(Photo: Getty Images)
By Tim Wigmore
And so to women’s cricket today. Worldwide, the sport has never been in better shape, as evidenced by the 128 million who watched the Women’s World Cup final in India alone.
The unprecedented interest is wholly welcome, but it would be naive to pretend that it does not bring grave risks: above all, the heightened risk of match-fixing. If women’s cricket has never been more popular, it has also never been more attractive for fixers.
To make a profit from their criminal activities, bookmakers require liquidity in betting markets – that is, as much money being bet as possible. The more there is, the more profit for corruptors.
In July, the Women’s World Cup final had £78m traded on Betfair – an 860 per cent increase on the 2013 final. Betfair, of course, are merely one of the bookmakers offering odds on the event. Worldwide, more than 150 different companies – including copious illegal bookmakers in India – offered odds.
The upshot is that, although we will never know, it is conceivable that a total of £1bn worldwide was bet on the final.
This should be a grave worry to all involved in the women’s game: it shows that the risk of the sport being sullied by corruption, just as the men’s game still is, is acute. For endlessly malleable bookmakers, the female game presents a wonderful opportunity to make even greater riches.
How can the women’s game guard against this threat? Player education, already being increased in Australia and England, is obviously fundamental. The International Cricket Council already polices female internationals in a similar way to the men’s game.
Yet there is much more that could be done. Tony Irish, the executive chairman of FICA, the international cricketers’ players association, wants a genuinely global anti-corruption education programme – that is, a central programme for all professional cricketers, rather than merely those who play internationally.
The danger at the moment is that players are approached and enlisted while they are playing in domestic cricket, and earn puny amounts – and are already in too deep by the time they get to the international game.
Experts believe that matches are especially vulnerable when they are televised to a large global audience yet players are still underpaid. Worryingly, this description fits a large amount of women’s international cricket.
Beyond Australia, England and India, most internationals from other major cricket nations are lowly paid, often supporting themselves with other jobs. Utterly merited resentment about how little they are paid – salaries are a better reflection of which country they happen to be from, rather than their ability – could make them susceptible to approaches from fixers. Historically, players have often been paid late too: another classic ingredient that increases players’ vulnerability.
There is an obvious step that the ICC could take to reduce this risk. Given that the salaries paid to women cricketers vary so much, the ICC could introduce a centralised pot, to fund central contracts for, say, the top 15 women cricketers among the leading ten nations today, topped up with matches fees.
National boards would be free to make supplementary payments. But the crucial principle would be that, for all those on central contracts, their salaries would be sufficient to make cricket a genuinely full-time occupation. When part-timers, who sometimes train for 20 hours a week alongside their other jobs, play against full-time cricketers in internationals, it is not only unfair on a sporting level; the difference in circumstances increases the risk of fixing.
As the women’s Ashes begins, it is a chastening thought: the women’s game is more vulnerable to corruption than ever before. Happily, there have yet to be any confirmed cases of fixing in female cricket.
But, unless governing bodies worldwide are proactive in recognising the threat, it is inevitable that women’s cricket will have to endure the same fixing scandals as the men’s game.