No one knew why Patrick Foster wasn’t performing better – he should, by rights, have been the star player for his club. Foster had been signed by Northamptonshire in his teens, developing through their academy and second XI. As a student at Durham University, he was mentored by Graeme Fowler and by his early 20s he had played against and alongside the likes of Virat Kohli, Josh Lalor and Dawid Malan. Even now, his teammates at Oxford’s Horspath CC would still see the occasional flash of the former professional’s undeniable talent; the problem was, he didn’t seem to be trying.
The 27-year-old Foster batted recklessly, like someone working off their anger issues, or trying to get out as quickly as possible. Bowling – his specialism – seemed a chore, and he was unengaged in the field, preferring to stay out on the boundary. There didn’t seem much team spirit about him either. The young man spent most of the lunch and tea breaks on his phone, and his commitment was increasingly flaky. For someone who had once been desperate to play cricket for a living, he always seemed to have a reason why he couldn’t make the next fixture.
When Foster left the club in 2016 it was under a cloud. “I’d taken advantage of their support,” says Foster. “My relationship with the game had become quite a sad one.” He had borrowed considerable sums of money from both the club and a couple of individuals involved at it, wrongly assuming that each would never find out about the other. Worse, he’d stopped making any repayments. The truth was, he owed a lot of other people too.
Foster’s gambling addiction began at 19, the first time he ever laid a bet. In a new book, co-authored with cricket journalist Will Macpherson, he describes how his student mates dragged him into a betting shop, and while he was waiting for them to put on their complicated football accumulators, he took a turn at online roulette on a fixed-odds betting terminal. He won £72 on his first spin, and from that moment he was hooked. When his mates left, he slipped back into the bookies and stayed for the next five hours.
Professional sportspeople are three times more likely than the average person to develop a gambling addiction. “As somebody who has a competitive personality, in an industry where gambling is normalised, you are more vulnerable,” says Foster. “You have huge amounts of free time and you often have more money than your peers. But the dangers are underestimated because in sport it’s almost seen as the ‘healthy’ vice. Drugs are tested for, drinking has a huge impact on your performance. Gambling’s something you can do as a pressure release, and a way of combatting boredom, that isn’t going to the pub.”
There is no doubting, when you read Foster’s book, that it was his obsession with gambling that ruined his chances of first-team career at Northants – or that his environment contributed to the issue. “The nature of cricket as a sport really lends itself to the problem,” says Foster. “You have sustained periods of time off the field, you can’t play when it rains, and the default in cricket changing rooms is to get the cards out and play poker or put horse racing on the TV.”
In 2013, four years after his first-class retirement, New Zealand batter Craig Spearman spoke publicly about the devastating effect that gambling had on him during his career. Two years ago, Hampshire’s Chris Wood became the first cricketer to open up about his addiction while still playing, and the help he sought has enabled him to continue his career. “There are without doubt quite a few in cricket who need help,” says Foster, who works with the Professional Cricketers’ Association to raise awareness of the issue, and is currently employed by Epic Risk Management, a consultancy that works to minimise gambling harm. “There are people we know of who need support, and a significant number on top of that who are treading a very fine line.”
In October 2020, the Sporting Chance clinic founded by the former England and Arsenal captain Tony Adams announced that gambling addiction was now accounting for almost half of their referrals. When Foster started out on his career, he didn’t even know that it was possible to become addicted to gambling. “I knew full well about substance addiction but not about behavioural addiction,” says Foster, whose role focuses on educating young people, be they at schools or sports clubs. Not only is gambling what he calls an “invisible addiction” – in that it can take hold of someone without appearing to change their life on the surface – but it still carries a stigma which makes it hard for those in its grip to seek help.
Foster’s gambling habit had lasted for 12 years when he hit his own rock bottom and could no longer hide the monstrous scale of his debts, or the chaos of his daily life. He was often making hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bets a day across dozens of online accounts; treated as a “VIP customer” by the bookmaking firms, he was showered with hospitality and free bets. But he was wagering far more than he could afford, and owed enormous sums to everyone from loan companies to work colleagues. As a private school teacher and cricket coach, he had even exploited his relationships with his pupils’ parents to fund his addiction.
While his story is a shocking one, it’s not at all unique. Is it possible that sports bodies have kept their head in the sand about problem gambling because of the huge amounts of funding they receive from betting companies? “The one thing I would say is that things are improving, in that the issue is being noted and acknowledged,” says Foster. “But it needs to be taken a lot more seriously, because it’s only going to increase.
“And where there hasn’t been improvement is around the advertising and sponsorship side. I understand that there are a lot of people who can gamble and not have a problem with it, just like a lot of people can drink without being alcoholics. But the volume, the saturation of advertising and sponsorship and exposure of betting in sport has gone past the point of any kind of balance.”
The regulation and education around gambling in cricket has previously focused on anticorruption: when Wood made his own addiction known, he received a suspended ban from the England and Wales Cricket Board for betting on cricket matches. Yet – as Wood himself has since pointed out – those who watch and play sport are subject to an overwhelming barrage of messaging and frankly irresponsible promotions that encourage them to gamble.
At Epic, Foster, now 34, tries to engage with all those who have a stake in this issue, including those working in the gambling industry. He wants to see the government, regulators, sports bodies and bookmakers take collective responsibility. “The gambling industry cannot take advantage of vulnerable people as they have previously because they do know what’s happening and there’s more they could and should do,” he says. “But until someone tells them they have to, they can do what they want – that’s where the regulators and the lawmakers have to do more.
“The only way it’s going to work is if people get together and work collaboratively. That’s the only successful solution rather than everyone trying to defend their own position and blame each other. And that’s not happening at the moment.”
As for his own cricketing narrative – it’s going pretty well, thanks for asking. After five years in recovery, which included setting up a financial plan to pay back every one of his creditors over the next decade and a half, Foster is once again taking the field for Horspath. “I wanted to pay them back through a positive impact on and off the pitch,” he says. “Plus I’m still a competitive being – I still need that fix. But now I play for the right reasons again, and with a smile on my face.”
Might Bite: The Secret Life of a Gambling Addict by Patrick Foster (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is published on Thursday and available to buy now