ICC ACU chief: Corruptors are now going after European leagues

Alex Marshall, the chief of the ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit (ACU), spelt out the challenges for ACU with the emergence of smaller T20 leagues in lesser-known cricket destinations.

File image of ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit chief Alex Marshall.   -  Action Images via Reuters

Sir Alex Marshall, the chief of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC’s) Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), has been a man on a mission. Having charged some of the high-profile individuals recently, Marshall is optimistic that the ACU is on the right path.

In a free-flowing interaction with select media outlets during the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, Marshall spelled out the challenges for ACU with the emergence of smaller T20 leagues in lesser-known cricket destinations.

Excerpts

Every ICC World Cup is a stock-taking opportunity. How do you take stock of where you are now in terms of curbing corruption in cricket?

We have a reasonable picture of who is corrupting cricket. A small number of people also corrupt other sport. But mostly, cricket corruptors stick to cricket. We have charged 22 people over the last two-three years who have breached the code. That’s only part of it. We are really trying to disrupt the corruptors who are outside the code. We go anywhere in the world. We tell them we know exactly what you did, we know who you approached (individuals), keep away from our game. We charge quite a few people. There are a lot of investigations going on. We have had some success.

Why do I say that is because they are going lower and lower levels. A good example would be that the same corruptors who were corrupting international matches are now going after the European leagues. Basically, the players they are approaching there are asylum seekers, refugees who have come from other countries. They offer them 3000 Euros to underperform. We caught a lot of people. We are seeing corruptors trying to buy people they think are more vulnerable. It's a big lesson for us when we look around - top-level international cricket, secondary level international cricket, franchise tournaments on where is the vulnerability.

With the proliferation of T20 cricket, has it become more difficult? Do you have a chart as in one league being more vulnerable than the other?

We take care of international cricket. For example, you will see England, Australia, India, Pakistan have got sizeable ACU. We just share intelligence with them. The vulnerability comes in franchise tournaments where there is a lack of care about who the franchise owners are. Our experience from the past two years is that the most persistent corruptors will try and get a grip within the franchise. The name is the owner but the backing comes from corruptors sitting behind them. When Lanka Premier League and T10 asked us to do work for them, we took out some corruptors. Other leagues do that themselves.

Even if you look at the number of people you charge, which historically is very high in ACU history, they are all pretending to be corrupt. With UAE players we intercepted a plot and caught them before they did it. Not saying it never happens but most of the players we charged were attempting to do it.

Do the corruptors continue to target the captains?

Corruptors target the captain. They like the opening batters and the opening bowlers for obvious cricketing reasons, they get control. The way they change their approach is because nearly all those people report to us, they will try and put before them an ex-player or a team manager. In the last Lanka Premier League, we saw an ex-player used and the police got involved. So, you see a shift where they corrupt someone who knows the captain in hope that they will be able to perused. And they usually try to manipulate in a T20, two overs, or at the most four overs. It’s not the result, not the toss, not the no-ball, it’s an element, a phase of the game.

Are you comfortable with this practice where individual member boards take care of their own leagues? It could be argued that they have their own prestige to safeguard.

Since the start of anti-corruption (activities), it is the practice that domestic boards are involved in their anti-corruption. [There are] 2500 domestic matches in India and I can’t even conceive how you could do that from one place globally. And the BCCI as you know split it in their regions and states. I haven’t got an issue with it unless it’s done professionally and properly, and there are good examples around the world. You would always think that there are some boards that would find it more difficult financially. For them, it is always a risk that they can’t put their resources into it.

We are talking about the high-profile leagues where international players are involved...

That is how cricket has changed. When the ICC was set up there was domestic cricket and international cricket. Now there is franchise cricket as well, where half international players are involved. So yeah, that's a perfectly fair point, the nature of cricket has changed. We do get asked to cover some of those franchise tournaments.

For those lesser leagues, do you think you should have the autonomy to go in without being asked specifically?

Not while the ICC is constructed the way it is which is a member responsible for their own country. What’s important for me is we exchange intelligence and information. So even if we are not involved, if someone tells us these are the three proposed franchise owners, we would do the intelligence work for them and say this person popped up a few years ago or we don’t know these people. So, we always engage with them as long as they talk to us.

Do you think more can be done to safeguard those lesser leagues better?

