Cancer of Doubt – The Spot Fixing Controversy

The latest alleged sudden fall from grace, if proven true, will send Pakistani Cricket back to the stone ages. Two of the best fast bowlers going around in the world, including a sparkling teenager with a million watt smile, with abilities compared to the finest exponent of left arm fast bowling ever, are in the middle of this quagmire. This is not a couple of cagey veterans caught in a get-rich-quick scheme. Due to internecine politicking that has come to define Pakistani cricket, the current team was forced to blood youngsters and consequentially, a team full of promise but struggling in the short term and certainly would have been a force to be reckoned with in the future, was in the making.

The all too familiar story of a bookie/agent paying and/or promising a big pay out blew up on every Cricket fan’s face. Only this time, the “alleged” bookie was caught on tape bragging about how he does the deals. The “News of the World” sting operation exposed Mazhar Majeed accepting £150,000 to arrange spot fixing involving Pakistani fast bowlers Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif. In the tape (which is supposed to have been shot before the start of the fourth test between England and Pakistan at the Lord’s), the bookie is heard to be correctly predicting Aamer to be bowling a no ball on the first delivery of  his third over, which Aamer proceeded to do. It was a no-ball of Randiv proportions. Majeed in the tape also appeared to correctly predict a no-ball from the sixth ball of the tenth over, bowled this time by Asif (which duly happened as well). NOTW also alleges that Salman Butt, the captain, and Kamran Akmal, the wicket keeper, are also involved and an additional unnamed three players. A tape surfaced with the new bowler on the scene, Wahab Riaz accepting a jacket stuffed with £10,000 from the bookie outside a restaurant in London.

The first and foremost reaction in me was – WTF Pakistan? Why again? Why now? Your country is already suffering from teams refusing to tour, and you have destroyed yourselves by the silly politics of Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf, and the Sydney test. You seemed to be on the path of recovery with England as the “home away from home”, drawing test series against Australia, with Aamer and Asif being spectacular with the ball, and young batsmen rising to the occasion. You were on the path to series leveling win against England in the 4 match series, after having been dominated in the first two matches. Your people were recovering from a natural disaster and coping with terrorist attacks. You provided much needed relief and hope for your fellow citizens. Why?

Mohammed Aamer was the biggest star to have hit the scene. He has the talent, the abilities, the fire, passion and the brains to outthink batsmen and was ruling the roost. He seemingly had the world under his feet. Every cricket fan was swooning about the future of fast bowling, especially in Pakistan. But then, he went and threw it all away. Why? Why now? Why so soon?

Here is the immediate effect of this controversy: Every match that Pakistan has taken part in the recent times comes under the microscope. The Sydney test where Pakistan had the match in their grasp, Australia on the mat, but inexplicably set defensive fields, dropped catches and missed run outs, allowing Australia to recover. Even with that, Pakistan only had 170 odd to chase for an elusive win but collapsed. Match fixing allegations were thrown around immediately, but the PCB internal investigations cleared the players of any wrongdoing but held some of them responsible for infighting and imposed “lifetime bans” on a few (which were reduced and/or suspended later on in most cases). The NOTW story also noted that the bookie was in Australia during that test and now, the investigations will be opened in to it. Again.

There is a news story in the Sun that the first test match between England and Pakistan is also under the shroud of spot fixing. What about the test series against Australia? Pakistan spectacularly collapsed in the first test to the part time bowling of Marcus North and Shane Watson. How about the Semifinals of the Twenty20 World cup against Australia? Pakistan had the match signed, sealed and ready to be delivered, only to have Mike Hussey steal it from right under their noses. Or was it? Saeed Ajmal, the off spinner, was taken to the cleaners in the 18th over but yet was given the last over with Australia needing 18 runs for an improbable win and proceeded to give 25 runs. So, is Hussey’s performance any less worthy, now that we are looking through with a different set of eyes?

