Monday, 4 June 2012

Confidence is Everything - now bring on Haye vs Chisora

Not the last time Malpoet and I ran into each other, but the time before that, we were discussing the sport of boxing and how there were many contests down the years that had been suspected to have been fought with less than total honesty.

It is now confirmed as fact in the annals of history that villains practically controlled the sport during the inter-war period, and a fighter had two choices - either do as he was told and 'take a dive in five' to instruction, or face a bleak future where meaningful events did not materialise. As someone who has spent time around boxers and covered the sport in isolation, this bunny initially finds this quite a difficult reality to accept.

All of the records that were built up in the time where the sport was undeniably crooked therefore have to be viewed with a hefty degree of suspicion. If Primo Carnera could be manouvred to the World Heavyweight title by a combination of mob control and clearly fixed fights, then how can we be certain that the achievements of his contemporaries were kosher?

Something I made sure to listen to this weekend was the story of Hansie Cronje, the great cricketer and captain of South Africa who traded his legacy as a proud sportsman and symbol of new-found South African unity for a wad of notes and a leather jacket. I'm old enough to remember when a forfeited innings presented England with a shot at winning that dead rubber of a Test Match in 2000. The widely-held view at the time of course, was that the spirit of cricket was the real winner that day, not Cronje's latest bank account and an Indian bookmaker as we subesquently discovered.

There seems to be a degree of contrived bewilderment as to exactly why Cronje did it. This may be because he had demonstrated himself to be a fierce competitor on the field of play and had led his nation to a string of famous victories shortly after their re-admission to Test Cricket. One can only presume that the temptations on offer reached a level where they exceeded any tie he had either to representing South Africa or the very notion of sporting excellence. Presumably, he also believed he would not be caught and that the occasional strategic error either batting or in the field would be seen as an honest one.

The major problem with throwing a single match, be it in an individual or team sport, is the chain that it breaks. Gone is the absolute that I or we are going out there to give it our best shot - win, lose or draw there can be no regrets, no sense that something was not left in the ring or on the field of play. Sometimes a better competitor a team will get the better of you, but it can never, ever be for the want of trying. I mention this while remembering another famous England-South Africa series in 1998.

England were comprehensively outplayed in the first three matches - they scrambled a draw in the first, were smashed to pieces in the second and looked set to suffer another innings defeat in the the third. Then the tail of Croft, Gough and Fraser hang around, blocking everything that Donald, Pollock, Kallis and MacMillan can throw at them - a draw is achieved when Croft chips a ball through mid-wicket for two and takes England one run ahead. Ending the innings would require a ten minute break that effectively times the South Africans out.

There are wild celebrations at narrowly avoiding what would have been a crushing defeat and taken the tourists to a daunting 0-2 lead with two to play. That's how bad England were at the time, or at least we thought they were.

Players on both sides have always denied that the two matches following this, both won by England, had anything to do with illegal bookmakers, villains on the subcontinent or batsmen being intimidated to throw their wicket away. Fair enough - the umpiring of Javed Akhtar probably made the final match of the series something of a lottery anyway and could politely be described as 'bad for both sides'. That he was later accused of corruption made little sense, since shocking decisions for LBW and caught behind evened themselves out nicely.

The issue for this bunny is:- South Africa were considered at the time to be a close second to Australia in the world rankings of Test Cricket while England would officially become the worst team in the world less than a year later. On paper they were the much stronger team and also seemed possessed of a greater level of intensity. When in the zone, England were no match for them, but Cronje had compromised the ability to sustain those levels through a series by getting involved with criminals on the subcontinent during 1996.

So while there may not have been any deliberate dishonesty, it's likely that the fact this was a 'less than pure' team, with a 'less than pure' captain didn't help them when the trio of Cork, Gough and Fraser finally put them under some real pressure for the first time in the series. As individuals and a team, you either want to win 100% of the time (like the Australians) or you don't.

Once you agre to throw any sporting contest, the first question that arises before the next is one that should never have entered the equation, "is this legit or can we cash in before deciding the result beforehand?". Ergo, a competitor ot team that gives the game away just once can never be as focussed or intense, or possess that total winning mentality again.

In the case of team sports, the Cronje case throws up an interesting question. How many players in an eleven-a-side game do you need to rope in for a pre-ordained result? Would the likes of Allan Donald or Shaun Pollock ever have participated in a match they knew to be fixed? This bunny is 99.9% sure that the answer is no. So, what if one of them produces a spell of brilliance that puts the desired outcome of the match in jeopardy? How many others have to produce shockers to render the team effectively useless?

One of the most famous fixed matches in sporting history came in the final weekend of the 1992-93 French football season. Marseilles needed victory to secure the title and played away to Valeniciennes, who still had a mathematical shot at avoiding relegation if they could pull off a surprise result themselves. Then there was the small matter of a European Cup final against AC Milan the following Wednesday. Rationalising that an easy ride in that final domestic match would leave their players fresh for tougher challenges ahead, Marseilles paid off two of their opponents' key players to produce non-performances.

