Nothing to celebrate as dark clouds loom large over Lord’s

There was cricket at Lord’s yesterday but no one really cared. Least of all a Pakistan team that lost their last six wickets in 95 soul-destroying minutes on the way to their heaviest defeat in Tests, by a whopping innings and 225 runs.

Only Umar Akmal, with a spunky 79 from 68 balls, showed any stomach for the fight, although there was more than a hint of desperation about some of his swashbuckling strokes. The boat was sinking and Akmal was determined to enjoy his last dance. His team-mates had long since thrown the lifeboats overboard and disappeared.

The last ball of a match that started and finished in the most dramatic circumstances came when Mohammad Asif, one of the players implicated in the spot-fixing allegations overnight, swatted at Graeme Swann, only to have an inside edge cannon on to his boot and pop to Paul Collingwood at slip. It was Swann’s fifth wicket of another outrageously successful campaign for him and the last in an emphatic series win for England, moments both that would usually spark raucous celebrations. Instead, England’s and Swann’s were muted, just handshakes all round, and Andrew Strauss was quick to concede that the allegations against their opponents had knocked considerable gloss off his team’s achievements.

On the back of those spot-fixing allegations, it looked as though Pakistan were embarrassed to show their faces at all, which might have explained the brevity of their innings. They turned up barely an hour before the start, stayed in their changing-room behind closed doors until play began — just a cuppa and the crossword for a warm-up — did not appear at the post-match presentation and scurried off quickly after the match, leaving Yawar Saeed, the manager, and Salman Butt, the captain, to answer the inevitable questions.

Neither did so with any sense of conviction. The questions are likely to come thick and fast now: from Scotland Yard, initially, from the Pakistan Cricket Board, which has, time and again, failed to act to root out this particular cancer within its cricket team, then from a general public, disillusioned with the notion that too many teams and players, in the past and possibly still now, are perpetrating the worst of sporting deceptions.

Any sport is based upon the simple but crucial premise that the participants are giving of their best and while there is a distinction to be drawn between match-fixing and spot-fixing (the latter being an attempt to manipulate small passages of play rather than the result itself), essentially they are one and the same thing. What if, for example, one of the no-balls in question had knocked Jonathan Trott’s middle stump out of the ground at the start of that world-record stand? Games are won and lost on the smallest of margins.

Given the serious nature of these allegations, the length of time likely to be needed to look into them and that nobody from the Pakistan team has denied them, it is hard to see how the one-day series against them can go ahead as planned. All the right noises were being made last night, but this will rumble on. It is a far, far worse day for cricket than four years ago when Pakistan forfeited a match.

Watching Test cricket at Lord’s has always been an immense privilege. For the first time yesterday, it was hard to conjure up any sense of excitement or expectation. Instead, there was just an enormous sadness that the stirring deeds of Trott and Stuart Broad and, indeed, of Mohammad Amir would be forgotten all too quickly. At the heart of everything was the knowledge that an 18-year-old bowler, a boy-man of astonishing talent, someone who only days before had lit up a ground for the right reasons, should be at the centre of allegations that, if proved correct, could finish his career for good.

It was the loss of innocence, and the notion that a young cricketer could risk so much for so little, that was so profoundly sad. Amir, remember, had spilt the guts of England’s batting all over Lord’s on that second morning, with the kind of bowling seen once in a generation. Now, on the final day, he walked to the pitch, head bowed, a nervous smile on his lips, to one or two boos, then silence. Just silence. A game that started so brilliantly ended in ignominy as Swann pegged back his off stump to the fifth ball he faced. A pair and the long walk back, again to silence. There could have been no worse feeling.

If found guilty of the allegations — and the evidence of his two no-balls looks damning indeed — any moral judgment is a clouded one. At 18, he is old enough to vote and to make his own decisions in life. Yet which one of us at 18 had a supreme sense of right and wrong and the strength of character to ignore the voices of older, supposedly wiser men? More than that, how many of us can appreciate the difficulties of the life that he has led; the impoverishment that forced his parents to send him away from home, unable to clothe, house, feed and educate him? How many of us know the unique pressure placed upon cricketers who are part of a system in which certain actions become expected of them?

Look at what surrounds him. Coaches such as Ijaz Ahmed (married to the sister of Salim Malik — banned for life for match-fixing) and Waqar Younis, who were part of the Pakistan team in 1990s upon which Justice Qayyum delivered a thundering match-fixing report. Consider this, too: when he received his man of the series award yesterday, a cheque for £4,000, it was three times his monthly retainer from the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Pakistan and England are worlds apart politically, economically and socially and the contrast between Pakistan cricket and English cricket has never been greater: the order, the structure, the success and wealth of English cricket; the chaos, the failure and the impoverishment of Pakistan’s. If the rush to judgment of Amir comes any time soon, remember that. Remember that. The Times, 30 August 2010