How I Won The Ashes 22 October 2010



22 October 2010

Hello and welcome back to How I Won the Ashes. 

 For those of you new to this (and I’m pleased to say that the list is growing all the time), the idea is to give all you hard working souls some light relief before you settle down to a nice quiet evening with the weekend ahead of you. Even if your evening is not quiet, it may provide some talking points in pubs and bars.
As the name suggests, the subject matter is cricket.  There aren’t many weeks of the year when something is not happening in the world of cricket and I will be offering some thoughts on current topics and events. You are very welcome to feed in some of your own views, forward this to anyone whom you think will enjoy it and encourage them to respond, so they can receive future editions and join in the fun.

I’m also starting to include extracts of a book I’ve written, whose central theme is to explain how I actually did win the Ashes.

You can view this, and previous editions, on 

Spot Fixing

This time, I am going to discuss one of the banes of cricket, which reared its ugly head again this summer with allegations of fixing.  Ten years ago, the sport was rocked when it was revealed that Hansie Cronje’s apparently noble efforts to turn a certain draw into a thrilling final day were in fact influenced by nothing more than financial gain. 

The thinking was flawless: with South Africa’s 1st innings less than half complete and more than 3 days lost to rain, a draw was the only conceivable outcome as the match went into its final day.  The odds on either side winning were more than 30 to 1 and may just as well have been a whole lot more. 

By persuading the England captain to “make a game of it” and turn a tedious day into an interesting one for both players and spectators, Cronje was able to hide the fact that a very different motivation drove his offer.  Unscrupulous betting syndicates had realised that if the match could be manipulated to produce a result, money placed with unsuspecting bookmakers on a win to either side would yield massive returns.  All they needed was a compliant captain and Cronje accepted their bribe.

Once the truth emerged, the world of cricket went into a spin flatter than Jack Simmons at his finest.  Several big names in cricket were suspected of having been on the make.  Fines and accusations flew, Cronje himself subsequently died in suspicious but unprovable circumstances, but no-one was really any the wiser as to how much influence betting syndicates had actually secured over the game.

Ten years later, we discovered that a different form of betting is apparently rife on the Sub-Continent: spot fixing, where the outcome of a single delivery can yield vast amounts of money to somebody in the know.  Again, all that is needed is a compliant player.  To English punters, it seems faintly absurd that a bookie would accept a bet on the outcome of a certain delivery. Picture the scene: you’re a bookie and a punter walks in, asking for odds on the first ball after lunch being a no-ball.  You scratch your head.  “Ooh, I dunno, I’ll offer you 3 to 1.” “Great” says the punter, “I’ll put 25 grand on that.” Your first reaction would probably be to put a limit on it, say £100. Even then, though, you’d be mad to accept the bet at all, because the punter obviously knows something.  Yet this is happening all the time on the sub-continent.  There is evidently enough liquidity in the market for the bookie to lay off the possibility of paying out to someone who has inside knowledge against all the money wagered by the mugs who don’t.

To prove that the inside knowledge can spread, a friend told me that he was tipped off the night before the fateful fifth day of the Cronje test match.  A contact from South Africa called him the night before the last day, urging him to back both England and South Africa.  My friend is a serious punter, betting on absolutely everything, and he has made a pretty good living out of it.  But he professes to know nothing about cricket, other than that “it’s fantastic to bet on.” For this reason, the complexities of declarations and forfeited innings required to create the possibility of a result went right over his head.  He decided to consult his father, a proper cricket fan.  When his father dismissed the idea as “unthinkable in a test match”, but agreed it was technically possible under the laws of cricket, my friend decided there must be something afoot.  Realising he had to get on board before play started and that no English bookie  would be open in time (online betting did not yet exist and Pretoria is 2 hours ahead of the UK), his only option was to call an Indian bookmaker whom he knew in Bombay, which, of course, is 5 hours ahead of us. He asked for odds on an England win. “Oh no sir, very sorry sir, we know all about this.  We are taking no bets.”  Of course, they’d already got in on the act.

