The "dark shadow" over the cricket boom in Germany

Refugees have brought a boom to cricket in Germany. The number of active players is six times higher than ten years ago. The association is a role model for integration, but now match-fixing is threatening its credibility. Taking stock of a niche sport.

It is eerily empty at Berlin's Olympic Stadium. A few families have strayed into the spacious area on a Sunday stroll. Hertha is not playing, the Istaf is long over, and there is really no other reason why you should visit the Olympic Park on this day. Unless you are a hardcore cricket fan.

Then you're in exactly the right place here, directly behind the Marathon Gate, on the Maifeld. In the final of the men's national league in T20 format (20x6 balls thrown per team), MSC Frankfurt will meet BSC Rehberge here. It is the most important national match of the year. It was a real highlight for Best Free Bets.

Those who have not noticed it before by chance will not find their way to the field marked out with white flags. There are no signs, no real entrance, and no fans to join easily. And even those who know, but are cricket laymen, won't understand much of the goings-on. Connoisseurs of the "gentleman's sport" hate the comparison, but this baseball-like game, in which the aim is to score as many points (so-called runs) as possible by batting and running, is difficult to understand in terms of rules at first glance.

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The language doesn't help either. English exclamations meet Hindi, and Pakistani Urdu meets Afghan Persian. Cricket is the national sport in these countries, and they all meet on the spread-out blankets and beer benches. Multicultural village character in the middle of the capital. These are precisely the people who have helped German cricket to boom in recent years.

7,000 members

Ten years ago, the German Cricket Federation (DCB) recorded 1200 players in 70 teams; now, due to the great wave of refugees five years ago, there are 7000 in 370 teams. "An estimated 80 percent of them are refugees or immigrants," says Brian Mantle, executive director of the federation, which has inadvertently become a role model for sports integration through its numerous projects and aid.

One of the immigrants is Mark Jameson. Although he never had to flee, his story is nevertheless emblematic of what is possible in German cricket. Jameson comes from a small community in Yorkshire in the north of England, the motherland of cricket. "It comes naturally to you there," explains the 41-year-old.

His father played, Jameson himself then started at the age of eleven. "I was even captain of my college team. But I didn't make it to more than that in terms of level. I wasn't good enough, plain and simple." He decided to study English, and meanwhile met his wife, who spent an Erasmus year in England.

"Then came the big decision of my life. Do I stay in England and do my master's? Or do I come here?" The day after his 21st birthday, Jameson decided to come to Germany and learned the language. To earn money, he worked as a mailman, in restaurants, and even participated in medical experiments. "Once I got on the subway with an electrode in my head that had been forgotten to pull out earlier during brain research. No shit!"

Almost 20 years later, the technical translator has set up his small office with a printer and laptop in one of the containers next to the pitch at Maifeld. Jameson is Head Umpire in the DCB, Germany's refereeing boss. This time, the lanky Briton is not on the pitch himself, instead of supporting the other umpires he has selected himself as a mentor and organizer. There's no wistfulness about it: "I've refereed the final three times. Now I think it's a good idea that others have the chance."

2028 Olympics is the big goal

In 2008, Jameson was approached by his club, Britannia Cricket Club, to ask if he knew the rules and would umpire. He spontaneously agreed, even though he was still playing himself - and took a liking to his new role. "You have to be a bit of a nutter to officiate games. It's not for everyone. But you have the best seat in the whole stadium. You see it better than any TV picture. It's a tremendous amount of fun."

Since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in 2011, Jameson has focused completely on refereeing. Two years ago, he officiated international matches for the first time, and he can now call himself part of the International Panel of Development Umpires, the junior group of the international federation ICC, so to speak.

With this status behind him, he was nominated for the Women's T20 World Cup Qualifier in La Manga, Spain, at the end of August. One of his highlights. "I was there for a week. The experience was incredible, I learned an incredible amount." It's steep developments like this that have helped German cricket gain international standing.

The men's national team has made it to 31st place in the world rankings, and the women's even to 24th - both of which put them among the top eight nations, at least in Europe. However, when talking to those in charge of the federation, it becomes clear that this is not enough. "We want to get more quality in order to move forward internationally. We need mass just as much as class," says DCB President Siegfried Franz. To this end, for example, the first national cricket base was built in Krefeld, and the previously six-track T20 national league will become two-track from 2022.

Small pieces of the puzzle that should lead to the big goal: The 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where the sport finally wants to be represented again after 128 years of Olympic abstinence. Should it actually be included in the program, Franz wants to be there with his selections: "The opportunity is there. If you ignore the professional teams like England, Scotland, or Ireland, we are already well represented in Europe."

