Cricket’s very structure is so vulnerable to manipulation, writes S. Ram Mahesh

People come to sport for different things. There are the aesthetes and the humourists, in it for visual beauty and unintended slapstick. There are the seekers and the pundits, in it for knowing a thing as it truly is and letting others know they know it. There are, too, the followers and the wish-I-had-beens, in it for the solace of belonging and the vicarious fulfilment of ambitions frustrated.

People aren’t of course as neatly sectioned — we’re all a little of each, the degrees varying. But what hooks us, what keeps us coming back, is sport’s fundamental competitive element. Stripped to the bone, it’s a contest and anything can happen.

Without that, what’s the point really? Choreography has its appeal — professional wrestling, for all the scorn heaped on it, is an incredibly difficult physical art-form. But it no longer masquerades as sport.

The most unsettling aspect of all that has happened these last few days is the reminder that cricket’s very structure, which affords its fans such joy, is so vulnerable to manipulation. Cricket is a series of discrete events, each initiated by the bowler. This gives cricket its unique rhythm; its space for the pause allows reflection. But, cruelly, it also allows these events to be remote-controlled.

What’s more, the dynamic that drives cricket, the battle between bat and ball, defines the difference between spot- and match-fixing. Both recorded instances of spot-fixing, the no-balls in England and the runs conceded in the IPL, have involved the bowler, for his is the creative, generative role.

There is the chance of the batsman not capitalising on deliberately poor bowling, but it’s still easier to concede runs than make them. The result of a match, on the other hand, can’t be influenced without dealing with the batsman — for it’s easier to surrender wickets than take them.

The Twenty20 format, because the batsman has to take risks he wouldn’t otherwise consider and the bowler isn’t strictly looking for wickets, further confuses matters.

Game of mistakes

In many ways it isn’t cricket at all, the logic and texture of its world considerably different from that of the longer forms. Dividing 10 wickets over 20 overs takes caution out of it, making it a game of mistakes. With the surfeit of errors, it’s near impossible to tell the legitimate from the dishonest.

But sports fans, even the most cynical of us, are believers. Cricket is full of curious passages of play, it makes the game what it is, and with each such incident, we either lose a little innocence or retreat further into denial. And that is the unkindest cut of all.