I like gambling. I don’t do much of it, but I have a modest shareholding and what is that if not a gamble? And what are the pensions that will support us in old age, if not a wager that what we “spend” today will set us up for the future? I even like the kind of gambling that goes on in Las Vegas, as the spectacle, the food, the sheer pleasure of the place sweetly separates you from your money.
And I like gambling because without it, we would not have cricket. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gambling was the catalyst that sparked the game into life. It brought together the Lords (and helped construct Lord’s) and paupers and all points in between, to watch and play a game that takes much time (and then as much as now, time was money) to play and to practise. Without gambling, cricket could have gone the way of croquet or polo – esoteric pursuits of the eccentric English.
Cricket owes gambling plenty – but gambling cannot own cricket. Gambling has always been there, gambling has always wanted to own some cricketers and gambling has always needed to be put in its place by cricket. So when the phone rings and there’s a voice that whispers (or screams) that if you can do this little thing for me, I can do this big thing for you, the relationship has metastasized, gambling owns cricket and it’s time for action.
At the time of writing, the allegations in the News of the World are just that – allegations – but, in a sense, these specific allegations don’t matter. Cricket has gambling, good and bad, in its DNA and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. So let’s deal with it in that light and not talk of a game shamed or lifetime bans. There are some frightened cricketers in London right now – cricket should first assure their safety, then assist the law in taking its course and then think about how to treat these young men (and some are very young). Casting these men out will do them immeasurable harm well beyond their professional lives and the game little good – cricket can only push back on gambling, never defeat it. And those caught up in cricket’s and gambling’s love – hate relationship are victims, perhaps not innocent, but victims all the same, of that Faustian bargain. We should treat them as such.