It is more than eighteen months since Mohammad Amir took the two worst steps of his life. The consequences of the two no-balls he bowled to order at Lord’s in 2010, estimated by the ICC to have been of nine inches and twelve inches in size respectively, are plain to see. He is extremely thin. What the future holds for him is uncertain.
He is a young man, still just a teenager, who has been forced to reflect upon the greatest moment of his life, and the worst, in the space of little more than two years. The greatest moment, he says, was when he was given his Pakistan sweater and cap for the first time at just seventeen years of age: he looked at himself in the mirror for a long time, smelling the cloth, admiring the badge and kissing the Pakistan star. He says he does not have enough words to describe the joy he felt then.
The worst was when he was led away from Southwark Crown Court having just been sentenced to prison: he looked down at the handcuffs on his left hand, his bowling hand, and broke down in tears.
He has had a lot of time to ponder on the nature of friendship, loyalty, trust and fame since then and his moods have swung violently as he has been forced to confront some painful truths about himself and what he had become. He says he had lost sight of himself for a while, lost in a maelstrom of false friends, parties and easy relationships. It is a classic tale, of the type that many young footballers would recognise, albeit with, as with shall see, some added complexities. He can see it all clearly now, albeit too late.
Throughout the criminal trial in England, Amir was the silent party. Of the three accused cricketers he was the only one to plead guilty, the only one to take responsibility for his actions. Once he had made that decision (a decision he says that immediately made him feel ‘a profound sense of relief’) he was effectively a ghostly presence in the trial, unable to have any role to play until Justice Cooke called a Newton Hearing towards the end of the proceedings to explore the mitigation behind Amir’s guilty plea. Even then, given the opportunity to speak, Amir did not feel that he could do so, given that the world of illegal gambling on the sub-continent is one in which threats, explicit or implicit, are commonplace.
Until now, Amir has kept silent. Everyone else in the story- Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mazhar Majeed- has had his say. This is, in part, Amir’s story as well as an attempt to analyse it. It is an important story, given the problems the game faces with fixing, and given the uncertain future Amir himself faces.
Amir’s story begins in a small village called Changa Bangyaal on the outskirts of Gujjar Khan, a city an hour or two’s drive south-east of Rawalpindi. He was born the second youngest of a large family, to a father who was a watchman at a government school. There wasn’t much money, but there was a television and cricket, an enthusiasm of Amir’s father, became a passion for the young boy through watching the great Pakistan players of the 1990s- Wasim Akram, for example, possibly the greatest left-arm quick bowler ever to play the game, who became Amir’s hero, and Waqar Younis, Akram’s erstwhile opening partner, who became Amir’s coach when he joined the Pakistan team.
There was no cricket ground in Changya Bangyaal, but there were fields and dusty flatlands and Amir would play for hours after school, using, in the absence of proper cricket balls, a soft ball wrapped with tape. Not until he went to the Bajwa Academy in Rawalpindi did he use a hard ball with a seam. At first the seam confused him (and cut his fingers); he didn’t know what it was for.
Akram was his idol, copied from afar, but Amir was essentially self-taught and natural. The boys of his age in the village offered little competition and as well as playing against his brothers he was often drafted into knock-about matches against boys who were much older. Shortly after he had been spotted in a tape-ball competition, it was decided, against his mother’s wishes, that he should go on a cricket scholarship to an Academy in Rawalpindi, run by Asif Bajwa.
Bajwa became, in the way of things, much more than a cricket coach to Amir. He became a father figure and a mentor. Amir says that his relationship with the Bajwa Academy is on-going and doesn’t think that it will ever end. He says that even when he started playing for Pakistan, whenever he went to Rawalpindi he would always go and visit Bajwa and stay with him. He says that everything that he will achieve or has achieved in his career is thanks to the prayers and goodwill of his parents and the support he has had from Bajwa. This support has underpinned his entire cricketing education and it is going to be central to his rehabilitation.
