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Cricket & crime

Published : Dec 02, 2011 00:00 IST

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In convicting the Pakistani cricketers, Justice Cooke has sent an unmistakable message to all cricketers that venality and cricket did not go together.

UNITED KINGDOM Crown Court Judge Jeremy Cooke's decision on November 3 to send three Pakistani cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammmad Asif and Mohammad Amir to jail, along with cricket agent Mazhar Majeed, has been generally welcomed by many past players and the followers of the game. The prominent reaction immediately after the judgment was that the three players had brought disgrace to what was until the other day a gentleman's game, and hence they deserved to go jail. Interestingly, I did not find any sympathy for them even among some of the Pakistani journalists I spoke to, when all of us were waiting for the Crown Court number 4 in Southwark to open its doors to a large crowd of scribes (that included former England captain Mike Atherton reporting for The Times) and the general public who had come to watch the penultimate day's proceedings in London.

Cooke's order (available on the Net) was punitive but not harsh. Many of us certainly grieve that instead of representing their home country and playing the game on the hallowed turf of Lord's, Oval or Old Trafford, the three young Pakistanis had been made to languish in the Wandsworth prison, Greater London. It is not that the judge was cruel.

Actually, in fairness to him, it must be said that he had tried to fuse sternness with charity while framing his lucid and historic judgment; historic, in the sense that for the first time, cricketers were being sent to jail for criminal misconduct on the field. In convicting the three cricketers and sentencing them to varying periods of imprisonment, the judge had ignored the plea of a few in the sporting fraternity that jailing the players was too drastic an act, which could damage the morale of cricketers. The hint thrown was that the offenders should be let off with a warning and admonition.

The judge obviously considered such a course of action as too lenient for the grave offence of cheating the spectators who had paid to watch a match that they believed was being played on fair lines. While taking this unequivocal stand, Justice Cooke did not allow himself to go overboard by inflicting the maximum term of six to seven years. He managed to show himself to be humane and sober by awarding relatively short terms of imprisonment. He seemed to rest content with transmitting the unmistakable message to current cricketers, wherever they are playing, that venality and cricket did not go together, particularly when rewards from the game had become really attractive over the years.

It was refreshing to note that, while imposing the sentence, he ordered that if the delinquents conducted themselves well in prison, they could be released after completing half their terms. This was a gesture rarely seen in judicial forums. It was, therefore, evident that Justice Cooke was a reformist to the core, and not one who was exploiting an opportunity to inflict undesirable pain on the three youngsters. In my view this should be the essence of criminal justice in a modern democracy: reform and not a mere technical and cold application of the law.

Justice Cooke will long be remembered as a level-headed presiding officer who deserves to be emulated. My assessment is that he firmly believed no crime should go unpunished. At the same time, such punishment should be given only with the intent of making the offender feel penitent for his or her action. This was especially so when crime did not involve violence or directly ruin the livelihood or reputation of the victim. Not many might agree with this liberal philosophy. Nevertheless, such a position assumes relevance in the context of the raging debate in India over whether those facing a trial should or should not be given bail during the currency of a trial.

Bail is an interim provision before a charge is proved or disproved in trial. It is not meant to be punitive. Once the judge is convinced that an accused who is let out on bail will not be able to intimidate those who were going to depose against him or her or otherwise tamper with material evidence that had already come on record, a liberal application of the law on bail seems very much in order. A known practice in the United States and other countries is the electronic surveillance of an accused released on bail so that he or she does not get an opportunity to damage wantonly the prosecution case. There is no reason why this procedure cannot be employed in India at least in high-profile cases involving economic crime. We also possess the technology to integrate this facility with our judicial system. This would greatly save prison space, at a time when prisons are overcrowded.

But then the initiative for this major reform will have to come from the judiciary. An investigating agency may always be expected to oppose bail to an accused, lest it be suspected of being soft or in cahoots with an offender facing trial. It is for the judiciary to bring in an element of objectivity.

The spot-fixing incident raises at least two major issues. The first is how to make the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) of the International Cricket Council (ICC) more credible, vibrant and effective. The unit came into being in 2000 in the wake of the match-fixing scandal that came to light that year. I had the unique opportunity to oversee the investigation done by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 2000. While identifying the culprits both bookie and cricketers the CBI made a number of recommendations on how to check graft and other crime in the game. These were broadly accepted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and implemented with reasonable seriousness. In course of time, the ICC also fell in line with them.

The appointment of Sir Paul Condon, a distinguished British police officer who had earlier headed the London Metropolitan Police, as the chief of the ACSU was another move that lent weight to the drive against corruption. Condon was succeeded last year by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, another reputed officer who had led the Police Force of Northern Island. Solid leadership was, therefore, not lacking in streamlining anti-corruption work in cricket at the international level. The point, however, is that the ACSU is a slender body with modest resources. Any criticism that it did not have a clue about the recent spot-fixing episode is therefore ill founded.

One cannot expect miracles from it. It is possible that the ACSU can do a lot better with greater bandwidth. Ultimately nothing will work unless ethics becomes part of a cricketer's life when he is actually playing the game.

There is a great mentoring role that the national cricket administration can play. Mohammad Amir, the youngest of the three cricketers convicted by the court, is known to have made a statement that he had not received enough inputs from the Pakistani administrators on the do's and don'ts, and that if only he had been advised properly he would not have strayed as he did at the 2010 Lord's Test. Considering that Amir was hardly 18 years old when the alleged misconduct took place, his defence sounds credible.

The fact that he came from an essentially rural background, possibly with only modest education, makes us believe that if he had been guided properly, he may not have erred. We in India have also a new crop of cricketers some from what are normally regarded as backward areas not exposed to the treacherous manipulators in our cities. They need to be protected through down-to-earth counselling. Or else they will fall victim to predators who are a regular feature in the cricket firmament. I am certain that the current enlightened BCCI leadership is well aware of its responsibilities in this vital area.

Another measure in the direction of keeping the game clean would be to enact a law that would ensure all our sportsmen behave well on the field. The need for special legislation is mentioned by some well-meaning people. I am not very sure that such a new law will ever carry enough deterrent. Even if it did, will we not be injecting an element of fear into the environment where a free and uninhibited demonstration of skills is of the essence? Anyhow, there is no harm in continuing a discussion on the desirability of a law that would help keep our cricketers away from temptations.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 02, 2011.)

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