying to place spot-fixing on a spectrum that now includes sponsorship, ads, conflicts-of-interests, and bad faith


The DRS Will Not Give You The Truth

Over at A Cricketing View, Kartikeya has another excellent post on DRS (at this point, the man could put together a 1000-page collection of his writing on the subject). In reviewing yesterday’s Michael Clarke LBW decision, Kartikeya reiterates a conclusion I’ve long supported: that the DRS, far from offering an objective, neutral, “scientific” review, merely offers just another subjective description of reality. The debate over umpire review is not one of Truth (i.e. Machine) v. Non-Truth (i.e. Human Fallibility); it is, and always has been, Sorta Truth v. Sorta Truth. The crisis we face in cricket is trying to decide whether we want to replace one mode of judgement — human observation — for another — computer/video gizmos. There’s no escaping the wormhole, friends.

I just want to add a quick reflection on this Ian Chappell quote (reported by Kartikeya in his post):

“There never has been, nor will there ever be, a case where a 50-50 decision causes animosity on the cricket field. Players are conditioned to accept that one day these decisions will go your way and the next they’ll go against you. What does cause animosity on the field is the absolute howler that can change the course of a match.”

I’d like to suggest that this is not actually true anymore. During Day 4, a couple of Australian batsmen — David Warner and Ed Cowan, I think — behaved as if they were wrongly given out. As they shook their heads while walking back to the pavilion, they seemed to be saying, “If only the BCCI allowed DRS! Oh, the travesty!” By my estimate, however, only Warner could claim that his case was close, but both decisions were eminently reasonable.

Now, maybe this was just two isolated examples of touchy batsmen, but I think the existence of DRS has alarmingly fed this myth among players (and perhaps fans?) that umpires are fallible and that machines are not. That is to say, DRS is starting to eliminate the howler/non-howler distinction; anything marginal or benefit-of-the-doubty is considered an outright injustice. I imagine that as more players come to experience DRS, or a successful umpire review, they will increasingly believe that the umpires must be wrong. Looking at the number of unsuccessful reviews (mostly for LBWs) over the years, I wrote on Twitter  that DRS has revealed either how many cricketers don’t seem to understand the rules of the game, or, more charitably, how many use terribly biased sensory perception to evaluate reality.

In the quest to remove “absolute howlers,” we may have inadvertently destroyed the authority and tradition of the cricket umpire, one of the quirkiest (and I think essential) figures in sport. And for what? Look again at Michael Clarke’s reaction to his dismissal — as Kartikeya writes, he looked ruefully at the pitch, because had the ball not hit a certain spot, it would not have bounced so erratically. Fate and chance conspired against Clarke, but does anyone among us believe it to be unfair? Of course not! Why can’t we treat the umpire who occasionally errs in the same fashion? Why are we willing to forgive landmine pitches, but not extremely competent umpires who mess up now and then?

Cameron White Is Wrong About Marlon ‘The Legend’ Samuels

Just a quick recap for non-cricket fans: After Shane Warne got in Marlon Samuels’ face during a game, Warne then threw a cricket ball at Samuels (it  may have just been by accident). At this point, Samuels — who, really, had just heard quite a tirade from Warne — threw his bat high in the air (and in Warne’s general direction). The video is below:

So, Warne got into a fair amount of trouble, but Cricinfo reports the verdict for Samuels (and Cameron White’s reaction):

Samuels was let off with a reprimand after the Code of Conduct commissioner John Price ruled that Samuels threw his bat after “extreme provocation” from Warne, who had just thrown a ball that hit Samuels.

“Being provoked, I don’t think you can use that as an excuse,” White said in Melbourne on Tuesday. “It’s remarkable, isn’t it? How many times have you seen someone throw their cricket bat on a cricket field and get [reprimanded] for being extremely provoked? I’ve never seen it before. That’s what the judiciary came up with.”

White is acting as many parents do when their squabbling children start to yell, “Well he started it — No, I didn’t — Yes, you did!”  The easiest course for any parent at this point is to appear neutral and punish both sides equally, and leave aside the thorny factual question of who started what.

