Why the culture of greed has a vice-like grip

Imagine the scene. You are an inexperienced player on your second tour. The captain, a revered figure, calls a team meeting without the presence of the coach. He tells everyone that there has been an offer to throw the next day’s match, a one-day international, for $200,000, and a unanimous decision must be made whether to accept. All for one, one for all.

It is hard to imagine how a meeting such as this could take place in professional sport. But it did, in Mumbai in December 1996, the night before a one-day international between South Africa and India. Of all the match-fixing stories, this is the one that has most intrigued, horrified and, in a dark way, amused me.

The circumstances and the narrative show how easy it is for the culture of a team to become corrupted. The match in question was one that was tacked on to an already full itinerary, played to benefit the former India cricketer Mohinder Amarnath. This was much to the disgust of a weary South Africa team, who had been in India for two months and wanted to get home. They were tired and irritable and, as events would show, not thinking clearly.

We know that Hansie Cronje had already received money from called M.K.Gupta, a bookmaker, for information during the Test series that preceded the match in question. Gupte, having made his downpayment during the Tests, now offered Cronje $200,000 for his team to throw the match.

The subsequent team meeting that South Africa held to discuss the offer was eventually reported, but sketchily. Colin Bryden, the cricket correspondent of South Africa’s Sunday Times, wrote about it after the allegations against Shane Warne and Mark Waugh in 1998, although the headline, ‘Proud South African Cricketers Hit Match-Fixers For Six’, could be said to be laughably ironic in due course. Players involved also gave sparse testimony to the King Commission later, after the outing of Cronje as a match-fixer.

Over the years, this particular team meeting has fascinated me. I always wondered how such a meeting could come about – the awkwardness of the topic, the conversations involved and, since it transpired that only three players spoke out vehemently against the offer (which was ultimately rejected on a one-for-all or all-for-one basis), how it could be contemplated by any self-respecting team.

Over time, I’ve spoken to many of those who were in that room. Most say that Andrew Hudson, Derek Crookes and Daryll Cullinan were the only ones to recognise the issue for what it was; the only ones who were able, as the dollar signs whizzed in front of their eyes, to know right from wrong. But for them, the money could have been accepted.

Others found ways to convince themselves to take the offer seriously. One talked of the healthy exchange rate against the rand; another thought it a chance to make some easy cash at the end of his career; another spoke of the anger the squad felt at being forced to play another game; another, unbelievably, asked whether any gains would be tax free; and another voiced a triumphant opinion that they had finally made the big time now that they, too, were being offered the kind of money he had heard other teams talking about. Unbelievable, but true.

A core of senior players held a second meeting privately. Gupta was then asked whether he would up his offer. During the King Commission, Cronje admitted he was sore with himself for not accepting money for losing a match they lost anyway.

Nevertheless, that it was contemplated at all and debated at length is remarkable. This from a team, excluded from international cricket since 1970 over apartheid, who had only been readmitted four years earlier, who had a reputation for godliness and, under Kepler Wessels, for outstanding professionalism.

We are talking about the culture of sporting teams here. South Africa’s changed within the space of two years, from the moment that Wessels stood down as captain to Cronje first accepting money from a bookmaker on that tour to India. So when people say that the culture of the Pakistan cricket team cannot change, I don’t agree. Any team can change their culture if the right people are in charge.

The drinking culture at Manchester United, prevalent under Ron Atkinson, was quickly stamped out by Alex Ferguson after his arrival in 1986. The losing culture of the England cricket team was ended by a fortunate marriage, one that brought together Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain ten years ago. South Africa’s descent into moral relativism was brought about by the susceptibility of one man, Cronje, to money.

As the culture of a team can change rapidly, so can the culture of an entire sport. The recent Bloodgate scandal in rugby union suggested strongly that the move to full-on professionalism has changed the sport to a point where it is unrecognisable from the one played in the amateur age. Bloodgate could not have happened at that time, when players and coaches – and supporters, no doubt – had their sport in proper perspective.

Few could argue that cricket’s culture has not changed in recent years and this is about more than the Pakistan team. The pervading culture in cricket now is a grasping one, from administrators to players to commentators. Once money is involved, anything goes. The prevailing culture is one of greed.

The ECB gets into bed with a fraudster of shocking magnitude; a report on the accounts of Zimbabwe Cricket is shredded amid rumours of massive misappropriation of funds; the ICC runs its World Cups with television contracts rather than the public good in mind. At a Test ground recently, wi-fi users were warned against betting, even as the ground in question was fixing the advertising boards plugging the name of a betting company. An Australia player was sent home for drinking as the captain was instructed to wear the team sponsor’s cap advertising a brewer. All these things have happened in the last few years.

An England player uses his profile to shamelessly plug a sponsor’s product even as he waits in the changing-room as next man in; players involve themselves with benefit sponsors no matter how dodgy the reputation; players hold county clubs to ransom; England players sign central contracts but expect to be able to play in the Indian Premier League (IPL); commentators act as players’ agents; an England selector is also a county coach. All these things have happened.

The most egregious example of the present culture is the IPL. Board of Control for Cricket in India officials are also franchise holders; commentators sit on the IPL governing body; the television coverage is not so much about the cricket but about how many sponsors can be satisfied; rumours of money laundering are rife.

Conflicts of interest are wide-ranging and numerous. Taken individually, they might not amount to much. Taken as a whole, they paint a picture of a sport in thrall to money. Is it any wonder, in that atmosphere, that players could be led astray easily? Particularly players from a relatively impoverished country that pays players poorly. If everyone else is on the gravy train, why should they miss out?

It has been said, time and again in this quarter, that cricket will become a great game again only when there is transformation at the very top. While the ICC is run by politicians and businessmen with little feeling for the game and intent only on maximising revenue and politicking to ensure that narrow vested interests are looked after, nothing will change. Their priorities are all wrong.

Leadership is everything. Rotten leadership changed the culture of the South Africa team in the blink of an eye. When Crookes, the young South Africa spinner, spoke up against his hero-worshipped captain in that team meeting in December 1996, it was to anyone from the outside the obvious thing to do. When Cronje asked the team to swear an oath of secrecy and Crookes refused, saying that he was unwilling to keep anything from his wife, it was a brave thing to do.

Within the prevailing culture, which by and large is not crooked but merely grasping, they would be seen as acts of minor heroism. The Times, 2 September 2010