The result was a 0-1 victory for the visitors, who retained their title and sent Valenciennes down in the process. Would they have won anyway? The form book would suggest so and this probably had some impact on the number of players they deemed it necessary to get onside. Were they playing Monaco or Bordeaux, would we have been looking at half a team deliberately not trying? On one level you would hope that clubs with a proud history of their own would not co-operate, but by extension that means little Valenciennes were targeted solely because of how insignificant (and therefore vulnerable) they were.

Recent claims of match-fixing in Italian football have surprised this bunny slightly, probably because the swift handling of the Calciopoli scandal six years ago appeared to represent clear, firm action in dealing with the issue. The paradox at work here is the willingness on the continent to accept that corruption is a part of life - while it arguably makes it more likely to take place, there are not the waves of denial and contrived disbelief that you'd inevitably get if someone suggested it had occurred over here. Some still appear to harbour a delusion that us Brits are so much more honest than those in mainland Europe that a fixed football match could never be allowed to happen over here.

Anyone believing such nonsense has clearly never heard of Tony Kay. Here's the Fix.

Whether the Premier League is as loaded with corruption as Serie A, this bunny has no idea. The only two observations I'd make on the subject are 1) where there is big money involved and a substantial betting market in the sport, then the scope and rewards for corruption and fixed results become huge. This could be in football, cricket, boxing, horse racing, whatever. 2) the problem only tends to be dealt with by the governing bodies of a sport when mistrust of the product reaches a level that hits attendances, shirt sales and other revenue streams.

Calciopoli in Italian football and the crackdown on crooked cricket took place when people stopped attending matches in the numbers they once had. Is that more than mere coincidence or is this bunny being overly cynical? The reason that English football has failed to acknowledge a significant corruption problem may be because one does not exist, or could have more to do with the fact that despite rising prices in an age when times are tight, revenue streams are holding up. Maybe the true test of how honest our football is will come when the crowds dwindle below an acceptable level?

Even the non-boxing enthusiasts amongst you will have noticed the upcoming David Haye vs Dereck Chisora contest on July 14th, sanctioned by the now world-famous Boxing Federation of Luxembourg. Having banned both men for some sort of tripod jousting session during a press conference following Chisora's last fight, the British Boxing Board of Control are doing their damndest to stop it from going ahead on British soil. I'm aware that 1) Chisora telling a packed press conference that he was going to shoot Haye was probably not a smart move and 2) the BBBC have a cartel to maintain - not that it's stopped them doing exactly what the LBF have and sanctioning fights outside the Uk.

But there's a bigger picture here. When Mal and I were discussing the nature of competitive sport, I mentioned the numerous contests I had seen through my relatively short life that were unequivocally, 100% straight and legitimate. His vew was that although such things took place, the likelihood was that a great deal of sport at practically any level is going to be bent in some way. Someone involved is going to be either not trying, performing under some sort of enhancement substance or working towards a pre-ordained result rather than one that comes about through all sides giving of their best and competing honestly. That might be an individual competitor, part of a team, the referee or judges, whoever.

I happen to think he is wrong, and that the overwhelming majority of sport is pretty clean. That said, how common a view is it now that cricket and some top level football is rotten to the core, blighted by spot-fixing and results agreed in a smoke-filled room beforehand? How many of you sincerely believe that this summer's 100 metres final at the Olympics will be contested by a series of juiced-up mutants, looking to beat first each other and then the drugs test? How many of you have seen a boxing match and thought straight away "he took a dive", "fucking fix" or whatever? When these sporadic instances come up with proven dishonesty, the gut instinct of many is to believe it merely to be the tip of a very uncomfortable iceberg.

That's why I hope the BBBC's attempts to stop Haye and Chisora fighting are unsuccessful. One of the reasons that tickets for the bout shifted as quickly as they did after going on sale was precisely because fans know beyond a doubt that they will be getting 'a proper fight'. Two men who clearly hate the sight of each other, one of whom has smashed the other in the face with a tripod and found retaliation in the form of threats to kill (Chisora seems to dislike most people, but isn't that what makes him an interesting fighter?).

Is anyone suggesting this will be anything other than a genuine attempt by two fired-up athletes to knock each other into next week? Haye might be a betting favourite, but in this sort of situation the result can become something of a lottery as it does in derby matches. The key point is that it would at least be an honest lottery, rather than one of those banana republic efforts where the president wins every other week.

Without its supporters, competitive sport is dead. The BBBC would have no cartel to protect and could clean up this mess by relenting and giving both fighters their licences back.

What's ten per cent of nothing again? Take care and I'll catch you soon.

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