While that approach may work for parenting, it’s silly when it comes to adjudicating conflicts among adults. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can still fucking hurt. Warne was clearly the provocateur during this incident, and his constant, unyielding attempts to unsettle Samuels was designed to elicit some reaction.* I’m passionate about this case because of a similar one that occurred in 2008 between Gautam Gambhir and Shane Watson. The Australian tormented Gambhir during the course of his innings, and started to swear at him. Gambhir, understandably angry, elbowed Watson. The judge — the estimable A. Sachs — dismissed Anil Kumble’s argument that swearing is particularly offensive to South Asians, who place high stock on the power of words. As he put it, “However severe the verbal assaults on them may be, players are obliged not to give vent to their anger through physical retaliation.”

Again, very silly. Speech matters, and it can in fact cause harm. To focus on the physical aspect of an argument seems natural, since violence among men is always a concern. But it is ridiculous not to view harmful speech as potentially injurious as well. Sachs would prefer that players turn the other cheek for as long as they stay at the crease, and maintain a masculine silence about the whole thing. Meanwhile, the sledger — the one having fun at somebody’s expense — enjoys a massive legal loophole, because he knows that, to a large extent, sledging in cricket is tolerated (and increasingly celebrated).

No, commissioner Price was right, and White wrong: you get in another player’s face, then you should expect to have a cricket bat coming at you.

*I understand that Warne was simply “repaying” Samuels for tugging at Hussey’s shirt, which I felt was reprehensible. However, cricketers are not judges, and Warne should have left it to the match referee to pass judgment on Samuels.

A Second Question For Cricket Rules Purists

Alas, my previous attempt to resolve the Mankading dispute failed to change anyone’s minds or bring about world peace. Here’s my second shot:

Let’s do a quick recap. Samir Chopra, a writer I very much respect, said on Twitter that he just doesn’t know what all the fuss is about; his prescription: “run out the bastards” (whether or not he was carrying a pitchfork is still being determined). I have argued that there is at least some room for the “spirit of the game” discourse; as proof of faith, I asked the rules purists if they would have bowled the infamous underarm last ball. Some — @HomerTweets, e.g. — said, yes, and he had no problems with Bodyline either. OK. Others pointed out — very reasonably — that this debate isn’t about rules v. spirit, but bowlers v. batsmen (a bout the latter group seems to keep winning).

So here’s my second question: would you appeal for a batsman’s wicket if he timed out? There was an incident like this recently between India and Australia (unfortunately, I can’t find the exact match report; does anyone else recall the details?). Some wickets fell unexpectedly, and either Tendulkar or Laxman was in the bathroom, which meant more than two minutes passed before anyone emerged from the pavilion. Now, Australia could have appealed for the wicket, but they didn’t. Why? As Kartikeya suggests, the question of empathy proved paramount — how would I feel if I couldn’t start my innings because of this kind of wicket? So imagine that on the way to the pitch, a batsman falls on a banana skin and temporarily incapacitates both himself and the next padded-up player. Would you stick to the rules if this team, scrambling to find a replacement, took more than the timed out rule allots?


A Question For Cricket Rules Purists

Some argue that the R. Ashwin ‘mankading’ incident was much ado about nothing. In case of a dispute, all umpires and players need to do is read the rules and properly enforce them. There should be no reference to any authority outside of the text; the only thing that matter is the words and what a reasonable person can infer about their meaning. [See, “Originalism” for more.] The worry is that the rules will, as Cricinfo put it, “lose out” to the ‘spirit of the game,’ a set of vague, amorphous principles that no one has ever defined.

Compelling. But this interpretive framework fails before one judicial test: “The Underarm Bowling Hypothetical.” Say you are the captain of a fielding side, and your opposition needs to score six off the last ball to tie. Do you, like Greg Chappell did in a similar situation, instruct your bowler to underarm bowl the ball? [Assume that this technique is permitted by the rules.]

If you say ‘yes,’ fine. You’re a dogmatist. (You’re also going to have deal with a large crowd of angry Kiwis, but that’s another matter.) If you at least admit some hesitation before answering, you see the power of the ‘spirit’ doctrine. So quit talking about the rules as if they’re the only factor to consider. There is something outside the text.


Lay Off Saeed Ajmal

Here we go again: another South Asian off-spinner takes a few wickets (at the hands of some clueless white men), and the commentators start yapping about his action. Saeed Ajmal gave the performance of his career after a week of breathing fire to anyone who would listen. Matt Prior had the decency to say he couldn’t care less about his action, but here’s Bob Willis:

“The delivery that I have a problem with is the doosra,” Willis said. “The ICC have accommodated this delivery; they changed the rules to allow these bowlers to bend their elbow 15 degrees, which is what makes it so difficult for the batsmen.

