Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Jail may deter any fixers

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Chris Cairns has been accused of match-fixing. Photo / Richard Robinson
Chris Cairns has been accused of match-fixing. Photo / Richard Robinson

The shock waves travelling through cricket after news that investigation into allegations of match fixing involved three former New Zealand internationals highlighted a remarkable fact: match fixing and/or spot fixing is not illegal in New Zealand.

Sports Minister Murray McCully came out a few days ahead of the revelation saying the Government planned to make match fixing a criminal offence. He said the issue would be monitored by nine government agencies.

His announcement was either coincidence or an anticipatory move. It is possible, in theory, that Lou Vincent, Daryl Tuffey and Chris Cairns could face extradition to England (where match fixing and spot fixing are illegal) - though it must be emphasised that nothing has been proven and Cairns and Tuffey say they have not even been contacted by the ICC's anti-corruption unit.

Either way, it highlights New Zealand's stunning naivete on the subject. We like to think of ourselves as an honest, frank and direct little country at the end of the world, governed by old-fashioned values; untouched by the dark side of sports betting and suppliers and users of performance-enhancing drugs.

The reality is that the internet has shrunk the world; it has brought temptation close enough to touch. It can be of little surprise if some of our sportspeople touch it, especially when there is no deterrent penalty in law.

The tragedy of match fixing (and of performance-enhancing drugs) is that they cheat people. The PEDs clearly influence outcomes. You can't always say the same of match-fixing activities. Spot fixing - betting on "exotic" happenings within a game of cricket - might not alter the result of a match; a dropped catch here or several dropped catches there; a no-ball or spate of no-balls; how many fielders are wearing hats at 3pm - crooked bettors can plunge big money on small incidents knowing they cannot lose.

In an ethical sense, players and whoever else work with match-fixers or spot-fixers are cheats. It is not a victimless crime. It may not change the result of a match but it stains all - a fine sport with centuries of tradition is traduced in the name of bookmakers and greed.

Too much sentiment; too many high-sounding principles? Maybe, but consider this: fans, sponsors, coaches, opponents and all who play the sport have a right to expect those at the top of the game to employ unimpeachable effort.

They are not just sportspeople and entertainers but guardians of the character, spirit, and blood, sweat and tears which have gone into the making of the sport - and the business interests that run alongside it.

To diddle the fans, sponsors, coaches and other players by not trying as hard as ability permits is cheating and fraudulent - and should be treated as such with remedies in law.

The joke is that anyone found to be guilty of match fixing or spot fixing has little guilt attached to their name. Of the three allegedly being investigated, all are former internationals no longer playing professionally. At least two could stand to lose some paid activities associated with the sport. But a life ban will not be relevant otherwise; they are already done with the game.

Still need convincing? Just look across the Tasman. Earlier this year, a low-level semi-professional Melbourne football club, Southern Stars, denied earning millions of dollars from Asian betting markets. They had several suspiciously heavy losses in their low-level league. Four players plus their coach and an alleged middleman were either in court this week or about to be, facing charges of engaging in conduct corrupting a betting outcome or facilitating such conduct. Australian sport, like New Zealand's, is close to the big bettors and fixers of Asia.

Yet in New Zealand the same sort of case - lower-level players (and some associates) allegedly making money off the backs of unwitting opponents - would not attract the interest of the judicial process. Match fixing is at the highest levels; it is also obviously at the lower levels, just across the ditch.

If the three Pakistani internationals (Mohammed Asif, Salman Butt, Mohammed Amir) did jail time after being exposed (between six months to 32 months) by the News Of The World match-fixing sting in 2010, why should anyone found guilty of the same thing escape prison because they live in New Zealand?

There's a lot of comradely blindness in cricket. The number of people who subsequently said they were not surprised by the match-fixing allegations was breathtaking. Rumours have circulated for years; some people have had knowledge that they have not pursued.

In the aftermath of the revelations in the New Zealand Herald, some media commentators originally bewailed the lack of specifics. One, Jeff Wilson, a great All Black and rugby-cricket dual international, now on Radio Live, said he was disappointed in the Herald for running the story at the same time as the (comparatively submerged) coverage of Ross Taylor's excellent double century against the West Indies in the first test.

First, if it wasn't for the news media, match fixing would be a largely untold story. Proof of the sort needed in a courtroom can be difficult for the ICC's anti-corruption unit. But the News Of The World (now defunct after its phone-hacking misdemeanours) were able to short-circuit all that with their video and print sting. Second, no one likes to bite the hand that feeds them but sometimes, as a professional, you have to question how the hand is being manipulated. Third, this is why the growing trend of sports stars in the media should never have their functions mistaken for journalism.

No, Mr McCully, get your bill-drafting staff on the job now and make match fixing illegal and punishable by imprisonment. You'll get no argument here.

In doing so, you will also help keep cricket cleaner - helping to ensure genuine achievements (such as Ross Taylor's double century) occur in an environment freer of suspicion than can be currently claimed.

- Herald on Sunday

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