Was the Sydney Test rigged?
Ok. Time to snap on the rubber gloves and get a little CSI: Sydney (Cricket Suspicions Investigation). By now the spot-fixing case is open-and-shut. Crooked agent Mazhar Majeed correctly predicted the timing of three no-balls by Mohammads Amir and Asif in their recent Test at Lords.
Then cash that Majeed was paid by undercover reporters in exchange for the predictions was found in Pakistan captain Salman Butt’s possession.
Pakistan’s UK High Commissioner has become counsel for the defence, claiming the recordings of Majeed were made after the fact.
He didn’t explain why Majeed, the UK agent for the players in question, would decide to sabotage his own clients in collusion with a newspaper. The claim is so far-fetched that your dog would die of old age before it could bring it back.
But the far more dire (and harder to prove) claims, based on Majeed’s boast to the reporters, were that he had rigged both the Sydney Test match against Australia this January, and the final Test against England at Lord’s just days ago.
While they could easily be true, bear in mind that Majeed was trying to induct the reporters into a gambling society in which they would pay him huge amounts of money for manipulating Pakistan matches. He had a vested interest in making himself look as influential as possible.
So let’s look at Sydney.
Australia opted to bat on a greentop with thick cloud cover about. Though Amir wasn’t playing, Pakistan shot them out for 127, with Asif taking 6/41. Pakistan then posted 333, with a top score of 71 by our man Salman Butt.
Australia were at 8/257 in their second dig, a lead of just 51, when Peter Siddle came to the wicket. But Michael Hussey and Siddle racked up a 123-run partnership, allowing Australia to set a target of 176, then watch Pakistan implode in the run-chase to lose by 36 runs.
The case for the fix is well-known.
Then-captain Mohammad Yousuf set defensive fields during the Hussey-Siddle stand, allowing them low-pressure runs.
Wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal, the fourth player named by Majeed as being in his pocket, dropped three catches from Hussey and one from Siddle. He also failed to run out Shane Watson by not removing the bails with the batsman short.
In the leaked transcript of a Pakistan Cricket Board inquiry, even coach and assistant coach Inthikab Alam and Aaqib Javed named that non-run-out as possible evidence of match-fixing. “I’m not sure, but my suspicions are pretty high,” said Aaqib.
Add to that the little-mentioned fact that Danish Kaneria, a player recently accused of spot-fixing at county side Essex, missed a catch from Watson on the boundary, allowing the ball to sail through his hands for six. Then add the fact that Majeed was in Sydney at the time. All looks pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no.
First let’s look at Australia’s third innings, spanning days three and four. Akmal’s dropped catches have been the centre of the allegations. But he has also had some support from an unlikely quarter. Past Aussie keeper Ian Healy said Akmal came to him for technical advice just before Sydney.
“He was stiff as a board and extremely tense. You couldn’t drop those on purpose they way he was doing it,” Healy said. “His technique had gone off, which he told me about two weeks before – the ball wasn’t going into his glove that well for the spinners… And then he [dropped those catches]. It didn’t look to me as if they were on purpose at all.”
Interesting from a man who once held the world record for wicketkeeping dismissals. Seeking help, though, doesn’t prove Akmal innocent, because he wouldn’t have known so far in advance that a fix was on. Which brings us to the more important matter of timing.
Rigging the overall result before play doesn’t offer much to the match-fixer. At $1.50 for an Australian win, for instance, you would need to risk $2 million to win $1 million. It’s a big risk if the plan goes awry. Compare that with Majeed’s claim that they bet on Australia at 40-1, where a stake of only $25,000 would net the same $1 million return.
Majeed’s claim was: “Australia had two more wickets left. They had a lead of ten runs, yeah. And Pakistan had all their wickets remaining[...] We let them get up to 150 then everyone lost their wickets.” Actually the lead was 51, as mentioned. But the important part is that the supposed fix was not put in place until after the eighth wicket went down.
This is what no-one seems to have noticed.
By the time Siddle walked to the crease in the 80th over, all three of Akmal’s drops off Hussey had already gone down. They came in the 53rd, 63rd and 67th overs.
