Grown-up cheating and being grown-up about cheating
Last week began with Chance to Shine and MCC publishing the findings of research into cheating in children’s sport. By the end of the week, cricket’s sordid underbelly of player corruption and spot-fixing was back in the news as Danish Kaneria’s appeal against the ECB’s disciplinary decision and resulting sanctions was lost. Cheating cheats everywhere.
The Chance to Shine report plausibly points to the practices of professional sportsmen and women as setting a poor example that influences the behaviour of children. Plausible, but flawed. When I first played board games with my children, they weren’t mimicing something seen elsewhere when they rolled the dice so they landed behind the sofa, disappearing to retrieve the dice and reappearing with double-six pointing upwards. Kids cheat because they want so much to win, and because the social inhibitions are under-developed that either make cheating feel ‘wrong’, or the fear of the consequences of being caught sufficiently great. The most striking finding in the Chance to Shine research – which went unreported as inconvenient to the campaign – is that the largest source of pressure on children to win comes from themselves and their peers.
Adults do contribute, of course. Lots of umpires of junior cricket matches cannot resist rewarding the efforts of their team when called on to adjudicate a tight decision. The example children may draw from watching professional sportsmen and women is the sheer variety of cheating options available to seek advantage.
Children and adults cheat to win. To my knowledge, only adults cheat to lose. That’s a grown-up preserve. It requires the mental suppleness to abstract oneself away from the game being played to attend to some other objective. That non-match centred aim tends to be money, but may be avoiding getting beaten up.
So the cheating cheats aren’t the same. But the stories of school cheating and professional match-fixing in cricket have something else in common. In a previous post, I made a case that the Chance to Shine report over-egged the gravity of its findings and even misrepresented its own research. I detect something similar going on with a lot of what is said and written about ‘fixing’.
A frequently used analogy for grown up cheating – match-fixing – is that it is a ‘cancer’ within the game. The ICC set up its anti-corruption unit in 2000 because, ‘Cricket’s reputation and integrity were tarnished and in danger of being destroyed.” Sir Paul Condon’s review found corruption was widespread, although participants in fixed matches may have been ignorant and others felt impotent or too intimidated to counter it.
A lot of cricket enthusiasts will have keenly followed matches that are now thought to have been contaminated. Since Condon’s report, spot fixing was found to have occurred in the highest profile match, a test at Lord’s, and in an expendable county competition – Pro40. It has happened, may be happening now and will do so in the future. The tarnishing has carried on.
This prompted the thought:
Has anyone actually stopped following cricket because of the proven and rumoured cases of corruption?
Most issues usually have attached to them at least one high profile dissident, but I can’t remember hearing of anyone burning their county membership, returning Test match tickets or making a big noise about stopping their satellite subscription.
Match-fixing is a parasite. It gives influence over the game to people without sympathy for our sport. And there are casualties of it within the game. The authorities should make it as hard as they can for the fixers to operate and deal harshly with those found to have acted corruptly, but I don’t see the evidence that it will humble our whole sport. Cricket has in-built resilience.
Part of cricket’s protection is the hold it has over its followers. Cricket itself is the drug. A fixed match is like a street narcotic, cut with some baking powder. We don’t get the same high, we may feel queasy about this pastime to which we invest so much time, but we want another… fix?
Another layer in its protection is that cricket followers, child-like in many ways, have a maturity in one important sense. Winning isn’t everything. Individual performances, battles within the match, the unfolding narrative and the sheer aesthetic delight of cricket’s many disciplines are the lofty pleasures. And then there’s the fuel of banter and twitter: daft shots, out-of-control bowlers, haywire running between the wickets and shelled catches. Some of it might not be legitimate, but the vast majority is.
In thinking through all this, I came to realise I have direct experience. I have form. Many years ago, I played in a fixed match. The opposition wanted to lose, not for money, but to spite a third team. I suppose I contributed to the cover-up by batting so horrendously against their pie-chuckers that we stumbled to the target we were being ushered towards. It was an unsatisfactory experience at the time, but those feelings were overshadowed by embarrassment at how poorly I batted. I have wondered occasionally what I might have done differently, but I haven’t dwelt on it. Amongst the many reasons for not spending my precious time playing cricket, this one experience does not feature.
Cheating is an aspect of wanting to win. Grown-up cheating is an ugly consequence of sport taking place in a wider social and economic context. We seem to feel better if we scare ourselves about our game collapsing if we allow grown-up cheating to take hold. Given this cheating has, is and will happen, I see nothing in our actual behaviour that suggests we will allow the game to collapse.