During the crisis that enveloped Amir in the summer of 2010, the phone records show that Amir and Bajwa were in regular contact- when Bajwa’s name appears in the phone data it is as if an angel appears amongst demons- as they have been throughout his ensuing ordeal. One text message that has been recovered from Amir’s phone on the last morning of the Oval Test, says: ‘ok, sir, god willing I will try my best. Tomorrow morning I was calling you but it looked as if you were busy. I will call you after the match. I am going to the ground now.’ After Pakistan’s victory that day, there are two phone calls between the two from Amir’s mobile on Kensington High Street, totalling just over twenty minutes.
Everything in the Bajwa Academy- accommodation, food, expert coaching- was given to Amir for free. He shared a dormitory with three other boys on a cricket scholarship programme, in a hostel with about 30-35 other boys. The academic school day ran from about 8 am until 2pm, and then cricket took place from 3pm until 6.30, with homework set thereafter. It was no idyll, but it was, at least, an education and one that Amir enjoyed.
When he was fifteen he was sent for trials for the Pakistan under-19 team. Twenty or so of the thirty boys who trialled were selected for a camp at the National Academy in Lahore and Amir was one of those and he was staggered by the facilities- the swimming pool, gym, cricket nets- that greeted him. Eventually he was selected for the Pakistan under-19 team to tour Australia in April 2007.
It was at the National Academy that Amir met Salman Butt for the first time. Butt was, by this time, already playing for Pakistan so was well known to the u-19 players, both for his cricketing skills and background, which was, by Pakistan standards, well-to-do. Amir remembers: ‘when I first met Salman he was a senior player and he was a star for Pakistan and I was a junior but he had a very good image amongst the juniors. It wasn’t that he was only nice to me, he was close to all the juniors, cracking jokes and socialising with them and being pleasant to them. When we turned up for practice, he’d give gloves to anyone who needed them or a bat to others. He was educated, well behaved and most of the time the seniors did not mingle with the juniors the way he did. Because of that and because of the way he treated the juniors differently, I thought he was a nice man.’
In some ways, Butt championed Amir’s cause, and it was no coincidence that Amir came to play for the same domestic team, the National Bank, one that has produced many Pakistan Test cricketers.
Amir’s rise was not uninterrupted. He suffered a debilitating bout of dengue fever on a tour of Malaysia and, as many young bowlers do, suffered from serious back pain (stress fractures in L3 and L5), a combination presumably of a body that was still maturing and a lack of control over how much cricket he was playing. Those at the National Academy wanted to remodel Amir’s action to prevent further spinal injuries but Amir resisted such advice and eventually the pain subsided.
He first heard of his selection for the Pakistan national team through the media, and then he was at the Bajwa Academy when someone from the Pakistan Cricket Board phoned him with confirmation and to tell him to get ready for a camp at the National Academy. He remembers that his mum called him and told him to pray ‘two rakats’ and to thank God, which he did. Bajwa, he remembers, was not at the Academy at that moment, but he rang with congratulations and, later, when he returned, gave Amir a big hug.
It was a swift rise and one that was not interrupted by the initial challenges of international cricket, as Amir became the youngest bowler to take five wickets in a Test and the youngest ever to fifty Test wickets. Of course, this brief outline does not encapsulate the long development of talent; the hours of hard work and, in Amir’s case, of beating the pain of serious back injuries.
The descent, though, was rapid and horrible.
Late on the evening of August 25th, 2010, the eve of the Lord’s Test, Mazher Mahmood, an undercover reporter for the News of the World but posing now as Moshin Khan, the front man for a betting syndicate, met Mazhar Majeed, an agent to a number of Pakistan players, including Amir, at the Copthorne Tara hotel. This was their fifth meeting, following a tip-off Mahmood had received that fixing was rife within the Pakistan team.
Although Majeed and Mahmood had previously discussed the possibilities of a fix during the Oval Test the week before, nothing had come of it. Majeed had promised no balls from un-named bowlers and a maiden from Butt at the Oval, to no effect. Finally, now, on the eve of the Lord’s Test, Majeed’s tone of voice was more confident, more certain, and his predictions were precise and detailed. He guaranteed Mahmood the timing of three no-balls: ‘I’m going to give you three no-balls, ok right, to prove to you firstly that this is what is happening. No balls are the easiest and they’re the clearest. There’s no signal, nothing. These three are definitely happening.’