What the ICC has done regularly is sanctioning. Where ICC is responsible to sanction the leagues of a non-full member where more than four international players are involved, we look at the sanction guidelines that they are tight enough. The other thing we are doing across the world is issuing guidance on what are the due diligence questions you should be asking of interested franchise owners if you are running a franchise league. We have worked out some really key things you would want to know. He might genuinely be a lover of cricket who wants to lose money every year in a franchise tournament but there might be other reasons why someone wants to lose money five years in a row supporting a franchise. For example, where does all the money come from? Are they the sole financer or are there a series of people behind them who are providing the money? So, we are providing all the guidance to cricket from all the lessons we’ve learnt. We try and give them these are the questions you should be getting a positive reply to, before you award a franchise to anyone.

The ACU monitors players and coaches’ social media activities, including WhatsApp messages. Would you like the same to be done for the owners?

Each board has its own Anti-Corruption code. Mostly they replicate the ICC Anti-Corruption Code. So, where they have replicated that power, they have that power. A franchise owner is in, the one anomaly who is not in is the person who runs the event - so the event company isn’t covered. And that’s something we will look at in the future. But franchise owners are covered. We can’t just look at people’s messages. It’s a serious thing. And there has to be an investigation. And then my team has to make an application to me and it has to reach a certain standard and I say no sometimes.

Could you give us an idea about the geographic spread of ACU investigations?

Yeah, out of the current 40 to 50 live investigations pretty much everywhere - Africa, mainland Europe, Asia. So very wide geographic coverage, probably in the last 12 months, more than we have ever had in mainland Europe, because of the club matches that are being targeted there. We have investigations all over the world. Usually, the corruptors are linked to the unregulated betting markets in India - nearly always, there’ll be some cases where they are not. But most of the corruption that we ever deal with - the case can be in Zimbabwe, or Namibia or PNG, wherever it might be - but if we identify where the corruption attempt has come from, nearly always the unregulated betting markets in India because they have the biggest volumes. And they are unregulated. So, you can’t see, no one can see what’s happening in that market.

How much do you rely on big data, like betting patterns?

We have very good relationships with the regulated betting industry, and they talk to us a lot. If you think how they make their money is to run algorithms that are based on reliable data. So, if something upsets the data because it’s an unusual thing, that ruins their algorithm, and they start losing money. So strangely, professional gamblers have got a real interest in cricket being honest, because that’s how they make their money - by predicting what is on average likely to happen. So, they are very good at alerting us to what they think might be an anomaly or we have seen a shift in the market before this bowler has come on, whatever. But that’s the regulated market. And the real money is in the unregulated. Now, in the unregulated market, they can sometimes bring some money across into the regulated market and use proxy accounts. And so occasionally, in those accounts, you’ll see something strange. But in most cases, it’s happening but no one can see it because it’s unregulated. The Indian government has decided to make betting illegal and until that was to change, it will be an unregulated market.

So has the ACU battle shifted to grey segment from international cricket?

The simple answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is all the corruptors will do is look for vulnerability. So, if they believe an individual player has problems in their life that makes them more vulnerable than someone else. Maybe they are massively in debt or something. So, for them money might be attractive, they will always look for that vulnerability. I never dismiss the idea that it can happen in top-level international cricket - it’s just generally speaking, if you take the teams out on the pitch today, in a group, they have got good management around them. They have had loads of anti-corruption education, they know to send us a message immediately they get someone saying, I want to sponsor your bat or anything that seems out of the ordinary, they’ll tell us. So actually, if you are a corruptor, this is really hard to try and gain access to that group. Whereas if you are in a league where everything is jumbled up and not in a tight group, and they don’t know each other, and they don’t know the team manager, they have never met the coach, they haven’t got any friends around them, and they are in a country they are not normally in. If you are a corruptor, you are thinking that’s a better opportunity. If you managed to get into the ownership of the team, you are on the inside and you have got much more chance of trauma. Does that make sense? Yeah.

How do you look at the possible impact of corruptors influencing fantasy leagues that have mushroomed all over the sub-continent recently?

