Out of line

Print edition : September 24, 2010

Three no-balls by Pakistan bowlers, and international cricket is shaken with charges of spot-fixing, the new form of match-fixing.

in London

Mohammad Aamer bowls during the second day of the fourth Test match against England at the Lord's cricket ground, London, on August 27.-TOM HEVEZI/AP

THE initial reaction was one of shock, anger and if you were a Pakistani fan shame. But very quickly, it gave way to a weary sense of deja vu, reinforced by all-too-familiar images of cricket fans burning effigies of their favourite players, and hand-wringing politicians and cricket authorities promising yet another crackdown in the face of a new scandal.

So, what is new about the latest cricketing row sparked by allegations of spot-fixing against some Pakistani cricketers during the fourth and final Test match between Pakistan and England at the Lord's (August 26-29)?

The answer is: absolutely nothing, except that some of the faces are new and the tactics have changed slightly. Instead of attempting to influence the outcome of an entire match, it is now more about influencing specific events (the so-called spots) by bribing individual players to perform according to the script written by bookies. Spot-fixing is the new match-fixing.

As commentators have pointed out, the fact that fixers have been forced to change their tactics could be interpreted as a sort of backhanded compliment to the measures taken in recent years to combat match-fixing but the broader malaise the betting syndicates' access to top players and their ability to buy them remains.

At the time of going to press (September 3) the controversy is still raging, while three Pakistani players captain Salman Butt and his two star bowlers, Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif accused of corruption have been suspended by the International Cricket Council (ICC) on charges relating to alleged irregular behaviour.

They have been given 14 days to explain their conduct even as a wider police investigation is continuing. Wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal, who was initially questioned by the police, has since been cleared.

The three were also dropped from the rest of the series comprising Twenty20 and One-Day matches. But the Pakistani authorities stand by their players, insisting that the allegations remain unproven. The official spin is that the trio voluntarily offered not to be included in these matches because of their disturbed state of mind.

The players have voluntarily offered not to be included. They want to clear their names first. They are innocent and they are defending their innocence, Pakistan's flamboyant High Commissioner in London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, said.

Putting up a strong defence of the accused cricketers, he said: We'll go to court of law to defend them. We'll be vindicated, inshallah. He rubbished reports in the British media that their passports had been taken away by Scotland Yard.

Their passports are with the team manager. They're here, they're not running away, he said slightly irritated at some of the in-your-face questions from journalists.

THE MIDDLEMAN

The man at the centre of what is arguably the biggest cricketing scandal since the dark days of match-fixing of the 1980s and 1990s is Mazhar Majeed, a savvy 35-year-old London-based property developer who was secretly filmed accepting 150,000 from an undercover News of the World reporter and claiming that Aamer and Asif would bowl three no-balls (Aamer two and Asif one) at specific times during the Lord's Test. And they did exactly as he had predicted.

MOHAMMAD ASIF BOWLS on the second day of the Test match at Lord's.-GLYN KIRK/AFP

Pakistan, which was in a commanding position initially, ended up losing the match by an innings and 225 runs and with that the four-match series 3-1 prompting conspiracy theories that the entire match might have been fixed.

God knows what else might have been going on. Was the Pakistani team really so poor as to be bowled out for 74, after England had made 446? asked one cricket writer echoing a widely held view.

CAPTAIN SALMAN BUTT, accused of corruption, has been suspended by the ICC.-MATT DUNHAM/AP

In a grainy footage of the secretly filmed conversation that has since been repeatedly played by television channels around the world, Majeed is seen telling the journalist who posed himself as a middleman for an Asian betting syndicate that absolutely millions, millions could be made by paying him up to 450,000 a time for information on matches, then placing bets on the fixed outcome. About the players, he said: These poor boys need to [make extra money]. They're paid peanuts.

Alleging that seven members of the Pakistani team were involved in match-fixing, he boasted that the no-balls were simply a taster a proof of his capacity to influence players. Sitting in a West London hotel, not far from Lord's, he tells the fake middleman: I'm going to give you three no-balls to prove to you firstly that this is what's happening. They've all been organised, okay? This is exactly what's going to happen, you're going to see these three things happen. I'm telling you, if you play this right you're going to make a lot of money, believe me!

WICKET-KEEPER KAMRAN Akmal, who was initially questioned, has been cleared.-MATT DUNHAM/AP

The newspaper said: Having already trousered a 10,000 upfront deposit, which he insisted had gone to the stars, Majeed .... eagerly counted out the 140,000 balance in bundles of crisp 50 notes. In return for their suitcase of money, Majeed then calmly detailed what would happen and when on the field of play next day, as a taster of all the lucrative information he could supply in future.

SHOCKING DELIVERY

And here is what happened the next day, August 26:

A roar of cheer goes up as Aamer, Pakistan's 18-year-old new bowling sensation, prepares to bowl the first ball of the third over. But soon the excitement turns into a collective groan of oh, no, as the umpire calls a no-ball. In the commentary box, experts express surprise at the outrageous margin of Aamer's error.

