This year’s Cricket World Cup, overshadowed by the still-unsolved murder of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer in his Jamaican hotel room, has brought the 400-year-old game into disrepute. The police are investigating the possibility, among others, that Woolmer was murdered by an illegal betting syndicate, which may have feared he would blow the whistle on some unscrupulous players who purposely lose matches.
It’s possible that Woolmer’s death had nothing to do with match-fixing. Even then, the very suspicion that it was a mafia hit should be worth considering. Billions of dollars of advertising budgets are riding on cricket’s credibility. The powerful financial incentive to tamper with the results has to be eliminated. This incentive exists because of a glaring shortcoming: India and Pakistan, the two countries that drive both the passion and the business of cricket, don’t have legal betting markets.
Pakistan can’t have them for religious reasons. India, however, should allow professional bookmakers to price sporting outcomes. Until that improvement takes place, mobsters will keep collecting bets through illegal bookies from Mumbai to Kolkata. And they will keep running the business according to their core competence, which is to try to control some results by bribing or intimidating players.
If India didn’t play cricket, ESPN Star Sports would never agree to pay $1.1 billion (Rs4,730 crore) for the rights to telecast the next eight years of international matches. Similarly, if India drives out the Mumbai-Dubai-Karachi mafia from cricket betting by legalizing the practice, integrity may yet return to the game.
According to reports in the Indian media,?bets totalling $1.4 billion were placed on a single match in this World Cup: the contest that India unexpectedly lost to Bangladesh. As long as a big chunk of this money is collected by shadowy, crime networks, there’s a powerful incentive for them to rig matches and perhaps even commit murder.
The idea should be to encourage legitimate bookmakers and get the Securities and Exchange Board of India to regulate them.
Once the underworld loses its monopoly power, its henchmen would stop hanging around competition venues looking for players to manipulate. The taxes collected from legitimate gambling could be spent on nurturing new sporting talent.
Match-fixing isn’t new to cricket. Ever since the Delhi police released transcripts of taped conversations between players and bookies in 2000, three former national captains— South Africa’s Hansie Cronje, India’s Mohammad Azharuddin and Pakistan’s Salim Malik—have been banned for life on bribery charges. Cronje died in a plane crash in 2002.
What is different now is the exponential growth in recent years—in countries where gambling on cricket is legal—of sophisticated derivative products built around underlying “assets,” such as runs scored by a batsman. One such product, which also exists in equities and foreign-exchange markets and is becoming increasingly popular in cricket, is “spread-betting.” It’s a double-edged sword. It masks traces of willful underperformance by players, while simultaneously magnifying the potential loss to innocent bettors from such wrongdoers. UK-based IG Group Holdings Plc, reported that revenue from sports spread-betting rose to £4.7 million (Rs39.95 crore) in the six months through November. The 21% growth from a year earlier was boosted by the soccer World Cup.
In spread-betting, a bookmaker such as Cantor Index Ltd or Sporting Index Ltd in the UK says it expects a particular batsman to score between, say, 50 runs and 55 runs. If you wager, based on the batsman’s past form or your divine intuition, that it’s too low, you buy the contract at 55 at, say, £5 per run. You make an initial margin payment. This, however, isn’t the only money you can lose. If the batsman scores just five runs, you’ll pay £250, or 55 minus five runs multiplied by £5. Leverage amplifies both the gains and the losses on a small amount.
Rigging an entire match isn’t easy. At least several key players have to agree to do it. There’s a high chance that someone in the team will come to know and expose his recruiters. For a crooked player, it’s much safer to short one’s own performance in the spread-betting market.
“If there’s any match-fixing now, it’s not in throwing matches,” Imran Khan, a former Pakistan cricket captain, told Sky Sports News. “It’s probably with players being involved in spread-betting. That is much more difficult to catch.” A transparent, regulated spread-betting market in India with an efficient margining system and strict “know-your-client” norms for bookmakers will be the way forward.
Players, who are prohibited from punting regardless of whether they are participating in a match, might still be tempted to take a wager in a legal market using someone to front the trade. But if Indian bettors embraced sporting derivatives as seriously as they have financial ones—the National Stock Exchange is the world’s largest bourse for single-stock futures by number of contracts—both the game and the players’ conduct would be under tremendous scrutiny. Team selectors would be able to weed out players based on evidence of systematic underperformance.
A flawed market is ruining cricket’s credibility; a better one may help the sport reclaim its glory.