Allegations of fake matches, murky finances plague cricket in France

Allegations of fake matches, murky finances plague cricket in France

As the Cricket World Cup takes place in India, FRANCE 24 investigates the claims

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(AFP) Players, clubs, and recent members of France Cricket – the sport’s official governing body in France – accuse the organisation of lying to access International Cricket Council funds and concealing how it spends them. As the Cricket World Cup takes place in India, FRANCE 24 investigates the claims.

Mithali Raj, the world's highest run-scoring female cricketer ever, spoke at an event on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower that was glittering with ambassadors, Indian film stars, models, cricketers and members of France Cricket – the sport’s official governing body in France.

The August 19 celebration marked the arrival of the Men’s Cricket World Cup trophy in Paris – on its global tour before the World Cup began on October 5 in Ahmedabad in western India – but was also an opportunity to shine a light on how far cricket has come in a country with no historic ties to the sport.

Raj told the crowd that she joined the trophy tour to meet the French women’s team. “[This event] reflects the growth of women's cricket and the evolution of women’s cricket from when it started to where it is now.”

But the glitz and glamour of the event may be masking an ugly reality. Players, clubs and recent members of France Cricket have accused it of mismanagement and fraud, including allegations that the organisation exaggerates its commitment to women’s cricket to access International Cricket Council (ICC) development funds, and conceals how it spends them.

Phantom matches

In a statement released by France Cricket in March 2022 titled “The Evolution of Women's Sport and Cricket in France”, the organisation said 25% of French cricket players are women and that 91 women's matches were to be organised that year.

But after interviewing people familiar with the workings of France Cricket, FRANCE 24 has ascertained that these figures are most likely significantly exaggerated.

Former France international cricketer Tracy Rodriguez, who has long tried to champion women’s cricket in the country, had always doubted that so many women’s matches were taking place, notably in the women’s second-division tournament, which comprises nine teams, all but one based within the Paris region.

After she was elected to the France Cricket Board in June 2021, Rodriguez said other members would laugh when she raised questions about women’s matches. Last year she decided to see if her suspicions were justified.

In her spare time, Rodriguez took a picnic to the cricket grounds where women’s games were scheduled and waited to see if anyone would turn up. No one did, she says. “Two or three times I [went] there, people were having picnics and kids cycling around at the time of the games. Then the day after I would see the results of the games online.”

To verify whether some of the matches are being faked, we attended scheduled fixtures. According to the France Cricket official fixture list, Sarcelles Cricket Ground north of Paris was meant to host the semi-final of the women’s second division between the Paris Knight Riders and Saint-Omer on September 2, at 2pm.

Instead of the scheduled women’s match, the men’s under-19 semi-final – which should have ended far earlier – was taking place. Once the game ended, around 3:30pm, both teams packed up and left. The women’s second division game apparently did not follow. Three days later, France Cricket rubber-stamped the match as having taken place and posted the results on their website.

When asked about the match, representatives of Paris Knight Riders and Saint-Omer contradicted one another. One, unaware of our presence, said the game did take place at the Sarcelles ground at 2pm as scheduled. The other said the game was moved on short notice to another ground in Chantilly, 25 kilometres north of Sarcelles.

After making these calls, we received a phone call from a spokesperson at France Cricket, telling us not to contact the clubs directly.

We also attended the scheduled final of the women’s second division on September 16 between the Paris Knight Riders and Balbyniens Cricket Club 93 at Dreux, west of Paris. Again, the game seemingly did not take place and again, three days later, France Cricket validated the result.

We could not find a single photo of a women’s second-division team on the social media of any of the clubs involved. Balbyniens, who regularly post pictures of their male team and who, according to France Cricket, won the women’s second division, have not posted anything about their apparent victory.

There are France Cricket directors at two of the clubs involved in this supposed final. Prethevechand Thiyagarajan, France Cricket’s treasurer, is registered as a player for Balbyniens. His assistant treasurer, Asif Zahir, is registered as a player for Dreux, which was meant to host and umpire the match.

Our information indicates each man has a senior leadership role at their respective clubs. Neither responded to an email asking why the matches did not take place as scheduled.

