Sydney - When struggling New Zealand made an unexpected comeback in this week's first Test against India, the suspicion was immediate, and unflattering.
"Wow! NZ kicking India's butt in the second innings! What are the odds?" read a cartoon in a New Zealand newspaper.
"Let me look them up, and could you keep your voice down," replies a shady character in the stands.
While there is no suggestion of foul play during the Test, cricket's image is in crisis, battered by fixing scandals engulfing Pakistan and corruption allegations hanging over India's IPL.
So when Australia take on England in the hotly anticipated five-Test series starting this month, they will be playing partly for the sport's reputation, as well as the little Ashes urn.
"With the inevitable scrutiny on an Ashes series, it should be a great spectacle for people," said England coach Andy Flower. "We all have a responsibility to the game to make sure its image is strong and healthy."
England have been particularly affected by the Pakistan row, which blew up when a Sunday newspaper caught a players' agent apparently arranging no-balls to order during the fourth Test at Lord's.
Three players were suspended and the bombshell rippled across world cricket, with Australia's miraculous Sydney Test win against Pakistan in January one of many fixtures suddenly under the spotlight.
This week, Pakistan wicketkeeper Zulqarnain Haider fled a one-day series in Dubai and quit international cricket, claiming he had received death threats for refusing to help throw a match.
The picture which is emerging, of powerful fixers influencing games for Asian betting syndicates, has shocked fans and players and led to calls for a crackdown by governing body the International Cricket Council (ICC).
"Fortunately we've got an Ashes round the corner and that keeps us going because we know, we can be certain, that will be clean. Tough, yes, but we know this will be proper," said England captain Andrew Strauss.
Meanwhile the glittering Indian Premier League (IPL), a lucrative Twenty20 tournament touted as cricket's future at its launch in 2008, is tottering under claims of massive corruption, money-laundering and tax evasion.
Founder Lalit Modi was thrown out in September over alleged financial irregularities, while two teams have been expelled in a row over their ownership, plunging the event into uncertainty.
Unconfirmed newspaper leaks raised the spectre of match-fixing and links to India's criminal underworld, reviving fears that widespread corruption had returned after a 2000 crackdown snared leading players.
Adding to cricket's woes, in June the ICC's executive board sensationally snubbed Australia and New Zealand's choice for the rotating vice-presidency, former Australian prime minister John Howard.
The unprecedented row exposed a rift in the world body and underlined the newfound power of cricket's Asian bloc, based on the massive revenues available in the subcontinent.
It is against this seamy backdrop that Australia and England will begin the next edition of cricket's oldest international series at Brisbane's Gabba on November 25.
"Cricket is in urgent need of tough action and honest brokers. Roll on the Ashes. At least they will be fair dinkum (genuine)," wrote the Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Roebuck.