The first, he indicated, would be bowled by Amir on the first ball of the third over (his second over); the second would be bowled by Mohammad Asif on the sixth ball of the tenth over (his fifth over), and the third would be bowled by Amir on the sixth ball of the first over that he was to bowl round the wicket at a right-hander. Mahmood was filmed handing over £140,000 to Majeed, bank notes that were, unbeknownst to the agent, marked.
Thursday August 26th, the first day of the Lord’s Test, dawned gloomy and wet and play was delayed until 1.40 p.m. by which time the players had taken an early lunch. Amir and Asif then opened the bowling in favourable conditions. The first ball of Amir’s second over was a huge no-ball, estimated by the ICC to be one of nine inches in size; the sixth ball of Asif’s fifth over was also a no-ball, albeit one of much smaller proportions. There was no third no-ball, because only 12.3 overs were possible and both left-handers, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, were still in, so Amir had had no chance to bowl at a right-hander that day.
That evening, the 26th, Majeed called the journalist to explain why the third no ball had not been bowled and promised it would be bowled on the second morning, on the third ball of Amir’s third full over (he still had three balls of an over to finish from the night before.) Majeed then texted Amir the instructions and Amir replied immediately, in confirmation, and at 11.34 p.m. Majeed and the journalist spoke again to confirm the arrangements.
The next morning, Friday 27th August, Majeed had a change of heart, telling the journalist that because two no-balls had been bowled already there was ‘no point doing the third now.’ The journalist asked him to persuade the players on the basis that his (fictional) syndicate had already placed the (fictional) bets. ‘I’ve already told them. They’re ready for it,’ he told Majeed. Majeed was taken aback: he said, ‘so you can place money on the no balls then?’ followed by, when the journalist confirmed this, ‘what sort of monies?’ Then, when the journalist complained that he couldn’t keep putting his punters off, Majeed agreed to persuade the players to bowl the third no-ball.
Amir bowled another huge no-ball on the third ball of his third full over on the Friday morning, one estimated by the ICC to be of 12 inches this time, exactly as predicted by Majeed. When the police were called to investigate on the evening of Saturday 28th August they found £2500 of marked notes in Salman Butt’s room, and £1500 of marked notes in Amir’s.
In February of the following year, the ICC held its own hearing in Doha, under the leadership of Michael Beloff, QC, and his three-man tribunal found clear evidence of wrong-doing. They banned Butt for ten years, with five suspended, Asif for seven years with two suspended and Amir for five years. Later, in November, after a criminal trial lasting three weeks, all three players and Majeed stood convicted of a conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to obtain corrupt payments. Amir had pleaded guilty two months before the trial and was sentenced to six months in a young offenders’ institute. His disgrace and descent was rapid and complete.
Many things puzzled me about the story from the start. Not the least of which was the nature of the NOTW sting. My knowledge of gambling and markets (I had written a book about gambling a few years before) led me to believe that it was not easy to place a bet on the timing of a specific no-ball. Majeed’s evident surprise in his conversation with the journalist on the night of the 26th August (‘so you can place on no-balls then?’) suggested that suspicion was accurate. After all, if you were a bookie, and a punter asked for a bet on a specific ball of a specific over, alarm bells would certainly start to ring.
The evidence of the meetings between the journalist and the fixer suggests the initial impetus for the no-balls came from the journalist. Given that fixing is notoriously difficult to prove, a no-ball would be a most obvious proof of manipulation. When, earlier, Majeed was quoted on the evening of the 25th (the eve of the Lord’s Test) promising the no balls, this was the culmination of many days of pressure from the journalist.
The justification for the scoop was that it shone a light on corrupt practices within the Pakistan team. The journalist had been given credible evidence of fixing within the Pakistan team- information he paid for on publication of the story- but it was possible to argue that the sting enticed people into a crime that would not otherwise have happened. And, more important, what if this was, as Amir says, a one-off? What if he was an unintended consequence of the sting?
