Game in disgrace

Print edition : September 24, 2010

The Pakistan team taking the field, with Mohammad Asif, fourth right, and Mohammad Aamer, fourth left, on the second day of the fourth Test match against England at the Lord's cricket ground in London on August 27.-TOM HEVEZI/AP

A grievous blow has been dealt to the spirit of cricket, that too at Lord's, the Mecca of the game.

IN cricket circles, bowling a no-ball is essentially considered an act of indiscretion. Of late, however, it has assumed scandalous proportions. The one bowled in Dambulla by an overzealous Sri Lankan off-spinner to deny Virender Sehwag a century was condemned universally as against the spirit of the game. The bowler, Suraj Randiv, only acquired disrepute from his silly act.

There were no financial gains for Randiv, but what Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif did at Lord's (London) in August was, to quote former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja, shameful. They bowled no-balls to claim immoral financial gains from a bookie and in the process killed the spirit of the game. Cricket, for all its claims of being a sport for gentlemen, was once again shamed by players driven by greed.

A decade after South African captain Hansie Cronje confessed to fixing matches, the once-noble game has been rocked again by the ghost of corruption ( Frontline, May 12, 2000). This time it came in the garb of spot-fixing. At the centre of the scandal are three cricketers from Pakistan Salman Butt, Asif and Aamer. The three were named in a damning expose by News of the World, a British tabloid newspaper, in which Mazhar Majeed, an alleged bookie known to these players, claimed he had paid Asif and Aamer to bowl no-balls to order.

The scandal has left the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) terribly embarrassed. For Pakistan, it is a blow that can have long-term implications for the game in the country. The terrorist attack on the bus ferrying the Sri Lankan team in Lahore last year left Pakistan with practically no international cricket at home. Teams have refused to travel to Pakistan on security grounds. The betting scandal could well cast a shadow on Pakistan's future tours since it has a history of inviting trouble, thanks to some misguided elements in the team.

Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan High Commissioner to Britain, addresses the media after meeting the three cricketers accused of involvement in the betting scam, outside the High Commission in London on September 2.-LEON NEAL/AFP

The summer of shame, obviously, is bad news for a game that has time and again encountered deceit from various quarters. Sixteen years ago, three Australians, Shane Warne, Mark Waugh and Tim May, had alleged that Pakistan captain Salim Malik had offered them money to underperform. In 2000, a Delhi Police inspector intercepted a telephone conversation between Cronje and a bookie that confirmed fears of matches being fixed. Investigations led to prominent Indian players such as Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja, Manoj Prabhakar and Ajay Sharma being suspended/banned from the game for their alleged links with bookies.

Elsewhere, there were allegations of match-fixing against some more cricketers, who were promptly dealt with but doubts remained. The authorities, suspecting the bookie-cricketer link, acted swiftly and introduced restrictions to prevent further dents on the image of the game. The ICC formed an anti-corruption unit, but it obviously has failed to act as a deterrent.

The Lord's episode has hurt the cricketing fraternity all the more because it took place at what is considered the Mecca of cricket. Lord's is known for its loyalty to traditions, and to have cheated at this great venue amounts to nothing short of sacrilege. The silver lining for Pakistan in recent times was the Twenty20 World Cup triumph in England last year, as luck would have it, at the same venue. It is, however, widely believed that the T20 brand of cricket creates countless opportunities for spot-fixing.

On the suspension of the Pakistani players, Haroon Lorgat, the ICC Chief Executive, said, We will not tolerate corruption in cricket simple as that. We must be decisive with such matters and if proven, these offences carry serious penalties up to a life ban. The ICC will do everything possible to keep such conduct out of the game and we will stop at nothing to protect the sport's integrity. While we believe the problem is not widespread, we must always be vigilant. It is important, however, that we do not pre-judge the guilt of these three players. That is for the independent tribunal alone to decide.

SALIM MALIK, FORMER Pakistani test cricketer.-SAMEED QURESHI/AFP

The response of the Pakistani officials was on expected lines. They claimed that the players, the video evidence notwithstanding, had been set up. Pakistan High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan denied the three had been dropped from the One-Day series against England. He claimed the players had been extremely disturbed with the happenings and suffered from mental torture. Cricket fans were informed that the players had requested to be spared any further participation on the tour since they were not in the proper frame of mind.

Two published pictures reflect how the two camps view the entire episode. The England and Wales Cricket Board chairman Giles Clarke looked the other way even as he presented Aamer with the man of the series award after the Lord's ignominy. At another point, the three condemned cricketers faced the media with smiling faces even as they left the hotel for an appointment with Scotland Yard officers. The players, as Hasan claimed, may not have been in the right frame of mind to play but posed appropriately in front of the media.

The ICC said, Any player ultimately found to be guilty of committing an offence under the code would be subject to the sanctions described in Article 6 of the code. In this case, the alleged offences, if proved, would involve the imposition of a ban. There is also a possibility, at the discretion of the independent tribunal, that a fine would be imposed in addition to a ban.

It is not that the team managements and players have not been educated on this front. Strict restrictions have been in place to guide cricketers, particularly the younger lot, in dealing with strangers, but the PCB has not been able to control its players. Past legends from Pakistan have time and again demanded stringent punishment for the guilty, but the cricket authorities have let them down repeatedly.

The image of Pakistan cricket has been low for quite some time following various ball-tampering and doping charges. Former captain Imran Khan has often blamed lack of education for the team presenting such a poor advertisement for the country. Imran and Rameez Raja hold the PCB responsible for the degeneration that has set in during the past two decades.

HANSIE CRONJE, FORMER South African captain.-TERTIUS PICKARD-TOUCHLINE/ALLSPORT

The allegations against the current Pakistan team are indeed serious since it involves a player who has spent just about a season in international cricket.

One of the reasons for cricket losing its way, according to the former Indian legend Bishan Singh Bedi, is the easy money to be made through too much cricket. Too much meaningless cricket and too much money from meaningless cricket are to be blamed for youngsters losing their way, he says.

Rameez Raja, acknowledged as one of the most honest cricketers to have represented Pakistan, was understandably pained when he said his country had become a laughing stock in world cricket. Pakistan cricket had so much to gain from this summer in England, which began with two Tests against Australia, ironically, called the MCC Spirit of Cricket Series. A lot has now been squandered in the no-ball scandal.

The scandal will have its repercussions. As a coach put it, Every time a youngster bowls a no-ball, he will attract suspicion. Every time Aamer oversteps the line when he bowls in international cricket he will be looked at with suspicion, too. It will be a pity if this wonderful talent is lost to world cricket for bowling a no-ball.

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