Does the game survive when every match and every spectacular feat by a batsman or a bowler is no longer seen by the fans for what they are, but instead digested with a large serving of salt and mistrust? Australia seemed to have been in awful lot of these matches. Then, why can’t Australian players be involved in some sort of match fixing racket? It is not unheard of. Shane Warne and Mark Waugh were penalized in the 1990’s for sharing some information about weather and pitches with bookies. It is also possible a few England players were on the take, No? This is the problem with the current situation. Anything is possible. Cricket is usually called the game of glorious uncertainties but that definition takes a whole new meaning under the cloud of conspiracy.

Of course, other teams in the world of cricket are not immune to it. Bangladesh Captain Shakib Al Hasan reported recently that he was approached by bookies during their tour of England. India went through its own sordid episodes of match fixing in 2000 and the IPL is never too far from controversy. Former South African captain Hansie Cronje admitted to taking money and couple of his teammates were involved in it too.

But why is it Pakistan? They seemed to have been involved recently in more than a fair share of these fixing controversies. There are a few possible reasons. Pakistan has suffered the most due to security situation with no teams willing to travel there. This has led to a drastic reduction in opportunities for the players to make money. Due to the India-Pakistan political situation, their players were not in the IPL either which would have been a huge windfall. Pakistan’s Test cricketers are paid anywhere from £750 to £1,900 a month, in contrast to England stars who are on at least £10,000 a month. Or perhaps, the muscle of the mafia could be more freely exerted in Pakistan? So impressionable youngsters, while wanting to represent their country, are cajoled and perhaps coerced, in to doing some “harmless” things like bowling a no ball at a pre-determined situation to pocket a cool 10 Grand, more than 10 times the fees they gets for playing an entire month. The temptation especially for a teenager that comes from a poor background and the need to take care of his family could be a little too much to resist.

Baseball in the recent years is embroiled in its own controversy where a whole host of leading players were allegedly taking steroids and performance enhancing drugs (PED) to help in recovering from injuries and increasing their ability to hit the cover off the ball. Major League Baseball (MLB) – which can easily give the PCB a run for the money when it comes to administrative ineptitude – turned a blind eye to the malaise in the game for a long while as the jump in the homeruns attracted fans to the ball park. After sustained pressure from the lawmakers in the U.S., MLB decided to introduce stricter drug testing policies but the damage had been done irrevocably. Baseball, like Cricket, has a fanatic fascination with its statistics and those records are now forever tainted. One of the most hallowed records was the career homeruns which is now held by Barry Bonds, who has allegedly used PEDs. The big hitters of this era are all seen through the steroid-microscope. Any time a player finds a boost in his numbers, he is immediately put under suspicion. In the court of public opinion, a reason for suspicion is usually sufficient to declare the athlete guilty.

How do the fans and the sport of Cricket recover from these allegations? The best thing to happen would be that the players are found to be not guilty and this is a big attention seeking exercise by the newspaper. But the evidence is overwhelmingly pointing in the opposite direction. For starters, the issue is now in the hands of Scotland Yard and not PCB. The PCB has had many opportunities to clear the scourge of match fixing but never took any solid steps. Perhaps, this current controversy would lead to full scale clean up of their system and enable ICC and the other national boards to act in decisive manner to put in practices to help avoid or minimize these uncomfortable situations. The players and the teams need to earn back the trust of the fans. After the fallout in 2000, the Indian Board kicked the players involved, out of the game and has put in several procedures in place including the Indian players being compensated well. The ICC and PCB need to impose severe punishments including long-term bans (even life bans) for players, if they were to be found guilty, after thorough investigation and scrutiny of the facts. The world of cricket needs uniform code of conduct and practices in dealing with the external influences. Not only should the punishments meted out be deterrents for future potential offenders but the Boards need to provide the players with sufficient compensation to resist temptations for a quick buck. One can only hope that the fans will eventually find reasons to celebrate Cricket again, when the players and the sport have earned their trust back.


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