The NOTW spent £150,000 on procuring three no-balls to prove that three Pakistan cricketers were corruptible but, contrary to Justice Cooke’s remarks at trial, it is likely that no bets on these could have been made. Indeed, the Lord Chief Justice, in his summing up after Amir’s and Butt’s appeal, fell into this trap when he called it a ‘betting scam.’ It was no such thing. Justice Cooke awarded no costs to the newspaper, saying it had got what it bargained for. It was £150,000 essentially to prove that three men had their price. What price the rest of us?
The nature of Amir’s no-balls also puzzled me. Asif was a cricketer with a record as long as his bowling arm and the peculiarity of his no-ball, when he stepped only fractionally over the line, suggested an experienced, clever campaigner. Amir’s no-balls were of a completely different kind- so huge as to arouse puzzlement and suspicion, but also so huge as to suggest that he had never done such a thing before. They were clearly the action of a naïf.
The monetary considerations seemed odd, too. Pakistan’s cricketers were certainly not as well paid as their English counter-parts, but they were still reasonably paid, and by the standards of Pakistan, they were very well off. Greed, said Justice Cooke, was the motive. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, chimed in at the appeal, when he said the cricketers received a ‘substantial amount of money.’ And yet, only £1500 in marked notes was found in Amir’s room. It seemed a ridiculously small amount for which to jeopardise a lucrative career. All along, even after he pleaded guilty two months before the criminal proceedings began, Amir said he did not do it for money. For what then?
I had also become aware, in the weeks leading up to the criminal trial, of Amir’s guilty plea, and of the mitigation behind it. His mitigation was essentially based on two things: that the Lord’s fix was a one-off, isolated event and that he bowled the no-balls because of pressure, not relating to physical threats, but to the extent that he feared for his future career if he did not bowl them. If true, what was this pressure he referred to? Where was it coming from?
The threats that Justice Cooke referred to in the trial prevented Amir from giving oxygen to his mitigation plea in court. He had been silenced.
What Amir did not say at the time, but says now is that Salman Butt approached him about fixing before the Lord’s Test in which the no-balls were bowled to order, approaches Amir says that he rebuffed. (Butt had been appointed captain after the Australia v Pakistan Test at Lord’s prior to the England series following the resignation of Shahid Afridi which elicited a text from a bookmaker in India congratulating Majeed on Butt’s appointment.)
Amir says that Butt’s approaches were jokey in nature, but specific enough to be serious. Amir says he laughed off one approach and nothing more was said. On another occasion Amir says he said to him ‘“bro, this is forbidden.” I was a bit rude to him, I said to him “this is forbidden, leave it, I am not going to do it.”’
Then, on the evening of August 4th 2010, at 9.38 p.m., two days prior to the second Test of the England v Pakistan series at Edgbaston, Amir took a call from a ‘businessman’ he knew as ‘Ali’. This call lasted 48 seconds.
Amir says he had first met Ali in Dubai in November 2009 in the lobby of the team hotel and had subsequently met him on two further occasions in early 2010 in Lahore. Ali had introduced himself to Amir as a friend of Butt and had showed him Butt’s number on his phone, as if proof of the friendship. The call on August 4th was Amir’s first contact with Ali since then and during the conversation, Ali told him that he was trying to get hold of Butt and could he, Amir, pass on the message.
Amir duly did so, only for Butt to tell him that he was having nothing to do with Ali and that he, Amir, should ignore him too. Between August 4th and 16th, Ali tried to speak to Amir on twelve occasions, and only once, on the 7th August, did Amir pick up the phone and talk. It was very likely to be in this conversation that Ali asked Amir again whether he had spoken to Salman. Four text messages were sent from Amir’s phone to Ali in that time, although the detail of them is unknown.
(When the phones of the Amir, Asif, Butt and Majeed were seized by the police on August 28th they were eventually sent to Canada where technology exists to retrieve text messages. The phone records of this trial amounted to over 9,000 calls and texts. The numbers of every phone call are available, and the data also shows where many of these calls or texts were made/sent from, but only a fraction of the content of the texts has been established.)
