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Sport needs faith

Sport needs faith
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First Published: Wed, Sep 08 2010. 09 57 PM IST

In the right: Clive Lloyd fought allegations that West Indies had thrown a match
In the right: Clive Lloyd fought allegations that West Indies had thrown a match
The events of the past two weeks have thrown the world of cricket into a tailspin. As the shenanigans of some of the Pakistan players are being unveiled by a series of “sting” stories by the News of the World, fans and aficionados are left to wonder whether this great game is still one of “glorious uncertainties” or has been overrun by “inglorious certainties” because of fixers and corrupt players.
In the right: Clive Lloyd fought allegations that West Indies had thrown a match
What awaits the Pakistan players already suspended by the International Cricket Council in the recent scandal remains to be seen, but these events reminded me of another case which I discovered while researching for a book I wrote on One Day International cricket in 1991.
The story goes back almost 30 years, and is interesting because in this case the newspaper concerned had to backtrack from its claims of a match being fixed to generate more money for teams and cricket boards. This is how it goes: David Thorpe, a well-known columnist for the Melbourne Age, was among the 52,000 spectators who saw the World Series Cup game between Australia and the West Indies on 19 January 1982 at the Sydney Cricket Ground: a day-night affair, which was still a peculiarity in those days, and therefore accompanied by a lot of brouhaha.
It was a crucial match for Australia (at 6 points) who were trailing Pakistan (at 8 points). The West Indies were well ahead in the race, having won seven of their nine matches. The Aussies just had to win to qualify for the final of the triangular because they had a better scoring rate than Pakistan. But in the 1980s, beating West Indies was such a rarity that not many gave the home team a chance.
As it happened, the West Indies were skittled out for 189 in 50 overs. Australia’s prospects of winning the match got a terrific boost, but within the next couple of hours they had been reduced to 168 for 7 in 43.1 overs; then the skies opened up and rain washed off the remainder of the match.
Australia were declared winners because of a superior run rate (3.891 to 3.780), which evoked whoops of delight from the home team’s dressing room. But Thorpe, sitting in the press box, was furious over what he thought was a “fix up”. His column next morning was titled “Come On, Dollar Come On” in a take off on the popular World Series Cricket jingle.
“Somebody is playing with the faith of the people,” fumed Thorpe, alleging that the West Indians had allowed Australia to win to ensure an Australia-West Indies final, which would generate more money for everybody concerned, including Clive Lloyd’s team and the West Indies Cricket Board. Needless to say, the article created a furore that could be heard from Melbourne to Montego Bay.
Captain Lloyd, who did not play that match, filed defamation suits against Thorpe and the Melbourne Age. The Australians, equally angry, argued that it was impossible for one side to “throw” a game without the complicity of the other, which would mean that they too had cheated. They claimed damages. Lastly, a miffed Kerry Packer wanted his share of recompense at the “’nsult” of being portrayed as someone who runs a fraudulent tournament. Over the next few days, the three aggrieved parties decided to find common ground and merged their claims into a libel suit which would be filed by Lloyd, as captain of the main accused side.
The case stretched for two years and Lloyd had to even fly out in the middle of the series against Australia in 1983-84 to attend a hearing in the high court at Melbourne, where it was proved that the West Indies received a flat fee for a tour and there was no question of players or the West Indies Board making more money by ensuring an Australia-West Indies final.
Lloyd was awarded A$100,000 (Rs 42.7 lakh now) by the high court, which the Melbourne Age went into appeal against in 1985. The appeals court upheld the newspaper’s plea that since no player had been named in the published column there was no libel.
The award to Lloyd was struck down, compelling the West Indies captain to go to the Privy Council, which sent the story topsy-turvy again by decreeing that the court of appeal had been wrong in overturning the high court’s ruling, and that Thorpe’s column in the Melbourne Age had indeed been libellous. So Lloyd won A$100,000 with costs. The Australian cricket team and Packer agreed to an out-of-court settlement with the newspaper.
Fixing matches or individual performance is hardly new. Some historians claim it can be traced back to the 17th century, almost to the origins of the game. Allegations of cheating in the modern game too are hardly new. It is the frequency with which such stories have been doing the rounds and the apathy of administrators—and, one dare say, even players—to quash malpractice that is painful. The appeal of sport lies as much in the skills of players as in the trust and faith of fans that what they are watching is fact and not fixed. Without that trust, sport is reduced to sham.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at beyondboundaries@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Sep 08 2010. 09 57 PM IST