Dealing with the Wrong ‘Uns

Our Mole inside cricket wonders whether the ICC has the guts to take on those who besmirch the game

Sport The Mole

Salman Butt cut a good figure as captain of Pakistan’s cricket team. He was 25, wiry, spoke well and was confident without being cocky. By close of play on the third day of the England v Pakistan Test at The Oval in mid-August, when Pakistan were in a strong position, Butt was clearly proud of his young team, particularly of his fast bowlers, Mohammad Asif and the 18-year-old Mohammad Amir. “I have never seen such talent at that age,” said Butt. He had taken over earlier in the summer, the third cricketer to captain Pakistan in nine months. 

Butt was captain for precisely seven weeks before the News of the World accused him, Asif and Amir of match-fixing. In return for £150,000, their agent had said that the two bowlers would bowl three no-balls on the second day of the Lord’s Test on August 27, and so they did. Butt’s next formal interview was with officers from Scotland Yard. The three were suspended and, if found guilty by the International Cricket Council, they will be banned from playing the game, perhaps for life. The sentence would be draconian but not unjust.

And what of Pakistan? To the causes of the acute discomfort the nation inspires, we must add to its possession of nuclear weapons, its terrorists, its religious intolerance, its devastating floods and its political corruption, the game of cricket — one of the few things that actually unites the nation. The most dramatic way of eradicating the cancer of match-fixing would be to stop playing against them, though that would only add to their sense of paranoia and vulnerability. It would also duck the fact that Pakistanis are not the only cricketers who fix matches. Those who do fix matches are corrupting cricket principally to boost the profits of illegal Indian bookmakers. 

As the evidence spilled out on to the pages of the NoW, only people with scant knowledge of international cricket were surprised. Inside the game, the news was truly shocking because cricket depends on spectators believing that what they see is played strictly according to the rules. Otherwise there is no point. The code of conduct of the ICC emphasises this: “If that confidence is undermined, then the very essence of cricket will be shaken to the core.” And, as speculation multiplies, the clearer it becomes that the fish rots from the head. 

A beginner’s guide to fixing cricket matches would start: “First, corrupt the captain.” The key to corruption is the skipper, a player in the same position as Butt, or earlier convicts, all very good cricketers such as Mohammad Azharuddin of India, Salim Malik of Pakistan and Hansie Cronje of South Africa. Doubts were expressed about one of the finest players of all, Wasim Akram, who is Amir’s hero. On the field, the captain can give the signal for a no-ball, or bowl players who are likely to leak runs, or set fields that make it easy to score runs. Some young players find it difficult to deny an authoritarian captain. Cronje’s crime was aggravated by his choice of young, coloured South Africans to do his dirty work. 

In the price list provided by the middle-man Mazhar Majeed to the NoW, a no-ball is a small item, worth no more than £10,000. The most common form of spread betting is on “brackets”. A punter will bet on the number of runs scored by a batsman or conceded by a bowler between brackets, say the 20th and 29th overs of an innings. Fixing a whole match is difficult and expensive. 

Majeed’s price for a one-day international is, he allegedly boasted, between £300,000 and £450,000. To fix a Test might cost a million — he failed to distinguish between dollars and pounds. This is rare, but scepticism surrounds the Test between Australia and Pakistan at Sydney last January, when Australia were allowed to recover from a desperate plight by a stand of 123 for the eighth wicket, helped by dropped catches and missed stumpings. Pakistan then fell 37 runs short of the modest 176 required for victory. Investigators might now revisit that match. So they should.  

Australia’s plight at Sydney was not much different from England’s at Lord’s in August when they, too, were saved by an eighth-wicket stand after being in a parlous position. One sliver of evidence suggesting that the Lord’s game was not fixed is Majeed’s telling the NoW that Pakistan would not fix The Oval or Lord’s Tests — “because we want Salman Butt to be captain for a long time”. You bet they did. 

Responsibility for detecting corruption rests with the ICC’s anti-corruption and security unit (ACSU), set up 10 years ago. Initially, the unit had some success, but recently it has been engaged by small-fry from Kenya and the West Indies. Optimists suggest that this is evidence of the unit’s deterrent effect. Pessimists observe the volumes of money swilling around the Indian Premier League (IPL) and have their doubts, especially as Lalit Modi, the panjandrum of the IPL, arrogantly refused to admit ICC officers to matches in the League’s first two seasons. Modi himself now faces allegations of corruption, but damaging and insistent rumours about fixing in the IPL’s second season, held in South Africa, have seeped throughout the game, and nothing visible has been done about them.  

The Indian subcontinent is international cricket’s pressing problem. That is where the money is. It flows from TV companies who have audiences of tens of millions, and it oils the business of illegal bookmakers. Since the ICC has no political or police powers, it cannot infiltrate and expose bookies. In the English-speaking nations in which betting is legal — and started 300 or so years ago with gambles on horse racing and cricket — the solution seems simple: the Indians surely ought to legalise gambling. This is like Indians saying to English-speaking nations that the problem of a vast and lucrative trade in drugs could be controlled simply by legalising them. It is not an option. 

Crime is the unit’s business. Punishment involves the wider organisation. The ICC is run by a chief executive — presently a South African called Haroon Lorgat — but all the themes for the mood music are composed by the ten-member executive board. A highly politicised organisation, the board is deeply divided, with India leading a majority which includes Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, often supported by South Africa. England, New Zealand, the West Indies and Australia form the opposition, though Australia have flirted with India recently. The Indian bloc is powerful enough to have vetoed Australia’s choice for board chairman, and its attitude to the rules is, shall we say, more permissive than exacting. Pakistan persuaded its allies to change the result of a Test in which they refused to play when accused of ball-tampering. The match was awarded to England. Until it was over-ruled by its own cricket committee, the executive board declared it a draw. 

If the three Pakistanis are found guilty, there is a strong case for life bans. When a cancer is detected, cut it out. But would that apply to the bowlers, especially Amir? Asif has form, having been caught with drugs, but Amir is just a boy, and the ICC code of conduct specifies that youth, lack of experience and turning witness for the prosecution mitigate the crime.

The judgment of Amir will be clouded by Pakistani politics, sentiment and the wish to watch such a promising player develop. This should be resisted. If guilty, all three should be banned for life, especially Amir because his case could prove to be the most powerful possible deterrent to a young cricketer contemplating a life of crime. And if further allegations are proven, the only credible penalty is to suspend Pakistan from international cricket. It is perfectly possible that no one will want to play them anyway.