Posted by: mattburleigh | July 20, 2011

Steve Waugh’s Cunning Plan

Yesterday news came from Lord’s of a wonderful new idea to tackle the scourge of match-fixing in cricket. Make everyone take a lie detector (polygraph) test. To demonstrate the simplicity and effectiveness of this idea, Steve Waugh, a man who never pretended he didn’t touch the ball or catch it on the bounce, took a test in front of the massed ranks of the cynical hacks. Of course, he passed with flying colours. (SPIN, Guardian).

The idea is Waugh’s. He is chairman of an MCC world cricket committee working party that was charged last year with investigating ways that corruption might be eradicated from the game. The MCC WCC is an august body of distinguished cricketers that meets annually to discuss weighty matters of the cricket world, much like the lads do in the Red Lion every Saturday evening. No doubt as the day wears on, and more Carlings and London Prides are consumed, the discussions become weightier and more earnest until Mike Brearley tells Martin Crowe he’s talking utter shite again, like that Cricket Max bullshit, and they all retire to the darts board for a game of killer to ease the tension. At least, that’s generally what happens in the Red Lion. Certainly, this polygraph idea is worthy of the kind of nonsense we come up with over Carling, Harvest Pale and Poacher.

You see, not to put too fine a point on it, lie detectors and polygraphs are, basically, bollocks. Their use and effectiveness are widely rejected and discredited by the scientific community. Indeed, it would be fair to say they come under the category “pseudo-science”. Now, Steve Waugh is not a someone I would readily pick an argument with. This is a man whose reputation is so fearsome that James Foster didn’t even bother to appeal for a blatant caught behind in the closing stages of the 2002 Boxing Day Test. He probably felt it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Waugh is obviously quite taken with this polygraph idea. His test was supervised by “one of Australia’s foremost polygraph examiners” (David Hopps words in the Guardian, not mine), Steven Van Aperen, a former Victoria police detective. Polygraph tests must, of course, be highly reliable to be of any practical use. Van Aperen claims that “Nearly 2,000 studies suggest an accuracy of about 96-98%.” About the same as the UDRS. The difference though, is that if the UDRS fails, well a batsman gets a bum decision or a bowler is denied a wicket. If a polygraph test gives a false result, an innocent man could have his reputation ruined or worse, end up in jail.

In fact, the quality and validity of many of these tests is often criticised. In 2003, a report from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that the majority of polygraph research was “Unreliable, Unscientific and Biased”, concluding that “57 of the approximately 80 research studies that the American Polygraph Association relies on to come to their conclusions were significantly flawed”. In essence, it is extremely difficult to design a test of human emotional responses whose accuracy can be reliably established. It is also known that polygraph results can vary with the culture of the subject. The CIA discovered Eastern Europeans were better at beating the polygraph than Americans, and the then Director concluded this was because “we are raised to tell the truth and when we lie it is easy to tell [we] are lying” (make of that what you will of course!). And there are numerous incidences of (later convicted) criminals and murderers passing polygraph tests and, unfortunately, innocent people being condemned through their results.

This is why it matters. If Waugh and his polygraph expert are right, then only 2% of tests would give a “false positive” result. If the wider, more skeptical science community is right, then 20-40% of results might be incorrect. Now let’s apply this to international cricket. Let’s say we’re going to test all international players, tests, ODIs, T20, the lot. Across the 10 senior cricket nations, each with a squad of say 25 over the three formats, that’s 250 players. If the polygraph test is wrong 2% of the time, that’s 5 innocent players immediately under a cloud of suspicion. Is that fair? And if the scientists are right and the test is wrong at least 20% of the time. 50 players under suspicion? That’s a one in five chance one of them is called Tendulkar….

Hopefully this silly idea will be put to bed immediately. For good reason, polygraph tests are rejected by the police forces and inadmissible in the courts in most European countries, Canada, New South Wales, and Israel. Unfortunately, it is still used in many US states, despite repeated criticism by bodies such as the Supreme Court, and where frying people is still considered a good way to deter crime.

It seems to me that the real problem for cricket here is the failure of the bodies set up by the ICC to detect and prevent match-fixing and spot-fixing. The News of the World’s scoop last summer (hopefully not involving phone-tapping…) left us wondering what the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit had been up to for years. Of course, it doesn’t help that gambling is illegal in the Indian sub-continent, and therefore unregulated and controlled by criminal elements. It also doesn’t help that several of cricket’s leading nations have administrations with direct links to corrupt and chaotic governments. It’s wonderful that a good man like Kumar Sangakkara felt able to stand up to corruption in his nation, and I am sure there are many Pakistanis who would like to do the same but know such a gesture would be career-ending. My best wishes to the ICC in trying to reform these boards. But until they are, and probably until betting in certain cricket mad countries is effectively regulated (which means it has to be legalised), then I fear cricket is fighting an uphill battle and we won’t be seeing the last of cunning plans like lie detectors.

(Jarrod Kimber suggests Steve Waugh can make everyone confess with his stare, but science has yet to comment and has been wary of such experiments since the last time they tried to ascertain the effectiveness of the Medusa’s glare).

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