When a spot-fixing scandal emerges (and it seems to happen with an increasing frequency lately), cricket fans turn to their ethics textbooks. Is there a moral distinction between throwing a game (“match-fixing”) and throwing a wide, no-ball, or a given number of runs (“spot-fixing”)? If spot-fixing aims to ‘fix’ such small, mundane events, is there really cause for life-bans or moral opprobrium? This was the source of the argument between Harsha Bhogle, who pointed out the degree-of-difference on Twitter, and Dale Steyn, who replied that stealing a dollar or a bank still amounts to stealing.
I’m not that invested in this discussion because spot-fixing offends me for another reason. Cricket is now a modern game, which means that we have professional athletes who make a difficult bargain: In return for two to three decades of hard work, many injuries, and terrible odds for national selection, we offer them (a small group of them, anyway) money, fame, and the chance to be part of a country’s biggest moments. The money comes from the fans (mostly from their televisions), and advertisers. Policing these new commercial boundaries is difficult and often incoherent: We are willing to accept loud, incessant ads between overs, but we’re uneasy about inserting them into the game (“Karbon Kamaal catch,” “Yes Bank Maximum,” etc.). We’re still not sure how we feel about a player abandoning his country’s Test side for a made-up IPL franchise, but we’re extremely uneasy about an Indian team that either hides or misdiagnoses injuries for fear it may hurt a player’s chance to play in the IPL. We also understand the need for sponsors, but we’re not happy to see one of them own both an IPL franchise and head the organization that owns the IPL and the Indian national team.
So now we have spot-fixing, which offends me because it basically abolishes these commercial-athlete boundaries (however made up they may seem). In essence, a bookie turns an athlete into a private employee and asks him to do his bidding over the most trite affairs — Place your towel into your pants! Shake your wristband! Give me a no-ball! The player becomes a financial product — a secret investment akin to an insider trading scheme. What’s forgotten is that a player (presumably) worked hard to reach his particular level, and his skills are now not subject to chance or fate or another player’s abilities, but to some shady operator at the end of a cellphone. What’s also forgotten, of course, is that a fan fully expects to see these skills. To watch the best do their best — that’s what a spectator can reasonably ask for.
Spot-fixing enrages me because it makes explicit what I’d prefer to repress. I know that cricket is a commercial game now, just as another modern sport is, and that it has been so for a long, long time. But I still prefer not to think of the game as a series of financial transactions, even though increasingly, the money equation seems to determine what we watch on our screens. We’ve made all sorts of bargains ourselves, as my second paragraph indicates, that we forget how much we have given away. The real difference here isn’t match-fixing v. spot-fixing; it is trying to place spot-fixing on a spectrum that now includes sponsorship, ads, conflicts-of-interests, and bad faith