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Corruption concerns surface in Twenty20 game
LONDON (Reuters) - A police investigation into suspected "match irregularities" at Essex county cricket club has stirred unwelcome memories of the match-fixing scandal which rocked the sport a decade ago.
The investigation follows rumours of match-fixing in the second Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament staged in South Africa last year and was announced shortly before the third Twenty20 World Cup opens in the Caribbean on Friday.
Twenty20 cricket, the shortest form of the game, has quickly become the most popular. But because of its frenetic nature, with just 240 deliveries in around three hours, it is wide open to the insidious cancer of spot-fixing.
Spot-fixing involves seemingly trivial incidents within the match, such as a bowler delivering consecutive wides, which may have no ultimate influence on the result. But if done by pre-arrangement they could earn corrupt players and their allies a fortune in India's illegal betting industry.
The sums involved are enormous. According to Wisden almanac editor Scyld Berry, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has estimated that around $1 billion was gambled in India on a match between India and Pakistan at the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa.
This year Tim May, the chief executive of the international players' union FICA, said Twenty20 cricket was "just ripe for corruption" and opened up "great opportunities for the bookmakers to try and corrupt players".
Speaking by telephone from his home in Austin, Texas, the former Australia off-spinner told Reuters he had not personally heard of any examples of corruption and that any concerns expressed by FICA members would be confidential.
"But I am concerned that there's potential for corruption in Twenty20 cricket with the ball flying around everywhere," he said.
Berry told Reuters there were plenty of rumours "of all sorts of goings-on".
"There is a serious threat to the integrity of the game coming from such a proliferation of Twenty20 cricket. The more there is, the more the chance for mischief.
"If I had to put my house on it, I would have thought there was quite a bit of spot-fixing going on around the world. Not fixing the results of games but of details within the game.
"It's the thin edge of the wedge, it's something that's only going to expand, not go away."
During the game's development in the 18th century cricket was steeped in gambling, with bookmakers openly setting up their stalls at Lord's.
"For the most part the involvement of the gentry in the cricket games of their inferiors was a by-product of their penchant for gambling," Derek Birley recorded in his "Social History of English Cricket".
Cricket became respectable during the Victorian era and assumed its now outdated reputation as a force for moral good during Britain's imperial expansion.
The ethos of fair play was still strong, though, when a match-fixing scandal erupted at the turn of the century and the outrage throughout the game was genuine.
Three international captains: Hansie Cronje (South Africa), Salim Malik (Pakistan) and Mohammed Azharuddin (India), were banned for life for involvement in match-fixing and a Pakistani judge recommended that Wasim Akram should not captain his country again.
In an example of spot-fixing, Cronje, who always denied actually fixing the result of a match, admitted paying two team mates to under-perform.
Berry said he thought the ICC anti-corruption unit should include former professional cricketers as well as former policemen.
"There may be one or two former military men, but I think the officialdom needs to expand to include former cricketers who know exactly what to watch on the ground, to see the telltale signs," he said.
ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat said the world governing body had spoken of the need to keep a balance between test cricket, 50-overs internationals and Twenty20 games.
"Because of the popularity of Twenty20, the proliferation has been beyond anybody's expectations. And it is something we are considering at the chief executives' committee at the ICC," he told Reuters by telephone from the ICC's Dubai headquarters.
"We have to be absolutely vigilant because the format of Twenty20 does lend itself much easier to that sort of behaviour.
"We were concerned with the sums of money that were available in the format and we have cautioned all of our members to be particularly vigilant around Twenty20 cricket."
The need for eternal vigilance was emphasised during last year's Ashes series when the ICC said its investigators had received a report from the Australian team management that a player had been approached by a suspected illegal bookmaker in their London hotel.
Lorgat said the ICC had a zero tolerance approach to any form of corruption.
"We certainly do not take lightly to any sort of corruption. If we were to pick up any of that sort of behaviour from any place, we would take serious action," he said.
(Editing by Clare Fallon, To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)
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