It’s a massive industry, far bigger than anyone ever suspected. There’s also little doubt that the protagonists are extremely rich and extremely powerful and are able to get to anyone, especially an unsuspecting 18 year old bowler for whose family £10,000 is an unimaginable sum of money. All he has to do is bowl a no ball at a pre-determined moment. What we don’t know is whether threats as well as incentives are used to bring about events which can be wagered on with certainty. It’s highly likely there is a very sinister side to the industry.  Certainly the account of an Indian journalist who went under cover to place a bet brought to light behaviour that could have come straight from an episode of Spooks: clandestine meetings with unknown middlemen, mobile phones that only receive calls from a certain number and which can only make one call to one number, and so forth.

So what to do?  I have no definite solution and I certainly don’t profess to understand the labyrinthine politics of the ICC which recently met to discuss the issue.  It seems to me, though, that one of the ways of reducing players’ susceptibility to bribery and corruption is to make both the risks and rewards higher.  That is to say, pay the top players much more, so they have more to lose; after all, there is enough legitimate money in the game and it strikes me that there is still an imbalance between what the players earn and the media companies’ profits, even after taking account of the salaries now being paid out in the IPL.

By the same token, cast players into the pit of oblivion, never to return, if they are found to have strayed from the straight path, thereby increasing the fear of being caught.  The burden of proof should be civil, i.e. on the balance of probabilities, as opposed to beyond reasonable doubt, providing a further incentive not to play ball with the betting syndicates, because it is easier to get convicted. Fines should be very harsh and accompanied by life bans, which should mean just that, life, no matter who the player.  Any proceeds a guilty player earns from selling their story should be immediately forfeit and ploughed back into the game; and they clearly should not be permitted to benefit from selling their expertise as pundits, ever. There are probably some socially correct lawyers out there who would tell me that such treatment would breach the players’ human rights.  I will quote Clint Eastwood in response: “I’m all cut up about that man’s rights.” If they spurn the privileges they have been granted as top cricketers, don’t they forfeit their rights?

I toyed with the idea of suggesting that rewards could be offered for whistle-blowing.  I still think it could work, but you are into very murky territory indeed.  It would be horribly divisive and would also only encourage the syndicates to use menaces as opposed to sweeteners to make their chosen targets compliant.  Ultimately, I fear that taking on the betting syndicates is not unlike taking on the mafia:  worthy, but futile.  Maybe, though, we can draw comfort from the example of Singapore. Government officials there are amongst the highest paid in the world, but the sanctions against stepping out of line are draconian. There is virtually no corruption there. But, I appreciate, this is simplistic and probably naïve. As Mr Bridger famously says to Camp Freddy in The Italian Job: “Everybody in the world is bent.” 

 Pakistan cricket

I do think that, despite the behaviour of some of its players and officials, the temptation to make Pakistan cricket a pariah on the back of the recent events should be resisted. This is not an original thought: I heard it voiced by Peter Oborne, the well known columnist, at a speech I heard him give recently at a cricket dinner. He spoke much good sense. The highlight for me was when he argued that summarily throwing Pakistan out of world cricket would be to deny spectators around the world the opportunity to enjoy some of the most talented cricketers that exist.  For all its problems, Pakistan contains around 170 million people who are obsessed with cricket; and although there is very little infrastructure, the poverty and raw surroundings can and do produce extraordinarily gifted cricketers. Becoming a top player is a worthy aspiration and it would be criminal to remove that opportunity.

Which is why I have nothing but admiration for ECB Chairman Giles Clarke in his support for Pakistan cricket.  I may violently disagree with his decision to do away with free-to-air coverage of cricket, I may deplore his obsession with Sky’s money, and I may have found his cosying up to Allen Stanford and his helicopter utterly sick. But I have to say, he went up in my estimation when he offered Pakistan the opportunity to play their series against Australia in England.  And he has done a lot more besides, behind the scenes. As a speaker of Urdu, he may yet play a crucial role in ensuring that Pakistan receive firm but fair treatment. I hope he is successful in preventing them from being hung out to dry in the politics and in-fighting that is the staple diet of the ICC, although his combative nature hardly qualifies him for a situation requiring delicate diplomacy.

