A gentleman’s game, did you say? All those who have been driven to fits of nostalgic anger as a result of the latest match-fixing scandal—with Pakistani cricketers once again in starring roles—would do well to be reminded that early cricket history is full of gambling and fixing episodes. The 20th century was an honest interlude.
Fixing a team game is a feat of money-and-muscle management. It is far easier to fix an individual sport such as boxing rather than a team game such as cricket. A boxer can throw a bout all by himself. It is much more difficult to lose a team game on purpose. There have to be many crooked men in both teams who are in the conspiracy.
Consider this possibility. A batsman has agreed to get out in the penultimate over of a Twenty20 match. A fast bowler sends down a delivery at blinding speed. The batsman has to connect. A fielder has to sometimes run and dive to take the catch. A lot can go wrong in any of these acts, as anybody who has played cricket will know. The bowler may send down a wide. The batsman may swing and miss. The fielder may not reach the ball.
This is the world of what statisticians call conditional probability. Assuming that each act has a 50% chance of going wrong, the conditional probability of a batsman getting out in this fashion is ½ x ½ x ½, or 1/8: a slim 12.5% chance. Betting on such an outcome can never be a certainty, even if the various cricketers involved are dirty, rotten scoundrels.
That is why the “spot bets” that many Pakistani cricketers are now accused of are simpler to fix. A bowler can deliberately send down a no ball. A batsman can get run out on 49. It’s a solo act and does not need the cooperation of other crooks. This is the world of simple probability that the current match-fixing allegations are rooted in.
What surprises us is not that these bets exist, but that there are suckers out there who are still ready to bet money on single and independent events involving the Pakistani team.
The cricket establishment may fume and fret, as it has impotently done for nearly 20 years. The more realistic option: caveat emptor.
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