Thursday 3 November 2011

Could pattern recognition be a key to the fix?

Monumental wides, balls sprayed illogically either side of the wicket, unfathomable passages of play, experts shaking their heads... but enough about Mitchell Johnson, what about that spot-fixing, eh?

Okay, that's a cheap shot at Mitch, but in sentencing Butt, Asif and Amir [three names that will now forever be bracketed together, no pun intended] Mr Justice Cooke pointed to the 'insidious nature' of what they had done. He was right, because what they have done is cast doubt, suspicion and fear where there was none: Edgbaston '05, Australia's second innings, Shane Warne steps too far back in his crease and knocks off a bail with his heel; Trent Bridge 2010, County Championship final day, Notts win the title on countback after taking the three Lancashire wickets they needed for a bonus point in 4.4 overs of the final session; Edgbaston 2011, spinner Amit Mishra bowls nine no-balls in England's only innings; Cardiff 2011, Sri Lanka lose eight wickets for 49 runs in the last session of the match; Sabina Park 2009, England second innings, 51 all out in 33.2 overs...

All of these events were straight up. They were unusual, but in the way that we want sport to be unusual, and they happened within the broad paradigm of credibility, they weren't without precedent. But as Cooke noted, insidious cheating turns the eye inwards. Ultimately, how do you tell?

The ineptitude of Butt's fixing ring does not help any, either. The loud-mouthed, loose-lipped, vainglorious Mazhar Majeed was an accident waiting to happen. In turn, Butt and Mazhar were so unsure of Asif's loyalty they were paying way over the odds for his over-stepping, and Amir provided joke no-balls that couldn't do anything but arouse suspicion. No international cricketer is that bad [and yes, you can insert your own Mitch or Harmi joke here]. We can probably assume that there are or have been more sophisticated, less porous, more professional operations going down.

It still took a sting as well-financed and sharply executed as the News Of The World's to produce a strong enough case to convict. It's notable that the Crown Prosecution Service decided to focus their case on the no-balls rather than other evidence offered by the ICC's Anti- Corruption Unit in the wake of the story's publication, because it was really only the no-balls that proferred a provable moment.

The News Of The World has gone, and the likelihood of another sting is remote. The Anti-Corruption Unit certainly could not undertake one. The game will continue to throw up its occasional collapses and catastrophes, its offbeat outcomes. Well-meaning commentators and ex-pros may speculate about them. but there's little more they can do. So the question grows: how does cricket protect itself?

Perhaps one key lies in the desire of the best teams to improve. Andy Flower's stats department at Loughborough has watched and logged every ball bowled in international cricket in the last five years. Other sides are doing the same. From that information, they're looking to extract patterns, to identify and recognise both the obvious and the unique about teams and individuals. That data offers some kind of baseline of performance that might be adapted when looking for the kind of events used by spot-fixers and gamblers. An obvious example would be scoring patterns produced in 'brackets', which, by the nature of them being set out before the game starts, might lie at odds with the rest of the play around them. Statistical analysis is, in a way, the ultimate in vigilance.

Most fixing demands the involvement of the captain, and there are a finite number of those. If they can be made part of the process - an ICC quorum that brings them together and offers them the chance to meet and talk and establish common cultures within their teams - might offer a stronger grasp on control of the game.

These are small things. The best protection is for the broad internal culture of international cricket to provide its own defence. Mohammad Amir, 18 years old, from a background beyond the experience of most English or Australian players, walked into a nightmare. His captain was corrupt, so were his team-mates, and his family were being threatened by bookmakers' heavies. It's asking a lot of a kid to make a stand against all of that, even if knew how to do so.

It has been a personal tragedy for him, and the laws of natural justice need to apply. Prison is probably not the place for Amir, at least not for long. In mainstream society, once a man has served his punishment he's free to resume his life, his debt paid. Amir must be allowed to do the same within cricket once his ban is served. Rehabilitating him into a game that has found new ways to police itself would be the ultimate victory over what has happened.


Masuud said...

Precise perspective there.

"Tip of the iceberg" - They said the same thing when Hansie gave in and when Azhar was 'nailed'. Why don't they get tired of it? With as spineless and feeble unit as ACSU, with it's multi million expenditure, the game will always dwindle below breakeven point.

Russ said...

A correction. Amir's captain when he joined the side (probably) wasn't corrupt. That was Younis Khan, widely considered above fixing, later driven out of the captaincy by his team-mates "deliberately under-performing", then it was Mohammad Yousuf, same result with the added suspicious connivance of the PCB president, then Afridi, also considered clean, who jumped before he was pushed after one miserable test.

There were plenty of clean cricketers in Pakistan cricket, and Amir chose to join a gang devoted to pushing them out of the game for their own benefit. Amir's average under Butt, by the way, was 17.5, under the others, 41.2. He might not have known quite what he was getting into, but he was an enthusiastic recruit to something he would know was wrong.

The Old Batsman said...

Russ, excellent, thank you

Anonymous said...

Fantastic balanced opinion on what went down and the punishments handed out. If the Pakistani board payed their cricketers a decent wage, relative to other international teams, then this whole situation could probably be avoided. I am so sad for Amir, he showed a lot of promise in 2010 in Australia. It just seems so harsh the punishment. Michael Atherton's article in the Times this week was also a very balnced article. Congrats on a very balanced pice Russ

Anonymous said...

TOB, that's a great analysis of the situation, its complexities and maybe a way forward.

I see this as a crime against cricket and so punishment should be focused there. It did need a criminal trial to provide a thorough assessment of the evidence so criminal sanctions are correct - but jail?

I would argue that the cricket authorities should have suspended the three until the criminal process was complete and then select a punishment - in my view, life bans.

I've revisited my experience of Lord's on 26-27 August 2010


diogenes said...

an interesting would be interesting to see how Harmison and Mitch Johnson would fare if there career bowling was run through the pattern-recognition machine.

Mark said...

Butt got the same sentence as a guy who kicked someone to death outside the pub over the road to where I live a few years back.

You'd never guess that cricket was the game of the establishment would you?

Maybe the should have tried the 'unfit to stand trial' defence and faked the symptoms of Alzheimers...

Dean @ Cricket Betting Blog said...

Pattern Recognition is an interesting thought. The issue of form could be it's downside though.

I would imagine it works with blood samples for drugs in other sports, but I'm not convinced it would in cricket.

With regard to Mitchell, his pattern recognition would probably be similar with the exception of his performances the last time he was in SA.

The same would apply with Harmison, with the exceptions being the rare accurate performances. These two just highlight how hard it would be to prove any wrong doing.

With every match being different, the actions of a captain probably wouldn't be consistent enough to follow a pattern either.

Dean @ Cricket Betting Blog said...

Also, the one glaring thing that hasn't really been picked up for me, is the fact that the NOTW started work on the sting in January 2010 (I heard former Sports Editor, Paul McCarthy confirm this on the radio last week), that was 6 months before Pakistan arrived in the country.

How did Mazher Mahmood's (fake sheikh from NOTW) contacts know 6 months before the team arrived in the UK that the 3 were available to be bought?

If they knew that the players were available, or that match fixing was rife and there was a strong likelihood of being able to entice the players, then why wasn't anyone else more close or more well connected (ACSU, or team management) aware of this?