 India v Australia

Well that’s almost it from me for this time around; except  I have to mention the recent Test matches between India and Australia. I won’t call it a series, because, shamefully, there were only two matches.  Even more puzzling, India are playing THREE test matches against New Zealand in the next few weeks. But at least the two tests between India and Australia were both proper matches, with drama, great batting and bowling, fortunes ebbing and flowing even within sessions and the result only settled deep into the final day.  The first match was a real cliffhanger. Wins by one wicket are rare in any form of cricket; and if it reminded more Indian fans that Test cricket is still the purest form of the game, it will have been worth the fact that it was not, but should have been, part of a longer series. As VVS Laxman hobbled around virtually on one leg, his match winning innings in that match also proved an old adage: beware the wounded batsman.

As for Australia, they really are at a cross-roads.  This represents both a threat and an opportunity for England in the forthcoming Ashes series, which I shall preview in more detail another time.  Suffice to say, Australia looked insipid at times in India, even though several players performed well, especially with the bat, which enabled them to stay competitive until late on in the game; but they seem to have lost that mental toughness for which they are so renowned.  Having said that, our bowlers may yet struggle to take twenty wickets, especially when their capable middle order comes up against tiring bowlers.  Winning or even drawing a series on their home turf will be a major achievement for England, especially as we can expect a pretty vigorous backlash after their loss in India.

One word of warning: remember that Brisbane is 10 hours ahead of us.  I only say this because a friend of mine smugly told me last week that he’s arranged a big dinner on Thursday 25th November at a very fine gentleman’s club, with the express aim of then settling in to the first session of the Ashes.  Schoolboy error: I pointed out that the Ashes actually begins at midnight GMT of Wednesday 24th November, so anyone planning a dinner ahead of watching Shane Watson edge the first ball of the series to slip and Australia stagger to 100 for 5 at lunch needs to plan it for THAT evening, not the 25th .  My friend, who was convinced he’d got the right date and who does not like being proved wrong, looked rather put out after consulting my Blackberry calendar and realising that he’s booked the club for the wrong night.  Never mind: he may get to watch England build on a first day score of 320 for 3 and take a firm grip of the series.  But it won’t be THE opening session of the Ashes, which is obviously how he’s sold it to his guests.

 Below are some more extracts from How I Won The Ashes.  Since we’ve been talking about fixing, I thought I’d share with you a story from the book about how I did my own match fixing.


10.          MATCH FIXING

Stamford Bridge is the kind of place where, unless you are a dyed in the wool Chelsea fan, you feel like a complete outsider. If you give the slightest sign that you are supporting the opposition, woe betide you.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get evicted from the stand.  Take my old friend Norman.  He’s a barrister.  A criminal barrister.  His clients are often hard core villains: murderers, rapists, drug dealers, armed robbers.  He defends them in court. His attitude is that someone has to do it.  Every person, no matter what they have done, is innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone also has a right to be professionally represented in court. He happens to be very good at it and thus has a reputation “on the circuit”. And he never prosecutes. Like Rumpole, only more athletic. His doesn’t much care for judges, or referees, and he hates Scousers.

Because Norman is also a hard core Manchester United fan.  He has season tickets to every London ground, so that when United come to town, he gets to watch his team.  Except, of course, that he has to go in with the home supporters.  One afternoon, he was at Stamford Bridge with his wife Charlotte, watching his beloved team, trying not get too animated when United were on the attack and trying to look upbeat when they were defending.  After about 20 minutes, Charlotte nudged him and whispered to him: 

“I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a guy up there behind us who hasn’t taken his eyes off you since we arrived.  I think he knows you.”

Norman looks around and sees a huge skinhead, about six feet tall, very ugly, very mean and very threatening, a typical Chelsea fan, staring straight back at him. He turns back to Charlotte.

“OK, good news and bad news. The bad news is that he knows that I’m a United fan.”

“Oh my God.  He’ll kill us.”

“No, I don’t think so.  The good news is that the last time I saw him was when he walked free from Snaresbrook. I got him a suspended sentence on a GBH charge.”

“What did he do?”

“He stabbed a Liverpool fan in the pub outside here.”

 Norman turns around again.  Sure enough, the skinhead grins at him, gives him the thumb’s up, winks and then touches his nose with his finger.  I’ve got your number, mate, he is saying, I know you’re a United fan  – but I’m not going to grass you up to the home fans because I owe you one. And we both hate the Scouse.