“The authorities are now allowing these mystery spinners, unorthodox offspinners to bend their elbow to a degree. If they are going to be allowed to do that then England have to address this and decide whether we should be teaching our young spinners to bowl like that as well.”

Let me say this once more: the rules were not changed to accommodate any specific type of player. They were changed because the science showed that it was impossible for the human eye to see any inflexion below 15 degrees. I know that Willis — and many, many others — refuse to accept this tale, but to indulge in silly conspiracy theories makes them sound, well, positively South Asian. If you believe the ICC committee that decided this rule based its decision on something other than science, then show me the evidence.

And here’s some pseudo-science from the Daily Mail, which purports to do what an independent ICC panel didn’t and make the case against Ajmal’s arm. I’m not sure taking a crappy picture and putting an angle on Ajmal’s arm is going to beat the 3D modeling the ICC panel used, but at this point, I’d rather stick with the authorities than a tabloid. The real danger is that these people will do to Ajmal what they did to Murali; that is, it’ll come to the point that even when commentators finally agree about the validity of his action, they’ll still bring it up to say it’s cleared, only serving to reinforce the ambiguity behind the whole affair.

Let’s nip this in the bud, people, and enjoy the prospect of an overseas defeat for England. Let the revenge begin!

The Question Of Ian Bell’s Run Out

By now, the freak incident is moot. M.S. Dhoni, bowing to good decency, excellent tea, a crowd baying for Indian blood, and Andy Flower and Andy Strauss’ knocking on his door, decided to withdraw an appeal for Ian Bell’s run out. When Bell finally did get out, India were already well on their way to losing the match and this game will not be remembered (one hopes) as the Sydney Test is.

But let’s talk about it just a little bit. Technically — that is, according to the rules of the game — Ian Bell should have been given out. He left his crease before the umpire declared dead ball and he was out of his crease when his bails were taken off. In his defense, people say: a) the spirit of the game should take precedent; Bell obviously wasn’t running for a fourth run and shouldn’t be penalized for being under the wrong impression; b) Bell may have seriously thought the ball was dead because Praveen Kumar sat on his ass for a good three seconds at the boundary rope, implying a ‘4’ had just been hit; and c) even the umpires were looking like they were headed off for a nice cuppa.

In India’s defense, people say: a) Don’t ever leave your crease until you’re absolutely certain you should, a lesson every schoolchild knows; b) at a crucial moment, Eoin Morgan can be seen, rooted in his crease, say something to Bell who then, already halfway down the pitch, suddenly stops, looks to his right in a bit of shock, before ambling on his way. That suggests that Morgan knew what was on, and tried to warn Bell, who chose to neglect his plea; and c) Bell’s intent — or, rather, lack of it — doesn’t really matter. When a batsman is out ‘backing up’ — that is, when a bowler touches a ball on its way to the stumps — no one has any issue with the dismissal. It’s just accepted.

So where does this leave us? Cricket is an exceptionally complex game, and it’s made all the more complicated by an expectation of fairness not apparent in the law’s letters. Moreover, no matter how specific the rules, there are always exceptions, which can’t be fairly adjudicated in the heat of the moment. I just finished a scratch game over the weekend wherein a fielder caught a ball, stayed in control, then turned around and touched a 15-foot tall fence (around the park) to steady himself. Is that out? Is that six? Is that six-and-out? The fielder said — and quite rightly, I think — that the dismissal was fair, since in real life, only the location of his feet would have mattered. The other side countered that he could take real life and shove it up…well, you get the drift.

So how was the Trent Bridge conflict decided? The Golden Rule, it seems: Indian team members asked themselves how they would have reacted if Laxman or Dravid had suffered a similar fate, and they concluded they didn’t like it one bit. It’s interesting that when Bell was asked the same question — what would you guys have done if you were in the Indians’ shoes — he said it was difficult to say. All in all, what we have seen is a resounding endorsement of the concept of ‘tea’: a time to take a little break, reflect on your actions, place yourself in another person’s shoes and know wisdom.

(For the record, my cricket game dispute was resolved this way: the batsman was given ‘not-out,’ but he did not get to claim a ‘six.’ Win-win.)

A History Of Cricket’s “Twirlymen”

The Economist reviews a new book on the history of spin bowling. An interesting point to note:

Spin bowlers are the game’s revolutionaries. Even their mysterious lexicon—googlies, Chinamen, flippers, doosras—suggests constant innovation. When the googly was first unleashed at the end of the 19th century, batsmen huffed that it wasn’t in the spirit of the game because they couldn’t tell which way the ball was about to spin.

