Tuesday, August 31, 2010

There’s betting – and there’s betting

Michael Vaughan tweets: “Off to Aussie to film a TV commercial for Betfair... for The Ashes. Quite ironic with what's been going on…” Indeed it is Michael and whilst we can make a clear distinction between what Betfair does (and what you are doing) and the seamy illegal side of gambling that has reared its ugly head the irony that you identify is a real one.

Yesterday I asked John Stern, the distinguished editor of “The Wisden Cricketer”, whether it was time for Sky to drop their slogan “It matters more if there is money on it”. Stern said “…therein lies the massive conflict of interest. Spot/spread betting (legal) [is a] huge backer of pro sport”. Now I am not much of a gambler – I can always find better things to do with my hard earned money than passing it to a bookie. But I can see that sport and gambling are inextricably tied together – and indeed they always have been. The noble sport of Cricket started in an era of gentlemen’s wagers and indeed it is arguable that the game might not have got off the ground at all without gambling.

Today every ground has betting facilities and betting advertising – as at The Oval in the photograph. To regret this development is I’m afraid na├»ve – as John Stern says betting is everywhere in sport. So if the culture is one in which gambling is encouraged, and it is, then how do we judge what seems to have been going on in the shady world of illegal gambling and the fixing of cricket matches or incidents within these matches? Is there not a tinge of hypocrisy about on the one hand actively encouraging betting companies like BetFair to be involved in cricket (as Michael Vaughan is doing) whilst on the other hand condemning players’ involvements in gambling?

The answer to my question is, of course, that there is a world of difference between legal gambling and the sordid world of match or spot fixing. The boundary is clear between what is legal, if a bit distasteful (the modern obsession with having a punt) and the grotesque negation of the true spirit of sport that is so gruesomely on view at the moment. Personally I have never thought that it is the case that “it matters more if there is money on it” and I find the slogan offensive and insulting. Would England’s win in the World Twenty20 or the 2009 Ashes have mattered more to me if I had had a successful bet on these outcomes – not at all? Others may take a different view – that is their choice – but there are few situations where I would feel the need to place a sporting bet. At a race meeting perhaps – but that is about it.

But what is apparently taking place all over South Asia, and elsewhere, is not the occasional ten quid each way on a horse in the 3:30 or a punt on the result of a cricket match. It is systematic illegal gambling on a huge scale with the prizes so large that it pays the criminals involved to try and fix outcomes. In order to put the fix into effect these people have to have access to the players and have to make it worth the while of the players to do what they ask. So middlemen, like Mazhar Majeed in the current case, somehow inveigle their way into the players’ sphere and manage to recruit some of them to do the necessary. Which brings me to the main point – this is a comprehensive failure of management by the Pakistan Cricket Board. Four years ago at the Oval we saw what happens when a squad of players is incompetently managed by officials. I wrote at the time “The root cause of Sunday’s Oval fiasco was a lack of proper leadership when it mattered most. Inzaman-Al-Haq should have said to his players “Look guys we are not happy about the ball-tampering allegations but the right time to progress this is after the match. Let’s get on and win it”. When he failed to do this Bob Woolmer or Zaheer Abbas or the ineffable Shaharyar Khan should have stepped in and said something similar. Instead there was vacillation and they all bowed to player power”. Four years on and it is self-evident that Pakistan’s cricket management is as useless as it ever was.