This is the story of how Norman met Charlotte. A brief digression is required, because I need to go back to the very first time I met my own wife. It was one of the more random things that happened in my life.  I had been playing cricket one evening – yes, it’s a recurring theme!  I then met up with some friends for dinner in a London restaurant.  Midway through the evening, I went to the loo.  On my way back through the restaurant, I spotted a very pretty girl, with a striking smile.  I caught her eye, but nothing more. 

Later on, we were out on the pavement, saying goodbye to each other.  I noticed that the pretty girl with the striking smile had also moved outside and was sitting with a group of girls at a table just behind where we were standing.  A few drinks at dinner had given me some Dutch courage. Ten of us became eight, eight became six, six became four as we all went our separate ways.  One of my friends offered me a lift home. I politely declined, it was a fine night and I could walk home.  They left. As soon as I was alone, I turned to the table, marched straight up to the young lady and asked her if I could buy her a drink while I waited for a taxi (which I obviously hadn’t ordered).  Fortunately, she agreed.    I later found out that her friends giggled to her as I was walking over, “You smiled at him.  Now you can sort him out.”  She did, but I don’t think she had marriage to a mad cricket fan in mind.

A few days later, we went out on our first date.  Without going into detail, it was successful. The morning after, I was playing cricket for Norman. I was feeling a bit smug and I did own up to having had a pretty good evening the night before.  You can imagine the kind of lads’ talk that ensued.  Who was she?  What was she like?  How old is she? She’s very lovely, very beautiful and very blonde, I replied. How old was she?  Well, she was in fact nineteen at the time and I was twenty-nine.  10 years younger. That got them going a bit: “Cradle snatcher.” “Dirty bugger.” Etc. etc.

I also had a good friend, Charlotte, with whom I had travelled to the Far East and Australia some years previously.  In Australia, we spent time with an old college mate of mine, Jimmy, and his girlfriend Fiona, who was from Sydney.  Four years later, they decided to get married, at Jimmy’s parents’ house in Gloucestershire, on a Friday.  It was two weeks after my first date with my wife.

So Charlotte and I went to Jimmy and Fi’s wedding together, but obviously not as a couple. It was a typical English wedding: lots of friends, plenty to drink and a good time had by all.  As Jimmy and Fi were leaving, the bouquet wasn’t so much thrown, it was rifled from the car, straight at Charlotte, who pouched it as if she’d been fielding in the slips all her life. I teased her that her boyfriend was going to pop the question the next day.  She gave me a look, rolling her eyes to the sky as if to say “Not a chance and even if he did, I’d run a mile.” Not a serious relationship, then.

The next morning, we drove back to London.    I was due to be playing in a cricket match for a team captained by Norman, and the venue was on the way to London. The night before had been a heavy one and we were late. I explained to Charlotte that I wouldn’t have time to drive her all the way to London: she could either get on a train or stay and watch the cricket.  She seemed happy enough to stay and watch the cricket.  She had her book and her radio and it was a beautiful sunny day. 

So, two weeks later, I appear at another cricket match, not with my new girlfriend, but with Charlotte, who is equally beautiful and equally blonde. I walk up to the pavilion, Charlotte walking a few yards behind me.  Norman is there and greets me.

“Hey, well done, mate.  Nice and punctual, for once.”

“Hi, Norman.  I’ve brought a friend along.  Is it OK if she stays for lunch?”

“Oh God, not another one of your blonde bim-” He stopped abruptly as he caught sight of Charlotte.  His tone changed. He held out his hand, all charm. “Hello, I’m Norman. Of course you can stay for lunch.”  Hmm, I thought.  Something is happening here.

Later as I drove Charlotte back to London, she remarked on what a nice person Norman was, how charming and polite and funny he had been.  Norman is all of those things, but few people form that impression of him on first meeting.  Then I remembered the bouquet the day before.  Something is definitely happening here.  I dropped Charlotte at her flat and returned home.  A message was waiting for me on my answering machine.  It was Norman. “Great to see you today, well played, mate.  And what a cracking girl.  Any chance I can have her phone number?”

A dinner party was arranged not long after.  Norman and Charlotte were sat next to each other and did not say a word to anyone else for the entire evening.  They left together and Charlotte dumped her boyfriend the next morning.  A year after they met on a cricket pitch, they were married. That’s a proper match. Proof, if it were ever needed, that cricket is more, much more than a mere contest between bat and ball.



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