‘We don’t have a choice’

In the records of France Cricket board meetings, there are repeated mentions of an “ICC scorecard”, which is how the International Cricket Council evaluates how much development funding to allocate its associate member countries. According to a 2021 ICC presentation on the state of cricket in France, the ICC provides 60-70% of France Cricket’s total budget, roughly $320,000 out of a total of $520,000 for the year 2022. Almost half of these ICC funds are meant to support women's and juniors’ cricket.

According to the minutes of a board meeting on January 10, 2020, France Cricket decided on an annual budget that was “largely inspired” by ICC requirements. “The Board is also aware that ICC subsidies are now closely linked to France's performance on a number of indicators,” the document reads. “The risk of being downgraded (or overtaken by another better-performing country) is quite simply the loss of USD 100,000 from one year to the next.”

The minutes then reveal the direction France Cricket intended to take. Under a section titled “Scorecard and 2020 implications”, it reads: “The data will influence the next ICC Scorecard, hence the importance of figures … Development should focus on recruiting juniors and women.”

Throughout subsequent meeting notes and in a 2021-2024 strategy presentation France Cricket sent to the ICC, the association outlined various development initiatives it intended to undertake.

The latter document, seen by FRANCE 24, contains a raft of measures that sound impressive on paper, such as “bi-monthly regional training camps”, “girls’ school competitions”, and the launching of new leagues.

Instead, France Cricket built a system that obliges top-performing clubs to create their own women's and junior teams and begin filing results, or else face fines or relegation.

James Worstead, coach of men’s fourth-division team Vipères de Valenciennes, occasionally organises bilateral women’s games with first-division teams despite not having a women’s team within the France Cricket system.

He says France Cricket has created a system that links the fortunes of the men’s teams to the creation of female and junior teams – if a side cannot field a women’s team, it cannot compete in the top men’s leagues. Because assembling a women’s team is difficult, clubs sometimes just invent results, says Worstead.

“Most clubs cheat, they pretend to have a women’s team. They pay for licences and then they fake score sheets online … We have refused to fake matches and that means that even if we qualify we’re likely to never be able to get a promotion.”

Irma Vrignaud, another former French international player and a current France Cricket board member, has tried repeatedly to enquire about women’s teams. In a France Cricket meeting in August, for instance, she says she asked whether there were any scorecards or photos to prove the matches took place, and received no clear answers.

Vrignaud says honest clubs get punished, whereas there are strong incentives for clubs to post fake results.

“The clubs that have fake women's teams don't get fined. But the clubs that have real women's teams and that really say when the match is cancelled – because it's the reality, because we struggle to find a squad, because we struggle to find a ground – when we [tell] the truth, we get fined because we didn't do the match.”

According to France Cricket's own guidelines, the fine for not showing up or forfeiting a fixture is €200. In case of repeat offences, the fine rises to €300. Not turning up to a semi-final or a final leaves your club with a penalty of €1000 – all significant sums for these amateur clubs.

In 2021, the year France Cricket began mandating clubs have women’s and junior teams, the organisation declared €20,210 in income from fines on its annual tax invoice – a ten-fold rise from 2019. During the 2022 season, when evidence of phantom matches started emerging, the income from fines dropped back down to €5,248.

A manager from one of France’s top-performing clubs, who denied the existence of fake matches, expressed his interest in developing a women’s team but says he “finds it difficult to find female players”.

“We are obliged to have a women’s team. We don’t have a choice,” he says, adding that he has resorted to encouraging his mother-in-law, his mother and his sister-in-law to play to make up numbers.

This situation isn’t necessarily de rigueur at every club which is close to France Cricket. The Lycée Français de Pondichéry Cricket Club à Morangis, for instance, has demonstrated a real commitment to promoting interest in cricket among French children, even partnering with the national agency for sports in schools, the UNSS.

France Cricket has not responded to multiple requests for comment on these allegations. The association has not been the subject of any legal proceedings to date.

Opaque finances

Former France Cricket CEO Marjorie Guillaume, who wrote the press release on the “Evolution of Women's Sport and Cricket in France”, says she wrote it in the early stages of her tenure at France Cricket, before she knew what was really going on.