Finally let me express some sympathy for the 18-year-old Mohammed Amir whose highly promising career is likely to be ruined by this affair. At 18 you should know right from wrong but if you are in any doubt at all you should have someone to turn to. That someone could not be his Captain as it seems that Salman Butt was himself up to his neck in the spot fixing affair. But what about the team manager Yawar Saeed? One question that should be asked of Saeed is this. “Before this tour began did you hold a briefing session with the players to warn them of the possibility of illegal approaches by match fixing middlemen? In particular did you speak with the very young players on their first big tour, like Mohammed Amir, and warn them of the dangers. And did you say to them that if they saw or heard anything that made them uncomfortable then they should come straight to the team management for advice.” If no such briefing was held by Saeed and his team at least part of the blame for this debacle lies on his shoulders.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Schumacher should go quietly

In Formula one, as in other sports, the statistics can sometimes lie. Look at World Championship successes and you won’t find the name of Stirling Moss – but few would not place him in the top five of F1 drivers. Similarly do Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles make him the best of all time? Perhaps not – my own top three would put him on a par with Senna and Clark - but I wouldn’t want to call the order. And others would make justifiable cases for Fangio (who I never saw) Stewart, Prost and Lauda to be somewhere on the podium.

The case for Schumacher is a persuasive one – he had not only more world titles but also more pole positions, podiums and fastest laps than any other driver – albeit that his career until his first retirement was one of the longest spanning sixteen seasons. Quite how Schumacher maintained exceptional performances over such a long career it is difficult to pinpoint but it was probably a mixture of genius and effort. The effort was his absolute commitment to the cause – an obsession with fine tuning the car to allow him to get the very best out of it. Schumi was the driver every mechanic and engineer wanted in the cockpit – his analysis of performance after a few test laps was exceptional and practical – and at this he got better and better as the years progressed. But it was the genius that really set him apart – it is no exaggeration to say that, all other things being equal, Schumacher was half a second a lap faster than the field. Unbeatable at his best – and he was usually at his best. 91 wins out of 249 starts (36.5 %) is an astonishing record. Senna, by comparison, won 41 out of 161 (25.5%), Clark 25 out of 72 (34.7%).

After his retirement in 2006 Schumacher continued to attend Grands Prix and carried out some ill-defined role at Ferrari. I saw him at a few Grand Prix and the spark was gone and the smile was false. He obviously missed doing the thing that he was obviously on Earth to do – to drive a Formula one car. So when Ross Brawn ill-advisedly offered Schumacher a drive, in the world champion team remember, for the 2010 season it was no surprise that Schumi jumped at the chnace. And Mercedes were deluded into thinking that their name on the car, and Schumacher in it would enhance their brand. In fact the reverse has happened - from being half a second a lap faster Schumacher is half a second a lap slower than the front runners - something he never experienced in the whole of his 16 year career. True the Mercedes is well off the place – how shrewd Ross Brawn was to sell out when he was on a high at the end of last season, and how smart Jenson Button was to fly the coop. But although the car is no great shakes Schumi’s team mate Nico Rosberg has consistently out-driven his much older partner. Rosberg is a decent driver but arguably far from ever likely to be a world title contender – he has yet to win in 82 races. But at 25 he has, unsurprisingly, the reflexes of a still young man whilst Schumacher, at 41 has simply lost the edge he once had. No disgrace there – but modern Formula one is not a sport for old men.

At the Hungarian Grand Prix Michael Schumacher was in a battle for tenth place with Rubens Barrichello and it was doubtless the realisation that he was nowhere near the head of the field and that he was certain to be an also ran once again for the twelfth race in succession that made him squeeze Rubens almost into the wall. Schumi has previous of course and this has never made him as popular a champion as he might have been if he had always been more sportsmanlike. That he was a flawed genius we knew – but the number of incidents was fairly small and in 249 races during which he was mostly competing to win it is perhaps unsurprising that ambition occasionally took over from fair play. But at the Hungaroring yesterday there was absolutely no excuse and Schumacher has tarnished a comeback that was already looking an embarrassing failure. Have a look at the footage of the incident and I’m afraid Ross Brawn’s defence that "Michael was defending his position, trying to encourage Rubens to go around the outside. I don't think for a moment that he saw Rubens there and thought 'I will squeeze him' is phooey. Schumacher knew exactly what he was doing and he should be ashamed of himself. Time to go Michael – sooner rather than later.