Following the last of those calls on the evening of Monday August 16th, just past midnight now and into the early hours of Tuesday 17th, Ali asked for the details of Amir’s bank account. ‘I asked him why do you want it; he told me to send it and then he would tell me,’ Amir says. Not knowing his bank details, Amir asked one of his brothers, who duly sent back the details to Amir who then forwarded them on to Ali. Fifteen minutes later, there was a three minute conversation between Ali and Amir and then phone traffic ceased for the night. Ali did not try to make contact with Amir again until 5.15 p.m. on the 17th, the eve of the Oval Test.
There then, on the evening of the 17th, followed a series of text messages between Ali and Amir. They began whilst Amir was having dinner, alone and bored, in W2 and ended when he was at the team hotel on Kensington High Street. The nature of them clearly suggested that the issue of spot-fixing had been raised. In turn, from 9.15 p.m. until 10.45 p.m., texts from Amir to Ali read:
‘I am eating, reply my message and I will get it,’
‘for how much and what should be done,’
‘but what needs doing,’
‘it would be too much friend’
And then, damningly, ‘so in the first three bowl whatever you like and in the last two do 8 runs?’
There were then seven more text messages that evening from Ali, and one phone call. Amir responded to none of the texts and didn’t answer his phone.
There are many interpretations of this, but none can escape the fact that Amir engaged in text conversation about fixing, so breaking the ICC code of conduct by not reporting this approach, (although Amir did tell his captain the following morning.) After the first of those messages, Ali changed his phone number from one ending in ‘225’, to one ending in ‘590’. (In the subsequent criminal trial these two numbers were suggested by Butt’s legal team as proof that Amir was in cahoots with two bookmakers, but they are different numbers from the same man). Clearly Ali had said to Amir that he would like to speak to him on another number to which Amir said, ‘I am eating, reply my message and I will get it [the new number].’ This new number was what might be termed a ‘safe’ number, and all the following damning messages were sent to the ‘safe’ number. Of course, Amir would not necessarily have known the significance of the ‘safe’ number when he sent the first of his text messages.
Did Ali call Amir because he knew the young bowler was already corrupt? Did these two have a prior relationship concerning fixing? Did he call him because he suspected he might be, or could be corrupted? Was it an on-going concern? Amir says that this was the first time that Ali ever mentioned fixing and that his curiosity got the better of him; he was bored at dinner and it got to the point where, to pass time, he continued to text. He said that Ali was ‘on his case’ and that he wanted to find out what he wanted. Unless Ali is found and speaks- not very likely- we shall never know.
Thereafter, what is certain, is that almost all contact between Ali and Amir ceased. Amir says that the last of Ali’s (missing) texts on that evening said something like: ‘even if you do not intend to do the deed, at least answer the phone and let me know.’ But for the most part Amir did not answer the phone. Over the next ten days, Ali tried to contact Amir on 42 separate occasions, either via text (9 times) or phone call (33 times). On the vast majority of occasions Amir did not respond. The only contact from Amir’s side was one short text which said ‘yes what’, and two short phone calls on the evening of the 18th and 21st August.
Despite the suspicions, no evidence has been produced that Amir engaged in fixing a ‘bracket’ (a segment of play lasting, say, five or ten overs) during the Oval Test. If the final text sent by Amir to Ali on the 17th implied he would bowl five overs in his first spell/ ‘bracket’ at the Oval the next day, then he bowled only four. He did give away 8 runs in his third and fourth overs, but two of those runs were courtesy of an inside edge, via a batsman’s thigh pad. There is no evidence, as Justice Cooke agreed during his sentencing remarks, of Amir engaging in a fix of a bracket on the back of his conversations with Ali, despite the evidently suspicious nature of those texts. Amir says categorically that he never received any money from Ali.
Amir says that on the first morning of the Oval Test he told Butt about his conversations with Ali. He told his captain that Ali had been ‘bugging’ him.