To the extent of this fantasy, it’s points and people might win money and prizes for having points. But actually, it’s points based on performance of the players, so we’ve got to be interested in fantasy leagues. But if we’ve found that that was being used as another way of making illegal money for manipulating play, obviously we’ll be very interested. But so far, fantasy league doesn’t appear… of course, if you’ve affected the performance of a player, they’d get fewer points in fantasy leagues, so you can sort of see how it connects. But frankly, if you were a very rich bookie and you wanted to do some corruption, your best way of making money is to know that the first two overs of this match are going to concede more than 15 or 20 runs. You can take as many bets as you like for under because you know what’s going to happen, huge sums of money.

With regard to the recent investigations and charges, would it be safe to say that Sri Lanka is the hub of corruption?

No.

Geographically, would you say that there’s a hub, if any, for corruption in cricket?

It’s pretty well spread. If you just go back 12 months, you’ll find disproportionately more in Europe, we’ve had some cases in Canada, we’ve had a couple of cases in America, but it’s pretty spread. Three or four years ago, Sri Lanka was something like 22 cases - the same number as…, don’t confuse that with, it’s the same number - I never said Sri Lanka was the most corrupt place. What I did say was they had the highest number of investigations. All those investigations are finished from back then and now Sri Lanka is no more represented in corruption investigations than any other part of the world and they’ve got new legislation which makes match-fixing and corruption in sport a criminal offense for which you can go to prison and they’ve got a police unit and two new anti-corruption officers who work with us all the time. We were involved in appointing them on behalf of Sri Lanka Cricket, so no!

Do you think making sports betting legal in India is the need of the hour?

In terms of the unregulated betting markets, if they are regulated, you can view them, you can run algorithms and you can identify anomalies that are happening in betting. A recent example is just before a bowler came on in a franchise league, massive swing in the betting market saying that bowler is about to concede a whole lot of runs, okay! In a regulated market, great for us. You get a warning about what’s happening, the betting industry will certainly tell you and if you’ve already got under intelligence and get the phone or whatever, you might put the whole case together and solve it. When it’s unregulated, you can’t do it and the Indian betting market is enormous. It’s for the Indian government to decide what they want to do about it.

In ACU’s investigations, how many current cricketers are under the scanner?

We never talk about people who are under investigation because it wouldn’t be fair. I don’t even tell their own boards because once you say to someone that we’re investigating this person, as humans it’s quite hard then to not regard them as tainted. And might be when we get to the end of the investigation and we look at their phone and it’s really clear they actually weren’t involved in corruption at all and they’re false allegations. Therefore, we don’t even tell the Boards of the players who are under investigation, they could tell them if they want to.

How many investigations do you have underway regarding women’s cricket?

We have had, in total, in the last two years, three or four approaches to women’s cricket. At the same time, we would have had — 66 investigations — more than 100 approaches to male cricketers. But, as I said, if you are a corruptor, you’re looking to see who is vulnerable. So once women’s cricket is live-streamed and there is a betting market, the corruptors might think the men have done anti-corruption education 15 times over and the women perhaps not so much. We have done these education courses, women cricketers listen really well and ask really good questions. Just saying [Laughs]. It could be that women communicate better and differently than men in certain situations.

Has COVID-19 situation affected corruption?

In terms of the physical environment, the playing groups are even more protected than they were before. You only have to go back to two years and a bit and in the lobby of the hotels where the players were staying, and in the lift and the lounge there was all this interaction. What we got from here, if not corrupt approaches, was requests for inside information. The playing group is more separate. But, to be fair most corrupt approaches don’t happen in person any more. It’s nearly always over social media, secret messaging, all that stuff. During Covid, corruptors ran out of cricket to corrupt. One of the more well-known corruptors, you will remember, ran a pretend-league in India, pretending it was a tournament happening in Sri Lanka. Even did all the advertising and all that. When they talk about businesses pivoting during Covid, what this guy did was invent an entire tournament that was completely pretend. He has been arrested in Australia, in India, and caught in another country, this person. During Covid, European club matches continued, and corruptors targeted them. They targeted asylum seekers and refugees who were a part of cricket that was streamed.

Can you provide an insight into the importance of streaming events from ACU’s perspective?

Will Glenwright is the head of development for ICC. He develops cricket, he wants to stream everything, it’s all positive. All smiley. For all the development where cricket is getting more exposure, then the corruptors are looking at it immediately. He is the bright side and I’m the dark side and we have to work together. Women’s cricket is a good example and lower international cricket is a good example. As soon as it’s streamed and a betting market is opened, corruptors are interested. Every time we [cricket] grow we have to increase our protection.

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