Of Ethics and Cricket
MOHAMMAD ISAM probes into corruption in South Asian cricket.
Only the keen eyes picked up what many failed to see in broad daylight. But then again, Nasser Hussain pointed it out only after repeated replays and screenshots spread across newspapers. The former England captain turned media pundit circled Salman Butt's eyes, from short mid-wicket, fixed on Mohammad Aamer's front foot as it landed six inches in front of the popping crease on that infamous Lord's Test match. He watched as Aamer carried out the dirty work of bowling the no-ball that would spin the sporting world twice over with its notoriety.
Salman would, a little later, pour sawdust on the edge of the Lord's pitch because Mohammad Asif had over-stepped the mark.
Though Hussain was one of probably 500 million people across the world who saw nothing wrong in those no-balls, they were extra deliveries which cost Pakistan a run when the greater plan was to get Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook, the English batsmen at the crease, out.
Cricket players, coaches and officials have called it the perfect ruse.
A fixer, posed as a players' agent for nearly a decade, called Mazhar Majeed, would direct the trio to bowl no-balls in the last Lord's Test of the English summer. Salman had to direct traffic; Aamer and Asif were the hitmen, so to say.
Majeed, as most of us know by now, was duped by a sting operation by the News of the World (NOTW), the British tabloid and once the story hit the stands, there was chaos, confusion and trouble.
First you bet, then you fix the spot
Sports betting is legal in some countries like the US and England where Ladbrokes and William Hill are the biggest betting companies. It is the act of predicting sport results and placing a wager (bet) on the outcome.
You go down a step and you have the easier, more 'fun' as some might call it, spread-betting. Spread-betting is simpler, especially in sports where you can bet, say in a game of cricket, on the outcome of a particular over or even on what might happen in a single ball.
What if you could fix that particular delivery? What if you gave a cut to that player who would have full control over that delivery?
That's what you call spot-fixing; you can fix, or set up, the particular delivery that you have put a bet on (legally) in one of the many betting houses in England.
Aamir Sohail, sobered up bad boy of the yesteryears and former Pakistan captain, recently termed the whole sting as the battle between legal houses like William Hill and illegal betting rings.
He was convinced that legal bookmakers like Ladbrokes, William Hill and Bet Fair got sick and tired of the fact that illegal bookies were scooping the lions' share from worldwide gambling profits and nobody was doing anything about it.
Ever the patriot, Sohail stressed that Pakistan have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Too good to be true
Those coaches and players who I have talked to in the aftermath of the spot-fixing scandal also held the view that the scam was, in many ways, too easy.
Salman Butt, the alleged chief perpetrator, had won the trust of millions of Pakistanis the world over in a matter of weeks after he became the Test captain. His demeanour and sometimes graceful strokeplay made the British media take notice and once he had dedicated the previous Test win to the flood victims, he was a favourite.
Assisting Salman in this ruse were two men who had vastly contrasting images: Mohammad Asif, who sometimes put Shoaib Akhtar's shenanigans to shame, and Mohammad Aamer, the glint-eyed lad whose smile melted steely men's hearts in his first years of international cricket.
Salman, Asif and Aamer must have thought along these lines: what harm could a few no-balls do to a match, when I can earn a good amount of money from it. In fact, no-ball or not, Pakistan were on top of the situation on that second morning at Lord's.
They had the money tucked away (apparently signals are given at the ground when the money is received in the various bank accounts) and given their strong sense of character, the trio got back into action immediately.
Once NOTW broke the story, it became even more apparent how easy the whole issue was, a) to lure the trio into earning a few thousand dollars, b) to set up a seasoned fixer and c) to put a game in such disarray.
Wide eyes across the border
There is not a slight bit of surprise that these cricketers have assisted in spot-fixing or the fact that some of their team-mates are alleged to have been part of previous misdemeanours. I say it, not with derision, but with a general view of the recent string of events that has permanently crippled Pakistan cricket.
The trouble in Pakistan's northwestern border had put cricket tours to the country to a stuttering halt. Bangladesh last made a trip to Pakistan in 2008 but the events of April 2009 when the Sri Lankan cricket team were attacked on their way to the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore certainly put a permanent stop to international cricket in the country. The 2011 World Cup was swiftly taken away from Pakistan and the national team had to play all its cricket abroad.
