The bushes to the side of the scoreboard at Civil Service Cricket Club often serve as a stellar hiding place for balls hit in their direction. Many a fixture at the Stormont venue - home to eight Ireland men’s internationals this summer - has been delayed by a lengthy search for a lost ball, often in vain.
This season at an interprovincial match - the level just below the international game - the shrubbery hid something else. Rather, someone else as two men watched the Northern Knights play at their home venue.
Hidden from sight, maybe, but certainly not out of earshot of those on the pitch. A player heard them and alerted Cricket Ireland officials. The men were speaking loudly into a phone - both were carrying two, suspicious behaviour in and of itself - and their hiding place was revealed.
It is unclear who they were talking to, but the secrecy suggests that they were engaging in the practice of pitch-siding (also known as court-siding).
Live video coverage, via streams or television, of sporting events creates a betting market; fans watch and want to get in on the action. Pitch-siding is when people pose as punters at grounds and use various devices to communicate live events to someone who can influence the betting market.
The delay in live images being streamed to someone watching online - estimated between eight to 15 seconds at Irish cricket matches, sometimes longer depending on the strength of internet signal in a given location - and to a lesser extent television coverage, allows bookies to use this information to their advantage.
Odds can be altered once armed with knowledge that is unavailable to those merely watching on a screen. Bookies can reject bets on certain outcomes and those with the information can place instant wagers with others not in on the ruse.
Cricket Ireland started streaming domestic games in 2016 but only broadcast all interpos and Super Series matches in 2021; a visual betting market on an elite sport has rapidly grown for a global audience. The number of pitch-siding perpetrators ejected from matches has since risen.
Internationals have been televised from an earlier date. In 2018, at Ireland’s first ever Test match against Pakistan in Malahide, one man sitting in the stand was seen by multiple officials speaking into his jacket whenever something major happened on the pitch. He was passing information via radio that could be used in illegal betting markets in advance of the television footage. The man lived in Edinburgh and was paid hundreds of pounds to fly over, but was ultimately ejected from the ground.
Throwing out suspicious individuals is not always simple. If someone is suspected of pitch-siding, they can only be ejected if the terms and conditions of their purchased ticket explicitly forbid it. For this summer’s internationals, the Ts & Cs do just that.
That is if they even bought a ticket. Domestic interpros are ticketless affairs, while international games are played at club grounds where it can be easier to gain access without a ticket. Even when security measures are put in place, there are often gaps in the railings to peep through. Pitch-siders being able to go about their business while not on the property presents another issue entirely.
From the point of view of pitch-siders and the bookies they work for, Irish cricket is in a perfect sweet spot: globally, the game is in-demand enough that domestic men’s and women’s matches are streamed, but it is also a small enough sport in this country that there is a lack of a permanent stadium and its extra security infrastructure.
The pitch-siders themselves vary from students looking for a bit of extra cash to seasoned pros who have multiple channels of communication. At one interpro, the same individual was ejected three times after continually finding a way back in. On another occasion, someone was heard loudly talking on the phone before pulling out a laptop - multiple devices again being a tell-tale sign.
The biggest cricket betting market lies in India, where it is valued at $150 billion by some, though it is difficult to quantify an exact figure since gambling is largely illegal there. It comes down to individual states to determine their own laws, but those that have them often do not reference online betting. The grey area means roughly 90 per cent of cricket gambling in the country goes through unofficial, unregulated channels.
With the Indian men’s team in Dublin for a two-match series against Ireland starting on Sunday, the number of those pitch-siding is expected to be high given the size of the potential market.
The money involved is an obvious motivation for bookmakers to get ahead of the market, but why do cricket officials in Ireland care about Indian (or those of any other country) laws being broken, especially since there is no corruption in terms of the outcome on the field? The International Cricket Council does not explicitly tell its member nations to act on pitch-siding.
Cricket Ireland did not respond to questions on this issue, but anyone who is willing to influence betting markets in such a way is seen as a risk for approaching players for match-fixing purposes. It is understood that there is a desire to protect players and get them as far away from potential corruption as possible. Details are taken from individuals to gather intelligence that anti-corruption officials can use as part of that process.
In the past, such officials have used inside contacts in the betting world that would flag if they heard anything that put them at a disadvantage compared to the bookies involved.
This doctoring of betting markets will never cease. All Cricket Ireland can do is try to deter pitch-siders to the point where some of them turn down the bookies’ money. This visit of India could well be the biggest barometer yet of that project’s success.