Ashes furore: breaking what is not fixed?

The first lesson to draw from the London Sun's expos?? of match-fixing is that it is one of those occasional journalistic exercises that by the fact of its publication guarantees the story will not come true. To the many eyes, ears and cameras already trained on an Ashes Test - witness the microscopic deconstruction of Mark Stoneman's dismissal on Thursday - will be another layer of vigilance for the least irregularity, wink or wriggle. If the fix was in, it is as well that Steve Smith did not bat on Thursday. In a typical over, with all his tics, twitches and eccentricities, he would send enough signals to make a poor, hard-working match fiddler turn to honesty.

No, this first day with all its fluctuations can be taken at face value, freckles and all. The further guarantee of that is that by publishing on the morning of the game, The Sun appears to be hedging, well, its bets, aware that if no fix ensued, it would have no story. Its sister paper, the now defunct News of the World, entrapped three Pakistanis during a Test at Lord's in an authentic sting in 2010, leading to convictions and suspensions for Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. This was a proposed sting, and now a thwarted sting.

Notably, the several authorities - ICC, CA, the ECB, the players' body - were quick and strenuous not in denials and denunciations, but expressions of confidence that the integrity of this match and series had not been breached. It is their wont, of course, but it also would stand to make them look foolish to the point of imbecilic if a crime is later substantiated. Right now, there is smoke, but no gun and only attempted arson.

Unlike NOW's unwitting co-conspirators, the ways and means of The Sun's collaborators are far from foolproof. One instance serves to show it. The issue here is spot-fixing, the arrangement of individual contingencies within games, a no-ball here, a four there, a wide, a dismissal. Larger-scale schemes are all but impossible to orchestrate. Yet The Sun's informants talk of fixing the number of runs in a session. A session is two hours; it is not a spot.

In the Sun tapes, the two Indians come across as blowhards, able to control everything, wannabe Kim Jong-uns who can change a match today and the climate tomorrow.

No England player is implicated; their position in this series is all their own work. The leaves only Australians. One is a "World Cup-winning all-rounder"; there is none in this team. The Australians are lavishly paid. More than that, the premium both these countries put on the Ashes is almost beyond pricing. This very moment, they stand to make reputations that will be theirs to live up or down for the rest of their lives. If ever found to have fixed, it would be a lifetime in stocks. As a principle, Australians can countenance the idea of cheating to win - shady practices have been an issue in this series - but not to lose, even one moment.

Fixing, as a rule, takes place in the shadowy corners of limited-overs matches, which come and go by the dozen, are less supervised and scrutinised - and remembered - are not prized by players as Test matches are, do not make and break careers and exist wholly for their entertainment value. These are the focus of the Indian pair's negotiations with The Sun; the Ashes feature almost as an after-thought, a bet on the side, if you like.

As many a wag has said, some say the Ashes are life and death, but are wrong: they are much more important than that. The history is not hard and fast - the NOW plot centred on a Lord's Test, no less. But the larger the stage, the harder it is to pull the wool over eyes, and to what gain any way? The odds on a prearranged wide in a Test match are the same as for a dodgy wide in the Zimbabwean T20 league, but which is more likely to catch the eye of investigators?

All that said, there is no room for smugness. It was a newspaper's pursuit that brought the scalps of the Pakistani trio in 2010, the highest-profile since Salim Malik. The Ashes are not by the fact of their sacred status beyond approach; it may well be that brazen crooks figure to use the improbability as their cover. And don't think for a moment that all Australians are scrupulous by nature and impervious to temptation; drugs in sport have taught us that. Money is one incentive, disgruntlement another. It is to be hoped that CA's sleuths were on the job anyway, watching not the cricket, but the cricketers.

CA might have a look at itself, too. Wherever you looked at the WACA Ground yesterday, your eye would have been caught by the name of a betting agency, a "partner" of course. CA will say - perhaps not this way - that it is better to have them in the tent peeing out than outside peeing in. They are not in any case the bookies lurking in the background of this story. But their presence has been normalised in Australian professional sport. Using this week's buzz word, they have become part of the "culture".

Fortunately, or naively, there is always the cricket to distract from the cricket. For its last-ever Ashes Test, the WACA Ground - confounding even the captains' assessments - went all retro with its pitch. Pace and bounce made immediately for a match in a different tone and tempo to the first two. For the English batsmen, there were more boundaries, but also more brushes with mortal danger, more bruises too.

For the Australian bowlers, there was the age-old WACA imperative to avoid over-stimulation. Wicketkeeper Tim Paine was almost Australia's busiest player, but twice, balls sailed over his head for four byes each, latter-day Test match rarities.

Hang on ...

This story Ashes furore: breaking what is not fixed? first appeared on The Age.