It was about this time, on Monday 16th August at the Park Lane Hilton, two days before the Oval Test, that Mahmood, the NOTW journalist, met Mazhar Majeed, the agent, for the first time. Majeed had been introduced to the Pakistan team by his brother, Azhar, on the 2006 tour of England and had since built a relationship with a number of senior players, who in turn introduced him to some of the younger players, so that by 2010 he was acting as an agent for a number of them, including Amir.
Whilst his flashy lifestyle- a large house in Croydon, a number of smart cars and ownership of Croydon football club- suggested someone of wealth and influence, the reality was somewhat different. Bookies in India have since described him as a ‘nobody’ and by the summer in question it was clear that his property business was in serious financial difficulties. Bank records showed him to be £704,000 in debt.
Inevitably, the first meeting between the two men was somewhat vague in nature and intent. Both men were attempting to establish their credentials: Mahmood as a front man for a betting syndicate, and Majeed as a close confident of the Pakistan players and someone who could influence their performances for betting purposes.
It was during their second meeting at 8p.m. at the Bombay Brasserie on Gloucester Road two days later (Wednesday 18th, the evening of the first day of the Oval Test) that the journalist first pushed for the no- balls. He said to Majeed: ‘don’t give me a result, don’t give me anything, give me a no-ball so that our boys have got an indication this is on. Then they’ll invest big.’
Majeed replied: ‘fine, I will let you know on Thursday evening and I will tell you on Friday what the no ball is going to be. I’ll give you two if you want.’ On Thursday evening, the 19th (the second day of the Oval Test) they met for the third time at the Al Shishawi restaurant on Edgware Road. There, Majeed confirmed the no-balls, although there was scant detail on offer from him at this point: ‘Alright, just to show you that it’s real, I’m going to show you two no balls tomorrow…I’ll call you on another number, yeah, and I’ll call you about 8.30 in the morning and I’ll give you the two balls they’re going to do it on.’
Clearly, given the lack of detail, Majeed does not have the no-balls at this point in time, nor does he mention any specific names of the bowlers who might do his bidding. On this occasion, £10,000 was handed over by the journalist and Majeed raised the topic of a deposit of £150,000 which would need to be paid to secure the involvement of his players.
At 9.45 the next morning, Friday 20th, (the third morning of the Oval Test) Majeed rang the journalist with some bad news. The no-balls could not be bowled that day because, he said, Waqar Younis, the coach, had warned the team about twenty minutes before about the number of no balls they had bowled on the first day. There could be no no-balls on the Friday.
Later on the same day, at 11.32 p.m., the journalist rang Majeed again at Majeed’s request. He was given another reason why there could not be a no-ball the following morning- Saturday- either, namely that there was only one England wicket remaining and that Saeed Ajmal, the off-spinner, who was not one of Majeed’s ‘boys’, would be bowling.
Instead of the no-balls, Majeed offered the journalist in the same phone call a maiden from the captain, Salman Butt. To confirm the arrangements, Majeed put his own phone on loud-speaker so that the journalist could hear and he called Butt. The conversation between Majeed and Butt suggests strongly that Butt knew of the arrangement to play out a maiden. ‘You know the maiden yeah that we’re doing for the first over yeah?’ Majeed asked. ‘Yeah,’ Butt replied.
Given that the journalist had not been told about this in advance, the clear inference must be that Majeed and Butt had another fix on with a third party. This is confirmed by the nature of the previous conversation Majeed had had with the journalist in the morning: ‘if you meet me tonight yeah I’ll get you even better proof as well as the no-balls the following day. Leave it until tomorrow. We’ll do something tomorrow if they’re batting or something if they’re bowling. One or the other.’ This can only mean a pre-arranged deal with Butt to bat out a maiden for a third party (probably for the number in Dubai which Majeed called that morning) which Majeed then uses to keep the journalist sweet.
(Throughout the summer, Majeed is in constant phone conversation with a number of contacts in Dubai, India and England. Many of the recovered texts imply the existence of agreed fixes, or at least that Majeed and his contacts have discussed fixes, with or without the players’ knowledge. There is no text, though, that absolutely corroborates any obviously corrupt passage of play.)
