An Offence against Cricket

Written by  //  February 24, 2011  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  3 Comments

The Indian Penal Code, still in force and copied almost in toto in most ex-British colonies is a remarkably drafted document. While one can (and sometimes must) disagree with its world-view, one can only marvel at the clarity of thought and organization that went into its drafting. It is perhaps, the finest example of how good legislative drafting can be if pursued with a single-minded (literally!) focus on clear and precise wording. Like other criminal codes of their day, it presents a fascinating insight into the morality and the ethics informing it.

If Lord Macaulay himself were alive today (gladdened as he would be at the Indian education system and the continued ubiquitousness of the IPC) he would be stumped (pun intended), to classify what Mohammed Amir, Mohammed Asif and Salman Butt did under any of the 23 chapters of the IPC. Would he say what they did was Cheating? Unlikely as there was no “harm” that anyone suffered. Bribery maybe? But the players were no public servants.

To be sure, Macaulay’s home-country (one wonders if he would find today’s India more to his liking than modern day-multi-culti-failed Britain) has sought to prosecute the trio and their fixer Mazhar Majeed under the Gambling Act, 2005; specifically for the offence of conspiring to cheat bookmakers.

Yet, and yet, somehow, one feels that it still does not capture the gravity of the offence in the hearts of cricket fans. Somehow, I don’t imagine the mere breach of the UK’s gambling laws would have reduced an all time great like Michael Holding to tears.

The judgement of the ICC’s Tribunal has held them in breach of the ICC Anti-Corruption Code under Articles 2.1.1 (and 2.4.2 for Salman Butt). The articles mean little to me. The ICC Anti-Corruption Code, unlike codified law, does not inform your and my actions on the field or off it. It holds no normative value outside ICC member events, and yet, everyone who has loved and played this game knows what was wrong with Amir, Asif and Butt’s actions.

In and of themselves, Amir, Asif and Butt’s actions seem innocuous; not only to the general public but on the cricket field. They didn’t influence the outcome of the game or even their own performances otherwise. Yet, why this grief, shock and anger over their actions? Why does the defence that it’s just “spot-fixing” and not “match-fixing” hold no water with any of us?

Maybe, and this is what this judgement reflects so accurately, the fixes were offences against cricket itself, or rather the idea of cricket as a sport. Sport succeeds in elevating us, bringing us joy, laughter, sorrow and sometimes even pain; all natural human emotions which aren’t any less “real” simply because they relate to the world of sport as opposed to the “real world”. Unlike the make-believe world of cinema or drama, we know and expect that what is happening in front of us is spontaneous, and unscripted, and all the emotions that flow from sport springs from this fundamental compact of trust between the players and the viewers. Spectators appreciate that there can be good cricket and there can be bad cricket (and let their feelings be known accordingly), but what they don’t appreciate is being made to believe that it is cricket when it is not. It’s a fundamental breach of our trust that somehow the law in its dry formulations and procedural provisions cannot hope to capture or even understand.

It makes sense therefore, that there is no “Offence against Sport” under the IPC. It is not incidental or a historical fact. It is something that goes into the very nature of law itself. Positivists and most adherents to major schools of jurisprudence would agree that the ICC’s Code is in no way “law”; it creates no rights, there is no “sovereign legislature”, it has no normative force for the majority of any population and no court of law can enforce it. It is not even a “contract” enforceable in any court of law. It is no surprise therefore that HLA Hart clearly distinguishes law from the rules of cricket.

Just because it doesn’t fit into any neat legal formulation does not mean that it ceases to be a moral wrong. I’m not going to re-hash the whole morality-legality debate or any of its myriad offshoots here, but just refer to it to say that merely because Amir, Asif and Butt’s actions cannot always be neatly fit into a category of criminal acts, one cannot say that their actions are not reprehensible or worthy of condemnation. Punishment (leaving aside the adequacy of it for the moment) by banning them from cricket seems just and necessary, not just to act as a deterrent or provide scope for reform (traditional arguments for criminal penalties) but because it is merited, and it would somehow seem unjust if they faced no consequences from it.

Match/Spot fixers, like drug cheats, are not just committing a wrong against the fans who turned up at the stadium or those who are watching the sport at home on television. They make the average sports fan, present and future, question the very nature of the sport itself. Is the Tour-de-France really a test of individual endurance or just a pharmacological competition? When the 100m mark is broken, are we celebrating a great physical feat or just the latest advance in biochemistry? Was this team even trying to win? Was that maiden over played out by the batsman for tactical reasons or to meet a bookie’s call?

Sports cheats don’t just shake our faith in sports.

They shatter it.


In Khan Market, Delhi, three of us walked by a familiar figure in an opticians’ store. It was Mohammed Azharuddin, once-captain-of-India-now-MP-and-forever-disgraced. One of us wanted an autograph, one of us just wanted to gawk at celebrity, but I couldn’t bring myself to approach him. The autograph-hunter wanted to hold on to memories that he held true, notwithstanding the unpleasantry later; the unpleasantry dominated everything else for me, overpowering memories of this, this, or even this innings. We debated, the autograph-hunter and I; the celebrity gawker, a cricket agnostic, not taking any sides. With my well-honed passive-aggression, I bid my companions go forth if they so wished, while I would stand from a distance and glare, ensuring that any positive they may have from this encounter would be diminished by my prickliness. They wavered, and then I pulled out my trump card, “It would dishonour my grandfather’s memory if I even acknowledged that guy!”. Arguing over moral principles is one thing, but when the stakes are cherished memories of patriarchs of one’s family, arguments are brought to a forced and unsatisfactory end.

I think back now and wonder. He’s no convicted criminal. A politician yes, but one can be much worse. Why did he trigger such hatred and bile within me that day? Maybe because he’s never shown much remorse. Maybe because he’s cynically exploited his status to political office. Or maybe, just maybe, like other offences against cricket, it seems like an offence against oneself as well.

3 Comments on "An Offence against Cricket"

  1. Suhrith February 24, 2011 at 3:03 pm ·

    This is a truly remarkable article, Alok.

  2. Sudeshna Sengupta March 6, 2011 at 6:14 pm ·

    You so succinctly echo the sentiments that so many of us cherish. Appreciate this statement- ‘ cheats don’t just shake our faith in sports.

    They shatter it.’

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