Further damage was caused by the Mumbai terrorist attacks of late 2008 when the already fraught relation between India and Pakistan hit another low, resulting in none of the Pakistani players going under the hammer in the big-moneyed India Premier League (IPL) auction for the 2009 season.
Shahid Afridi took serious affront to the 'planned' snub. Nonetheless, Afridi, Abdur Razzak, Rana Naved Ul Hasan, Umar Gul and Sohail Tanveer took off to play Twenty20 tournaments in Australia and England, though the pay was considerably less than the IPL. And there was just room for a few of the Pakistani players when most of them are considered the best when it comes to Twenty20 cricket.
Salman Butt himself had a contract with the Shahrukh Khan-owned glitzy Kolkata Knight Riders but it was terminated after just one season.
Clearly, the Pakistani players failed to understand how they had nothing from the delicious and cash-laden Twenty20 pie when some of the Indians, not even international cricketers, walked off with crores.
Even at a board level, Pakistani players are paid significantly less than Indians, South Africans, Australians or the English.
A few thousand dollars earned through a few no-balls was too tempting to let go.
Catching 'em young
When Mohammad Aamer walked out to bat in a harshly quiet Lord's on the day the NOTW story broke, the boy looked sad and lost. He got out meekly, a pale shadow of his exuberant run-up, his unkempt bangs bouncing around his eyes and his raw pace mixed with swing and venom.
Aamer was a breath of fresh air for a cricket team, or for that matter a nation, starved of good news. Aamer reminded everyone of Wasim Akram, mainly because he was a left-armer like the great man. But Akram had said earlier this year that he wasn't so good at only 18 when Aamer already started to make the ball talk and batsmen quiver.
But by the last days of August, the English who had taken Aamer to heart couldn't wait to see the back of him.
What made him an instant role model for the less advantaged in Pakistan, the youngster's tough upbringing, also spelled his doom.
He reportedly told a newspaper recently that he was forced into action by Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif and that he was merely following orders.
Nasser Hussain would tell Sky Sports a few days after the NOTW story that he wished it wasn't that 'youngster' while another former England captain Michael Atherton pleaded to the ICC not to be too harsh on Aamer.
But would Aamer be the trap door for the likes of Salman and Asif to escape?
The burden of history
When Hansie Cronje said in 2000 that he took money from bookies in India to fix a game, he shook cricket to its core. Before the devout Christian made his admissions, there was always that 'maybe not' tone in everyone's voice when allegations were made against Wasim Akram, Salim Malik, Mohammad Azharuddin, all national captains and some of the legends of the game.
Malik and Azharuddin would be banned while Akram would walk away with a slap in the wrist and while these major players were always in the news when it came to match-fixing, there were several other high-profile names that came to the fore.
Steve Waugh wrote in his enormous autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone that his brother Mark and Shane Warne were approached by then Pakistan captain Malik to throw a Test match in 1994. The Australian cricket board would secretly fine the duo, only for the story to leak after a few years for the entire world to see.
Steve, the most successful Australian captain, also wrote of how empty he felt when two Pakistani batsmen tamely played his bowling when they chased a meager 180 runs on a Colombo featherbead.
But fixing in cricket goes back to the early nineteenth century when the first backers (financers) of the game would bet men who bowled under-arm and wielded crooked bats.
There has always been that innocent story of the legendary Australians Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh putting a bet on an Australia loss in the epic 1981 Test at Headingley, on the day when Ian Botham staged a heroic comeback. On the next day, the final day of the game, the England all-rounder and Bob Willis beat the Australians with inspiring displays with both bat and ball. The match is part of Botham folklore and cricket history as England came back from a massive deficit to win the game. But you add the dots and something sinister comes up.
The state of the game
While corruption may be an everyday reality in the sub-continent, cricket has always stood for its qualities. (They didn't make 'not cricket' a phrase for nothing).
Azharuddin was banned from cricket for life but the former Indian captain was still voted into parliament. When India's ruling party gave him the election ticket, they knew that his past record is nothing compared to those of many other MPs. But he now has no place in the sport (though he is slowly trying to make a comeback).
Very few Pakistanis would think that Aamer could touch the country's president on the corruption scale. But Aamer and co now stand in the dock somewhere in Qatar where not just their future, but the future of cricket's ethics will be on the line.
Guilty or not, they have been found wanting, in the cricketing parlance, fishing at the wrong ball.
Mohammad Isam is a cricket reporter.