Majeed and Mahmood met for the fourth time on the next morning, Saturday 21st, before the fourth and final day’s play at the Oval, at Majeed’s house in Croydon. He confirmed again that Butt would play out a maiden and, what is more, he offered a signal that Butt would do so, which was to tap the pitch after the second ball he faced. Once again, Majeed called Butt in the journalist’s presence to confirm the arrangement: ‘so, just the first over you play you just make sure you play a maiden, ok?’ Butt replied, ‘Theek hai’ (ok). ‘Right,’ added Majeed, ‘just do one thing though, don’t forget. After the second ball just go and tap the middle of the pitch. Okay.’ Butt again replied ‘Theek hai.’ As it happens, Butt did not tap the pitch, nor did he play out a maiden.
What are we to make of these events before and during the Oval Test? Despite Butt’s failure to play the maiden- which is fiendishly difficult to guarantee against the new ball and an attacking field- the phone conversations between him and Majeed are incontrovertible evidence that he knew of, and approved of, the arrangement to play out a maiden. It was this evidence, in fact, that the jury in the criminal trial asked to hear again after they had deliberated for a while before reaching their verdict. As they suspected, rightly, this was the smoking gun against Butt. Clear evidence that Butt and Majeed were involved in fixing- with the journalist and, it must be assumed, others.
But what of the bowlers and what of Majeed’s hopes for a no ball or two during the Oval Test? There are three plausible possibilities for why the no-balls were not bowled. The first is that you can take Majeed at his word. That a number of bowlers were corrupt (which is what Majeed at one point implied in his 11.32 p.m. call with the journalist on the 20th,) and that the no-balls had been agreed but a combination of circumstances- the Waqar team-talk, the match situation- scuppered the plot.
The second is that the journalist’s reluctance to stump up the £150,000 deposit meant that the players were not yet prepared to play ball and so Majeed had to stall. When Majeed spoke to the journalist at 8p.m. on the day after the Test, it was the deposit that Majeed was keen to talk about.
Or the third possibility is that Majeed only really had Butt onside at this stage- the man he described to the journalist as ‘a million percent trustworthy’- hence his failure to procure the no-balls; hence his offer of a maiden from the captain instead.
Amir insists that at no stage was he aware of any plan to bowl no balls during the Oval Test, and that the first time he was asked to overstep the line was prior to the Lord’s Test.
The evidence, as far as it is available, points to the third of those explanations. At no stage, in any of the meetings before and during the Oval Test, did Majeed give the journalist any specifics about the no balls that were to be bowled, as he was to do on the eve of the Lord’s Test a few days later. The promises were always vague in nature.
In Doha, during the ICC tribunal, Waqar Younis, the Pakistan coach, gave telephone testimony and he confirmed, under cross examination, that he could not remember giving a specific team talk warning the bowlers against no balls or extras on the third morning of the Oval Test- although he did say that he often reminded them about extras in the course of things. This would not be surprising given that there were relatively few no balls (just five) sent down during Pakistan’s first day performance. Majeed could have used this excuse- or, more likely, was told to do so by Butt- to buy himself time.
The phone data is revealing. Throughout the entire episode there was far less contact between Mohammad Asif and the other parties, but in the early hours of Thursday 19th August, that is to say before the second day of the Oval and after the second meeting between Majeed and the journalist in the Bombay Brasserie, Asif’s phone number suddenly appeared and there were three conversations totalling about four and half minutes in length between him and Majeed. These calls were so out of the blue, and so late at night (half-past midnight on the night before a day’s play) as to be highly suspicious. Then immediately after the meeting in the Al Shishawi restaurant, when money was handed over for the first time, there were two more conversations between Butt and Asif.
Neither during nor after the Bombay Brasserie meeting, when Majeed promised the journalist his no balls in principle, was Amir in telephone contact with any of the other parties. Nor was Amir in contact with the other parties after the meeting at the Al Shishawi restaurant on the next evening, Thursday 19th, when Majeed promised two no balls for the following day (albeit vaguely, without names or times). There was one phone call between Amir and Majeed about an hour before the meeting at the Al Shishawi restaurant that lasted eleven seconds, but nothing thereafter.
