If there is a sporting equivalent of death row, then for the past few months, three Pakistani cricketers, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, have been excruciatingly acquainted with its pleasures. Judgement finally arrives on Saturday in Doha and an execution is expected.
The chief-executive of the International Cricket Council, Haroon Lorgat, has reiterated often his organisation’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to match-fixing and he is aware, above all else, how the seeds of the current crisis were sewn by what was widely considered to be the ICC’s less than full disclosure of the last match-fixing episode. He will not want a repeat this time.
Despite that, the hope expressed in this quarter at the time of the News of the World’s sting was that a way would be found to extend some leniency to Amir, the prodigiously gifted left-arm swing bowler who had radiated hope for the future of Pakistan cricket when he ran through England at Lord’s before- and never has this phrase seemed more apt- overstepping the mark.
It was a hope that was not widely shared and those who would enjoy the spectacle of a talent both criminally abused and tragically wasted are likely to get their wish. For although little was gleaned from the initial six-day hearing in Doha in January, it looks as though Amir, rather than unburden himself, to the end protested a naïve innocence as to how he could have overstepped the front line by a margin that no professional bowler could conscionably recognise as legitimate or accidental.
Who knows whether it was anything other than a piece of wishful thinking that Amir might have been persuaded to publicly unravel the knot that has since blocked his cricketing path, or whether there were forces at work that made that particular hope unreasonable. But without unburdening himself to the inquiry and, in turn, shining a light on the peculiar temptations that would appear to dangle in front of every young Pakistani cricketer at some stage, it is difficult to see how Amir can escape some kind of punishment now.
The best guess for Saturday’s outcome is that Albie Sachs, Sharad Rao and Michael Beloff, the three justices who listened to the testimony in January and who will now make their findings public, will send Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif to sport’s equivalent of the electric chair, so ending their careers in the same disgraced fashion as Hansie Cronje, Mohammad Azharuddin and Salim Malik, whilst sentencing Amir to five years on the sidelines, thus obliterating the best years of his fast bowling life. The Crown Prosecution Service may follow up soon afterwards with criminal charges, although since no bookmaker was actually defrauded, further involvement of it is open to doubt.
If the recent behaviour of the three cricketers is anything to go by, they have an inkling of what is coming. According to one observer in Pakistan that I spoke to this week, the behaviour of all three in the early months after the News of the World sting was almost ‘delusional.’ All appeared on lifestyle television shows, apparently revelling in a certain kind of notoriety and celebrity. Since the hearing in Doha they have been much more circumspect: Amir appeared briefly in a match in Rawalpindi that was not deemed to be official, whilst Butt raised his head above the parapet to attempt to dent Shahid Afridi’s World Cup captaincy ambitions, further confirmation that the Pakistan dressing room is driven more by personal animus than any other. Other than that, nothing.
There are two potential avenues out of a permanent wilderness for Amir. One is, as his lawyer, Shahid Karim, highlighted, his previously unblemished record and his relative youth (although Amir cannot have done the representations of his character much good by wearing a legalise cannabis t-shirt to his hearing). Second is that one of those passing judgement is Sachs, a former member of the South African Constitutional Court, who is a man of enormous wisdom and humanity.
Sachs’ tale is a remarkable one, made more so by the nature of his public role since the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Sachs was a former freedom fighter who was incarcerated in solitary confinement and who then spent 24-years in exile, during which he lost an arm and an eye in a botched attempt on his life, and who displayed forgiveness when he finally met the man who planted the bomb that maimed him.
His role in South Africa’s transformation was part of what Sachs has called his ‘soft vengeance’ which is ‘much more beautiful than ordinary punishment.’ As Amir spends his final few days on death row, he may contemplate that such a man is as good as anyone to have plotting your future.
There are broader, more important questions, of course, than that of one young cricketer who might have been led astray. If, as expected, Butt and Asif are given the ultimate punishment of a life ban then that will be warning enough for anybody so foolish as to try to profit from what some like to think of as small and insignificant passages of play. (The irony amidst all this is that Butt is currently in financial strife. Changing lawyers thrice over cannot be cheap.) And, given Asif’s tainted record and Butt’s position of authority, there will be few tears shed for them.
But what of Pakistan? Despite the widespread condemnation in most quarters last summer, the hope must be that with whatever punishments are meted out can begin the long climb back to respectability; that a watershed of some sort has been reached. The Pakistan Cricket Board may be hopeless but, on the sub-continent at least, that hardly marks them out as special. Those who tut-tut about Pakistan’s involvement in the world game would do well to glance at corrupt practices elsewhere in the region.
Crossing the kind of threshold such as will be crossed when the sentences are administered on Saturday could be the start of something brighter. There remains confusion still as to who will lead the team in the World Cup but at least in New Zealand recently they have shown that they will not travel without hope. A semi-final spot looks within their range and capabilities.
Secondly, those in the know highlight the appointment of Subhan Ahmed as the PCB’s chief-operating officer as the first sign in a long time that the administration of cricket there may be turning for the better. Such has been the catastrophic nature of the four years since Bob Woolmer was murdered in the last World Cup- four years that included an attack on a visiting team, drugs and spot-fixing allegations- any rise in administrative standards is from the lowest of bases.
The Urdu media have been commendably harsh towards Butt, Asif and Amir in the months following the spot-fixing sting, even though the public reaction has been filled with predictable paranoia about Indian and ICC conspiracy theories. No doubt whatever punishments are handed out on Saturday, there will be another wave of such hysteria, but, with or without Amir, cricket and Pakistan have to find a way of moving on.