Nor was Australia’s position perilous at those moments – the first came while Hussey was batting with Clarke, the next two with North. If Akmal had been trying to spare Hussey, surely it wouldn’t have been until the bets had been laid and the crucial partnership with Siddle had begun?
And if crooked Pakistan players were trying to save the Australians on day three, why single out Hussey? At the time his edges were being spilled like a saucer of champagne on a dirtbike, why weren’t other players accorded the same leniency?
Faisal Iqbal chalked up two screamers and a regulation catch to get rid of Watson, Ponting and North.
Misbah-ul-Haq held his only two chances at slip. Paceman Umar Gul snared three victims, and even Artful Dodger Asif was among the wickets, nailing Michael Clarke even after Hussey’s first reprieve. Bowling fast inswingers at the base of middle stump is a funny tactic if you don’t want to get someone out.
Kaneria dropped Watson, as mentioned – but then went on to take five wickets, quite apart from having Hussey nicking behind three times and wide of slip once in the space of 28 deliveries. He also snared an unnecessarily brilliant diving catch from his own bowling off Philip Hughes.
In this light, any fix must have been as Majeed said: arranged after Siddle came out to bat.
Given this was just seven overs before stumps, an overnight arrangement makes most sense in terms of betting markets and negotiation time.
It couldn’t have been pre-planned, because for all anyone had known, Australia might have been three down and 150 in front by stumps.
And while a fix at the end of day three is plausible, it does mean that Akmal’s dropped catches – Exhibit A in every allegation to date – could not have been any part of the plan. They simply happened far too early.
Three chances dropped in fifteen overs is suspicious, but if intentional, a separate spot-fix must have been the cause. Nor is it inconceivable that they were what Healy suggested: the work of an out-of-form keeper who got more tense and hard-handed with each failure.
And so to day four, when Hussey and Siddle added 94 to their lead. The focus here has been on Yousuf’s defensive fields.
First it should be noted that Yousuf has never been linked with match-fixing in any way.
Evidence against his involvement includes the fact that his players lost every match under his leadership on that tour. What emerged via the PCB inquiry, and was also alleged by Majeed, is that some Pakistan players are willing to lose in order to get rid of unwanted captains.
If Yousuf is clean, then deposing him would make a lot of sense for the players we now know are corrupt.
It’s also interesting how reluctant Butt was to have Yousuf back in the team once Butt became captain. He only accepted Yousuf’s presence when it became clear that it was non-negotiable.
But were Yousuf’s field placings that odd? Despite being described in the Sydney Morning Herald as “bizarrely defensive”, Yousuf generally had two slips and a gully in for Hussey until after the Australian had passed a hundred. And the practice of giving a single to the established batsman to bowl at the tailender is hardly a tactical innovation.
While criticised by modern commentators as too defensive and surrendering the initiative, it nevertheless has a long history within in the game, and current international captains – including Ricky Ponting – are still known to call on the tactic now and then. So while in this case it backfired, that doesn’t make it a basis for accusation.
And crucially overlooked in reports is the fact that Yousuf referred two appeals against Hussey to the video umpire on day four, one with the Australian lead at 114, and one at 146. Ironically both were for caught-behind appeals when Akmal did manage to hang onto the ball.
Akmal would have been the first fielder consulted – if his object was to keep the Aussies in, why would he risk a referral? And if Yousuf had the same ulterior motive, why would he request one from the umpire? It simply makes no sense at all.
While one might argue they were trying to waste referrals, that seems unlikely with just the No. 11 yet to bat. Surely such a trick would have been tried earlier. And keeping referrals in hand would be a good idea if they wanted more control over how and when the opposition got out.
Add to that the fact that Akmal’s fourth dropped catch, from Siddle, went down just one over before he caught, appealed, and went for the second referral from Hussey.
If he had deliberately reprieved Siddle, then why try to have Hussey dismissed directly afterwards? And with the lead at 146 when he dropped Siddle, it would have been enough to throw the match anyway. Pakistan were dismissed for less.
None of this sits comfortably with our assumptions about how the match was thrown.
Read Part two – The Run Chase to continue this analysis.
Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster. He joined The Roar as an expert columnist in 2010, writes the satirical blog Heathen Scripture, and tweets from @GeoffLemonSport.