Crossing the line

Print edition : December 02, 2011

Mazhar Majeed, the agent who fixed the players, arriving at Southwark Crown Court on November 3. He had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 32 months. - KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH/AP

The existence of spot-fixing in cricket is confirmed with the conviction and sentencing of three Pakistani players.

STRANGE stories of players throwing matches emerged from the cricket fields in the 1990s. They were unconfirmed but sometimes credible because matches would take a bizarre course. One did not want to believe. How could a player compete with the intention of losing? It is said that Pakistan captain Imran Khan, smelling a rat, once made the team take an oath in Sharjah. Pakistan won the match in style and with conviction. Sharjah was a venue that gained notoriety for cricket corruption. Later, it fell from grace as a cricket centre in the deserts of the Gulf.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) woke up late to the issue of match-fixing, so late, in fact, that three cricketers have now earned jail sentences for indulging in spot-fixing to make quick money. Allegations of match-fixing had surfaced earlier too but went unpunished for lack of proof. This time, however, the guilty could not escape.

Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, disgraced and condemned, have been lost to cricket. Awesome talent, was how former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram hailed the arrival of Amir. In a major blow to Pakistan's reputation in the cricket world, these three were sentenced to various terms in jail for their involvement in spot-fixing. Of course, they are not the first cricketers to be jailed. The England all-rounder Chris Lewis was imprisoned for smuggling drugs and the Australia leg-spinner Terry Jenner, who coached Shane Warne, was put behind bars for stealing funds. The existence of spot-fixing had been suspected for a long time, but it became a reality when Butt and Asif were convicted by Southwark Crown Court. Amir had pleaded guilty and therefore did not go on trial.

At the end of a five-week trial, cricket stood battered. Mazhar Majeed, the agent who fixed the three Pakistani cricketers, is the architect of the biggest scandal to rock the game. Hansie Cronje's confession, more than a decade ago, to being involved in match-fixing led to some unpleasant developments, but three cricketers being handed jail terms has done greater damage, especially at a time when the game is battling to keep spectator interest alive in its longer version.

Former Test Captain Salman Butt arriving at Southwark Crown Court in central London on November 1. On November 3, he was sentenced to 30 months in jail.-CARL COURT/AFP

Butt, a former Pakistan captain, was sentenced to 30 months, Asif to 12 months and Amir to six months. Majeed was punished with a 32-month jail term. They will serve half their sentences in custody and will then be released on licence. The four were found guilty of conspiracy to accept corrupt payments and conspiracy to cheat in regard to the Lord's Test against England in August 2010. In a well-crafted plan, three predetermined no-balls were bowled. Amir bowled two and Asif one.

Amir, 19, repented of his misdeed. His statement reflected the pain of a young cricketer gone astray. First, I want to apologise to Pakistan and to everyone that cricket is important to. I do know how much damage this has done to the game, a game which I love more than anything else in the world. I did decide many months ago that I wanted to admit that I deliberately threw two no-balls at the Lord's Test last summer. But I know this was very late and I want to apologise for not saying it before. I didn't find the courage to do it at the beginning, and I know very well that made everything much more difficult. Last year was the most amazing year of my life but also it was the worst year. I got myself into a situation that I didn't understand. I panicked and did the wrong thing. I don't want to blame anyone else. I didn't want money at all. I didn't bowl the no-balls because of money. I got trapped and in the end it was because of my own stupidity. My dream was to be the best cricketer in the world. I'm a competitive sportsman and those two no-balls were the only moments in my cricketing life where I have not performed to the very best of my ability. And they were not moments I felt happy to be part of.

The sad episode was summed up by Justice Cooke: When people look back at a surprising event in a game or a surprising result or ever in the future there are surprising results, followers of the game who have paid to watch cricket or who have watched cricket on TV will wonder whether there has been a fix or what they have watched was natural.

The ICC was firm in its dealing with the scandal. Earlier in the year it banned Butt for 10 years, five of which were suspended; Asif for seven years with two years suspended; and Amir was given a ban of five years. He will be 24 when he can play again, but it is going to be a humungous challenge for him to convince national selectors in Pakistan to give him another opportunity.

Amir, with 51 wickets in 14 Tests, was the youngest bowler to take 50 Test wickets. Asif claimed 106 wickets in 23 Tests and was considered one of the finest swing bowlers. But he was also prone to controversies. He twice tested positive for steroids and was once detained in Dubai for three weeks for possessing recreational drugs. Lack of guidance, former Pakistan skipper Rameez Raja once remarked on Asif's losing his way off the field. Butt made his Test debut in 2003 and figured in 33 Tests. The left-hander was a sound opener but failed to lead by example when handed the responsibility of captaincy.

Mohammad Asif During the second day of the fourth cricket Test match against England at Lord's on August 27, 2010. He bowled a no-ball during this match.-TOM HEVEZI/AP

I was not given enough information about the anti-corruption code by the PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board], Amir had said. The PCB's response was: In March 2010, Amir signed the code of conduct for players when he was issued his central contract. The code of conduct states that by signing the same the player commits to abiding by all ICC rules regarding betting, match-fixing, corruption, and any matter that could call into question the integrity of the game. Amir acknowledged that he understood the code and his responsibilities under the same. Amir also committed that he would abide by these rules and any others formulated in this regard.

In fact, Amir stirred an emotional chord in Michael Holding. The legendary West Indies fast bowler, who confessed he did not know Amir personally, struggled to hide his tears as he spoke about the scandal in the company of the former England captains David Gower and Nasser Hussain. He could contribute to the game in the future, was how Holding looked at Amir.

Haroon Lorgat, ICC chief executive, said in a statement: The ICC takes no pleasure from the fact that these players [Butt and Asif] stepped outside not only the laws of the game, but also the criminal laws of the country in which they were participating. We note that the jury has found Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif guilty of the criminal offences with which they were charged and also that Mohammad Amir had pleaded guilty to the criminal offences with which he was charged. We hope that this verdict is seen as a further warning to any individual who might, for whatever reason, be tempted to engage in corrupt activity within our sport.

Greed and a lack of education and opportunities are some of the reasons given by former cricketers whenever Pakistan cricket is rocked by controversies. Cricketing greats such as Imran Khan and Zaheer Abbas have blamed the PCB for not playing its role properly.

Mohammad Amir Walking to an indoor training session as rain begins to fall at the Lord's Cricket Ground, London, on August 25, 2010, the day before Pakistan was due to play England in the fourth cricket Test match of the series.-MATT DUNHAM/AP

Former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif termed it a very good decision. If anyone is involved in match-fixing, he has to go behind bars. The people of Pakistan want to watch matches without fixing, he said. He was among the first to raise his voice against match-fixing and had announced his retirement to attract the attention of the authorities in Pakistan to act on what he called the cancer in cricket. As one player remarked, There is frustration among Pakistan cricketers. They can't play the Indian Premier League [IPL], there are no financial gains for them like many others. They get to play fewer Test matches. No team wants to travel to Pakistan. There are many factors that mislead the young Pakistan cricketer. One hopes this punishment serves as a severe deterrent.

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