Spot-fixing and Woolmer`s death: How numbers can help detect corruption

Arunabha Sengupta

With the kind of technology available, and astute use of mathematical models, many anomalies in the field of play can be readily flagged as suspicious. With the striking example of Bob Woolmer’s death, Arunabha Sengupta demonstrates the way corruption can be combated with analytics.

The Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) of the International Cricket Council (ICC) was set up in 2000, in the wake of murky incidents that tarnished the image of the game.

According to the International Cricket Council (ICC) website, one of the principal roles of ACSU is the “eradication of corruption prejudicial to the interests of the game of cricket.” Obviously this includes all that is associated with rigging matches and spot-fixing.

We have the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) professing zero tolerance for corruption, erupting in sound and fury, handing out suspensions by fistful, once the events are brought to their notice.
It leads one to wonder why with all this supposed management commitment, the episodes of fixing and throwing matches continue to be brought to light by the police and the media.

True, often investigations bank on lucky leads, chance clues and may elude the eyes of the employed specialists. Some independent external eye can suddenly stumble over the truth. But, if this keeps happening on a regular basis, one starts to wonder whether proper controls are in place in appropriate reflection of the proclaimed commitment.

What is alarming is that many measures, which can be termed basic, seem to be absent and tell-tale signs of slimy dealings are often ignored by the authorities.

Sreesanth’s over

If one looks at the controversial fourth over of the Mohali match between Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals, some very dubious signals seem to have been very apparent. After a full and wide second delivery which went for four, the third ball bowled by S Sreesanth was short and wide outside the off stump, another boundary written all over it. Shaun Marsh threw his bat at it, but could not middle it properly. The next was a rank long hop, Marsh pulled and got a single off the top edge. Gilchrist faced the next one and Sreesanth sent down another pathetic short ball which was drilled for four. At this stage one heard the lament of the commentator on air, “Once is lucky, twice a mistake.”

So, even without knowing about signalling towels, the gut feel told us that this repeating error was somewhat out of ordinary. And when we look at Sreesanth pulling his hand out of the way as the drive comes back at him off the last ball of the over, one is forced to wonder if that was not palpably deliberate. Was it enough for us to say that something fishy was going on? Not necessarily. It may be just hindsight bias that makes one feel that the evidence was right there.

When the action is limited to one over, one can always argue that it was just bad luck, a few bad balls, loss of control and so on.

However, current technology rigorously documents bowling speed, pitch-maps and length and bounce of every ball. When combined with appropriate mathematical methods and properly analysed, some of the anomalies on the field can be easily spotted. Extremely unlikely events are possible to flag as suspicious outliers. The probability of a prolonged sequence of poor deliveries or the odds of a succession of big no-balls can be computed with scientific rigour, and this can be used to alert the authorities of possible misdemeanour.

Numbers cannot tell us whether fixing has really taken place or not. But, they can point out events that look shady and may need some investigation in the background.

Woolmer’s death in numbers

Let me provide a striking example. We will see how obvious signs of corruption were blatantly ignored by ICC even when faced with suspected murder in its wake.

On March 17, 2007, Pakistan played Ireland in the ninth match of the World Cup at Sabina Park. As is known to every follower of the game, the unheralded Irish team upset the Pakistanis, and early next morning, the lifeless body of coach Bob Woolmer was found on the bathroom floor of his hotel room.

When I had spoken to Clive Rice recently, he had minced no words in calling Woolmer`s mysterious demise a murder, and had pointed out that all the Pakistan players had been out caught in the match against Ireland. “What are the odds of that happening?” he had asked, implying that fixing was definitely involved and the murder was connected to it.

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