You see these protests about bowling methods from time to time. In recent history, we have seen controversies over the doosra and reverse-swing fast bowling, debates made all the more intractable and difficult by racial/post-colonial issues (i.e., West v. South Asia). That’s not to say opposition to these deliveries is prima facie racial or motivated by less-than-honorable motives. It just helps explain why we get so touchy when these issues arise.

Sachin Tendulkar As An Actor

Via Poorvi, an excellent story from India Today about Sachin Tendulkar’s scheme to score a tax deduction on revenue earned from his commercials:

Tendulkar had claimed deduction of tax under Section 80RR of the Income Tax Act. The section states that a person can claim tax deduction if he is a playwright, artist, musician, actor or sportsman and the income for which deduction is claimed is derived by him in the exercise of his profession.

When the assessing officer asked Tendulkar to explain the nature of his profession, the master blaster submitted that “he is a popular model who acts in various commercials for endorsing products of various companies”. He further stated that the income derived by him from ‘acting’ had been reflected as income from “business and profession” whereas income from playing cricket was reflected as “income from other sources” since he is a non-professional cricketer. Tendulkar explained that the claimed deduction in tax was from the exercise of his profession as an ‘actor’.

Fascinating stuff. Read the tax officer’s bemused attempts to understand — and ultimately reject — Tendulkar’s argument. (Key quote: “If Tendulkar isn’t a cricketer, who is?”) This little bit of dishonesty on Tendulkar’s part raises some important points, namely:

1) I don’t know enough about India’s tax code, but while I think it’s laudable to include a tax break for artists and playwrights, I also know more loopholes mean more problems. A tax code’s complexity is positively correlated with incidents like these, where people try to fit their lives to the legal language to save some bucks.

2) On another note: in an earlier post, I argued that Test cricket allowed for more intriguing narratives and characters:

[J]ust as in a long novel, where authors foreshadow major events with strategically planted seeds, Test cricket has its own dramatic devices. Take Ishant Sharma’s burst on Day 1, which many commentators said partially explained the collapse that later occurred in the post-Tea session. Or take the marks left on a pitch as bowlers complete their run-up. Those habits of routine become potentially explosive on Day 5, when balls land in their place and explode.

So perhaps Tendulkar’s fault lies not in arguing that he is an actor, but rather, that commercials were his primary stage. Test cricketers have to play a number of different roles in their team — batsmen, for instance, have to “play to the situation” (unless they’re Sehwag). One minute, they must be the ‘consolidator,’ or the ‘anchor’; the next, they’re given license to go wild and score like a maniac.

Or take Dhoni. At the start of his career, Dhoni “played” one character — the big shot. Over time, he has changed, and now wears a more responsible persona. The challenge for cricketers is to embrace different roles as they go through their career. Some are better than others; I’d say Tendulkar is among the best. Shakespeare couldn’t have scripted him better, really.

Is Money Not Enough To Motivate Cricketers?

Just one more point from the Otis Gibson de-briefing memo (courtesy of WICB Expose). At one point, in a list of the West Indian players’ shortcomings, it includes this sentence: “Player commitment is only financial.”

I understand the general idea motivating this criticism. Cricket is an international sport, and players should own up to the special responsibility of representing their nation. But isn’t this a rather quaint statement of purpose in the age of the IPL and T20-Sanford leagues and what not? And is it right to ask someone like, say M. Amir, a man of extremely humble origins and on a limited salary, not to be motivated for more financial stability?

In fact, given the level of risk a cricketer assumes in pursuing an international career, as well as the demands put on the modern athlete, isn’t the prospect of excellent compensation somewhat justified? It’s one thing if you’re a West Indies player in 1975, when Test cricket was still a gentleman’s sport relatively untouched by Kerry Packer and the broadcast allure. But those times are obviously gone — and indeed, in the IPL, the only motivation a foreign, established player has is money (domestic players, of course, are angling for a spot in the national team).

I don’t care if a player is playing only for money, or only for country, or — most likely the case — a mix of both. As long as the performance is top-class, and no laws/rules are being broken (sorry, Amir), play for whatever reason you want. Of course, the WICB may not have as much money on hand to pay its cricketers as the BCCI does — but this is all the more reason to cut down on Burger King costs and extraneous salaries. Lectures of Gibson’s kind likely go only so far.