Guillaume says she took the position after France Cricket was pressured by the ICC to get a CEO, and that she believed she could help reform the organisation.

“There was pressure by the ICC for numbers, which is why they wanted to show the ICC they were making moves to make changes, but I did not know that it was just mise en scène [stagecraft]. There was no real commitment.”

Guillaume’s most serious complaints are related to the opaque way the organisation runs its finances. At first, Guillaume started to notice that there was “a lot of incoherence” with the way France Cricket discussed its budget. “We got to a point where they were very uncomfortable with me because I was asking too many questions.”

Later, in a meeting with the ICC in Birmingham, France Cricket stipulated that Guillaume was not to be involved in the budget for 2022. “I said, how can I be a CEO of an organisation and you're not letting me see where the money is going?”

Guillaume describes a situation where France Cricket appeared to be spending “hundreds of thousands of euros” on cricket equipment and locking it up in the basement of the France Cricket headquarters. “I was never allowed to go downstairs in the basement to see the equipment,” she says.

FRANCE 24 was not able to independently verify these claims.

After Guillaume’s tumultuous year with France Cricket, she went to the ICC to complain about the organisation. She is one of at least five people FRANCE 24 spoke to who have gone to the ICC about the mismanagement of cricket in the country.

Andrew Wright, in charge of European development at the ICC, said it “wouldn’t be right” to comment on the specific allegations mentioned in this article. But he said the ICC has “a process to make sure the levels of cricket activity that take place within a country are proofed, and checks and balances are in place”.

The French sports ministry didn't respond to a request for comment. But they may want to take notice soon. Cricket is set to become an Olympic sport for the 2028 Los Angeles Games, which means it will receive "high level" status in France, making the national governing body eligible to apply for much more public money.

Women’s World Cup qualifiers
Despite concerns about the management of women’s cricket in France, the national team has produced some good results.

On 2 June, they exceeded expectations by beating Germany to make it into the European World Cup Qualifiers in Spain this September. They struggled to assemble a full squad for that competition and lost every match.

To play in the women’s World Cup Qualifiers, the ICC demands nations have at least eight domestic women’s teams “competing in a minimum of five hard-ball matches for the previous two years”. We could only verify the existence of four teams that fulfil this criteria.

Asked about this, the ICC responded in an email saying, “France’s entry into the 2023 Women’s T20 World Cup Qualifiers was determined by domestic activities that took place in 2021 and 2022 and pre-Covid,” adding: “Members are also obliged to confirm to us that the information they provide to us is true and accurate.”

Lost potential

Five of the squad who played in the European World Cup Qualifiers in Spain honed their skills at Nantes Cricket Club, one of many clubs outside the Paris region that say they receive little to no support from France Cricket.

Club president Sabine Lieury worries that, with no effort being made to develop grassroots cricket, the sport will fail to get off the ground. “We don’t get any funding from France Cricket. They don’t help us when we go to the authorities to ask for money,” she says. “This association should be working to help clubs, but I don’t think that’s the case.”

Pradeep Chalise set up Aunis Cricket Club near La Rochelle in the west of France in 2017. In his quest to set up a cricket academy for children, Chalise went looking for funding for a practice cricket net. The town hall’s response was encouraging, and they told Chalise to reach out to France Cricket to see if it could also contribute.

He did so in March 2021, and in an email nine months later, France Cricket told Chalise they would loan – not donate – 25% of the cost of the practice nets to Aunis Cricket Club. “It's a very small club and there's no way we could pay €4,000 back to France Cricket,” says Chalise. “So, I talked to the president and I explained to them why it was very important to have the practice nets but they simply did not care.”

Despite not using their development budget – €100,000 that year – to help the club, Chalise says France Cricket used images of the academy’s children in a strategy presentation to the ICC to demonstrate they were committed to junior development.

This experience soured Chalise’s perception of France Cricket. Today, he continues running the club and the academy outside the framework of France Cricket, working to grow the sport without official support, just like several other cricket clubs around France.

It’s a real shame, says Chalise. “What I can tell you after having run Aunis CC for the last six or seven years is that French people are interested in cricket.”