Antoinette Muller

A fool's guide to spot-fixing

2013-05-30 14:41
Sport24 columnist Antoinette Muller (File)

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2013-05-30 07:26

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Cricket’s latest spot-fixing saga is likely to drag on for some time yet.

There’s plenty of he said, she said and a lot of toing and froing between police, cricket boards, tournament boards and everybody else involved in what, on the surface, seems like a rather messy web of over indulgence. Nothing has been proven yet, of course, everything is all still very much allegedly.

All the comings and goings of what seems like a mega-Bollywood blockbuster has already become stale, but what the latest saga has thrown up again is the question of just how “fixing” actually works and, even more curiously, what’s the business of it all, then?

The simplest comparison is that it’s quite a bit like insider trading, except, in some cases, players aren’t the insiders, they’re the ones pulling the strings of the market.

In a book released last year entitled: Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy, Ed Hawkins revealed some of what makes the illegal betting in India tick. While the book was called sensationalist back then, Hawkins is probably nodding with a wry smile right now.

The biggest problem when it comes to fixing, as Hawkins himself pointed out, is what is known as bracket fixing. Bookies offer odds on certain brackets in a match. Usually for about five to 10 overs. How many runs will be scored in those brackets are set by the bookies - say for instance 35-55.

Bettors then place bets on whether they think a team will score less than 35 or more than 55.

Still following?

Right, the odds on 'over' or 'under' runs change depending on what happens in preceding overs and even with every ball.

If somebody has been following a team for long enough or a bowler for long enough, they’re likely to know how said bowler performs over a course of time. So we have a player, let’s call him Bowler X, who starts off his first over really well and only goes for a couple of runs over his first two overs, especially if he started off well. 

Along comes Bookmaker Z and he offers you some good odds on exactly that. You place the bet, why wouldn’t you? Quite often, especially if the odds are high, bettors are enticed to placing higher bets on what would be certainties. Only they’re not certainties because Bowler X has cut a deal where he’ll perform against the odds!

When those fixes are in and bowlers want to “confirm” that they will go along with it, they give signals so that the odds can be adjusted to make it more enticing to bet on something which is not going to happen. They can be anything, a towel in their trousers, taking the ball with two hands, looking skyward at the start of their run up - anything.

Now that Bowler X has confirmed he’ll be doing as he agreed, Bookmaker Z has time to adjust the odds accordingly to entice people to bet on it. Once that’s done, Bowler X can go along on his merry way and concede more runs than he would have done in normal circumstances. That’s fairly easily done, by bowling really badly.
If it all sounds too simple, that’s because it is and it’s a very, very lucrative industry. While betting is legal in most countries, it’s illegal in India, but that doesn’t stop the bookmakers from absolutely coining it.
It's estimated that the gambling market in India is worth around $60 billion a year, with almost half of that being illegal betting, but to infer that the problem of setting up fixes is exclusive to India would be foolish. To prove spot-fixing actually happened, though, is where the biggest problem lies. Unless the evidence is as stark as it were with the three Pakistani players in 2010, the evidence line becomes rather blurred.

Last year, Mervyn Westfield - an English county cricketer - was convicted of similar charges in English domestic cricket. Westfield had agreed to concede 12 runs in exchange for £6 000 but only 10 runs were in fact conceded during the first over. This is similar to the accusations against Sreesanth, where he was told to concede 14 runs, but only conceded 13. 

That’s an issue because the bookmakers will work with these odds, but work that bracket of a couple of runs 'under' or 'over' into their odds, just in case something goes a bit wonky - or wonkier than originally planned anyway.

The problem is far more complicated than simply ensuring a solid anti-corruption unit is in place to police players and it’s more complicated than simply getting rid of bookies, because sometimes the bookies play no part in the money-making, but that’s a column for another day!

Antoinette Muller is a freelance writer who writes mainly about soccer and cricket for The Daily Maverick or anybody else who will have her...

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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