The big problem is match-fixing

Whether Mark Jameson would also be there then, he does not know. "As a German referee, you only get up to a certain level." There would be a lack of approval as a Test nation, the most prestigious form of cricket, where a match stretches over five days.

The Bundesliga final is over this afternoon after just over three hours. "Good job," Jameson says to Sunil Gowda and Vinay Malhotra, who had no trouble officiating in MSC Frankfurt's victory. The two were on the field for nearly seven hours with the semifinal played earlier. They still don't get rich from their hobby - but they do receive up to 50 euros more per day than the players, who go completely empty-handed.

In German cricket, money can only be earned in other ways. Illegally, by getting involved with cheats. Match-fixing is the name of this phenomenon, which is mainly known in tennis, but which does not stop at cricket either. It is the deliberate manipulation of matches, placing sports bets on bought wins, losses, or just single balls in the match. "Yes, it happens, unfortunately," it says from federation circles on demand and further: "There is a dark shadow over the sport in Germany."

According to information from WELT, sports court proceedings are currently underway against more than half a dozen players, mainly refugees from the northern German region, who are alleged to have been involved in match-fixing activities in 2020 as part of the European tournament series ECS.

The betting mafia thrives in India

Investigations by the organizer, the European Cricket Network (ECN), which aims to promote European cricket, are ongoing. The international federation is also said to be involved in a supporting role. The latter referred to the ECN in response to an official inquiry. The ECN, in turn, has not yet commented on the current status.

The DCB is keeping a low profile regarding the ongoing proceedings but points out that the tournament in question was not organized by the association itself. President Franz assures: "If anything comes out that affects us, the players will have huge problems. I can guarantee that." As WELT has learned from federation circles, life-long bans are in the offing for the players involved, but until an official verdict is reached, the presumption of innocence applies and those involved are allowed to continue playing for the time being.

In India in particular, where sports betting is largely banned, the betting mafia is flourishing. During the Corona pandemic, which brought most of the cricket to a standstill, it appeared more and more frequently in Europe, where games could be played, especially in the ECS. In addition to bribing players, cheaters took advantage of the difference between the Livestream and the actual match and were able to quickly bet on certain events through a middleman on the ground before the bettor caught it. Smaller games thus suddenly took place in front of an audience of millions.

"These people are incredibly active on social media. We do everything we can to make our players aware of this and educate them," explains Carsten Höfinghoff, an anti-corruption officer at the DCB since 2020. To keep match-fixing to a minimum, players are not even allowed to take their cell phones to the pitch once the match in question is being broadcast live, he asserts.

None of this plays a role in the Bundesliga final tournament. There are no camera teams on-site; the few cell phones are filming for the social media accounts of the participating clubs. Nevertheless, the topic always resonates - even among the referees.

Referees are also addressed

"Can you tell me who is playing first at Britannia?" is Sunil Gowda's own account of being asked on the phone in late August. It is early in the morning when he is called by an unknown Indian number. Like Jameson, the final umpire is officiating matches for Britannia Cricket Club, then competing in the ECS tournament in Dresden. Gowda had already departed by the time of the call, having previously officiated on the first five days of the tournament. As always, the 45-year-old takes the call, after all, on the other end of the line could be his family, parts of which live in India.

He himself has lived in Germany for 20 years and works for a multinational corporation. That's all he's allowed to say, he says. "Who are you?" asks Gowda of the stranger on the phone. "I'm from Dream 11," he gets as an answer. Immediately, the referee hangs up, blocks the number, and takes a screenshot. Dream 11 is India's largest sports gaming platform with a kind of fantasy cricket on offer and has also partnered with ECN to broadcast tournament series matches in the South Asian country.

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Gowda believes in cheaters who wanted to gain an advantage through the information. In the fantasy game, real money can be won depending on the performance of the players in his team. Legally, mind you, which is a rarity given the otherwise widespread ban on gambling in India.

Gowda reports the case to the international federation, via an app. He doesn't know what came of it. He only received a small "thank you" by mail. There was no obligation to pass on the case, he says. "Nobody knows about it when you get called. But I do think you have to report something like that," he says before heading home.

Getting a handle on the problem isn't easy. There is simply a lack of financial prospects. Clubs and players depend on sponsors, donations, on subsidies from the international federation. The sport in Germany is still too small for big donors.

In addition, the operators of the sport, the many refugees, are often penniless, reported The professionally organized cheaters also know this. For them, it is the perfect breeding ground.