That was fully two feet over [the bowling crease], exclaims one commentator in sheer disbelief.

But, wait, there is more to come: Asif, who had previously won praise for his consistent accuracy and good line and length, follows suit with an equally shocking delivery, prompting former England captain Mike Atherton, commentating for Sky TV, to point out that he was over that Front Line by a good half-a-foot or so. Next day, history repeats itself with the normally accurate Aamer again overstepping by a mile, in the words of one expert.

IN AN ATMOSPHERE of gloom, Mohammad Aamer receives the "Man of the Series" award from Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, at Lord's on August 29.-PHILIP BROWN/REUTERS

Despite those surprised reactions, nobody at the time suspected anything fishy. Certainly, few imagined that those three no-balls would go down in history as no-balls that shook international cricket, as they have since been dubbed. It was not until two days later (August 29) when News of the World, with its sensational front-page splash (Caught: Match-fixer trousers 150K as he rigs the England Test at Lord's), hit the stands that the penny dropped. Such was the impact of its dramatic claims that the England victory barely registered as, by then, action had moved to television studios and the hotel where the Pakistan team was staying. Nobody was talking about the match anymore. The news was all about behind-the-scenes developments. We learned that four players named by Majeed (Butt, Akmal, Aamer and Asif) were questioned by the police for several hours the previous evening and their mobile phones were seized. There were also reports of large quantities of cash being found in the rooms of several Pakistani cricketers, and Asif and Aamer seen collecting money from Majeed by exchanging their jackets.

Majeed himself was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers but later released, only to be re-arrested, this time by tax and revenue officials. At the time of writing, he is on bail and has not been formally charged.

Amid a flurry of rumours, the ICC, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) were forced to issue a joint statement denying speculation that any player or team official was arrested. Angry Pakistani cricket fans called for firm action against the accused players for bringing shame to their country.

They should be taken home and hanged, one man told a TV channel, while others called them cheats and thieves. The coach carrying them was pelted with tomatoes.

Writer and critic Tariq Ali weighed into the debate with a strong criticism of the PCB, which, he said, had become a joke, its chairman replaced with every change of government. As for the players at the centre of the row, he wrote in The Guardian: Any perpetrators should be on the next plane home and the ringleaders given life bans.

INDIA-PAKISTAN PHENOMENON

Much of the debate in the British commentariat revolved around the view that match-fixing was essentially an India-Pakistan phenomenon. Even Hansie Cronje, the late South African captain who was banned from playing cricket ever after being found guilty of match-fixing, was sought to be portrayed more as a victim of Indian bookies rather than as an author of his own downfall.

Indeed, one right-wing commentator likened the match-fixing malaise to a clash of civilisations and urged the white cricket-playing nations, especially England and Australia, to assert their moral force to save the gentleman's game from Third World savages, as it were.

And if you don't belatedly assert the full moral force of our sporting civilisation against those out to destroy it, you soon won't have a game left to undermine, wrote Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph.

Asians hit back with accusations of racism and double standards citing the Cronje affair and the case of former Australian bowler Shane Warne, who was fined for sharing information with a bookie in 1994. They said it was rather rich of him now to demand life bans on Pakistani players, if found guilty of spot-fixing.

If it is true and they have been found [guilty of] match-fixing and throwing games and spot-betting with the no-balls and stuff, if that's the case they should be thrown out, Shane Warne said.

Meanwhile, even as News of the World (incidentally, one of Britain's most lurid red tops with a reputation for celebrity-driven journalism) is trying to milk the story to boost its circulation, questions have been raised about its credibility. The Pakistani High Commissioner suggested that the video exposing the alleged scandal may have been faked with Majeed's claims recorded after than before the controversial no-balls had been bowled.

You [the media] are jumping to conclusions, because no-balls are not taped like that. We have not seen videos what the time [was when they were taken], what the date [was]... whether they were taken before or after the match, Hasan said.

A British journalist accused News of the World of manufacturing the story to prove the point that match-fixing existed.

The wrong-doing' three no-balls was actually bought by NoW for 150,000. This wasn't for any actual betting coup, as erroneously reported in some places, but to show that large amounts of cash might persuade players to make errors, however inconsequential. The events splashed over Sunday's NoW were manufactured by the paper to make this point, wrote The Independent's Nick Harris.

According to experts, irrespective of the authenticity of the revelations, it would be hard for the police to prove fraud charges under Britain's Fraud Act.

A prosecution on conspiracy to defraud charges would need to show evidence that the protagonists on the field had contact with a fixer and profited from the enterprise. Any evidence gathered by News of the World would, in principle, be admissible in court. But because there is no suggestion that News of the World placed any bet on the back of the deal, and so no bookmaker was defrauded, it makes establishing a complete case harder, Professor Ian Blackshaw, an international sports lawyer and a fellow of the International Sports Law Centre in The Hague, wrote in The Times.

Whatever be the outcome of the current row, one thing is certain: this is not the last we have heard of match-fixing or its variants.

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