On the following morning, the 20th, before Friday’s play, Amir’s phone was red hot from the time he left the team hotel until he arrived at the ground. He was in contact with a number of girls and he rang one of his brothers, Ijaz, and a cousin, Farida, both in Pakistan. There were two texts to Majeed that asked him to send £100 to Javed Akhtar, who is Farida’s brother, in Gujjar Khan, Amir’s home city.
On that Friday morning, there was one unexplained telephone conversation between Amir and Majeed at 8.38 a.m. that lasted for a minute. That is the only phone conversation during which the subject of the no balls that Majeed had promised the journalist could have been raised with Amir. Of course, this might have been what happened. The phone data, in which Amir’s interests at this point are overwhelmingly female, and the concerns of close friends and family at home, suggests otherwise.
When, at 9.45 a.m on the Friday morning (the 20th), Majeed rang the journalist to explain why the no-balls could not happen that day, the balance of probabilities suggests it was because he did not have them and could not guarantee them.
By the end of the Oval Test the situation was this: Majeed was in receipt of £10,000 from the journalist. He had produced neither the no balls he had promised, nor the maiden from Butt. Majeed was now under increasing pressure to deliver, as the conversations between him and the journalist on August 22nd , the day after the Oval Test, revealed. The journalist began to doubt Majeed’s credentials: ‘he [Butt] didn’t do it [play out the maiden],’ the journalist complained. ‘What if we give you £150,000 and he doesn’t do it and then we put the big money on and it’s all over?’ ‘They don’t listen to you; they don’t take your orders,’ he taunted Majeed.
Clearly rattled, Majeed replied: ‘ok, boss. Just remember you’re telling me that they don’t listen to me, right? I’ve been in this game a long time and remember you’re the one who contacted me.’ It was in this conversation that Majeed again raised the possibility of the £150,000 deposit to guarantee the action- both no-balls and a bracket for Lord’s. The stakes had been raised, and Majeed was increasingly desperate. If this potential pot of gold was not to disappear over the horizon, Majeed had to deliver.
What then changed between the Oval Test, when Majeed in all probability did not have Amir to bowl deliberate no-balls, and the night of the 25th, the eve of the Lord’s Test, when, from his confident tone and the specific nature of the predictions, he obviously did?
Amir takes up the story:
‘At around lunchtime on the 25th I got a call from Majeed to go and meet him in the car park of the team hotel. I was in the shower, and so I told him I would be down in five minutes and when I got the lift, Salman was also there. I went to Mazhar’s car, got in and all of a sudden it was as if someone launched an attack. He said to me: “you’re in big trouble, bro. You’re trapped and your career is at stake.” I said: “Bro, what exactly has happened?” He replied that my calls with Ali had been recorded buy the ICC police. I told him that, in any case, I had not done anything with Ali, but he insisted that a friend of his knew that they had a file with my name on it. He said he could help me out of my difficulties but that I had to do a favour for him in return. I asked him “what favour?” That’s when he mentioned the two no-balls.’
‘I realise now that nobody is more stupid than me, that I could not see how ridiculous it was that one the one hand he should be telling me that I was in trouble with the ICC and on the other that I should bowl him two no-balls. But I was panicking and I had lost the ability to comprehend what was going on. After about five minutes, Salman joined us and he sat in the back seat, leaning over between the two front seats, just listening. He didn’t say anything.
‘I told him that it was impossible because my feet were always behind the line, that it was a wrong thing to do and that I was scared. He told me not to worry and to practise bowling them at Lord’s during the practice sessions before the match. He said not to worry because Salman would be with me and would help me. I got out of the car and Salman, who still hadn’t said anything at this point, stayed behind. I was worried now and went and sat on the team bus to go to practice, worrying about what I was to do’
‘At Lord’s it was raining if I remember and we went to practise in the indoor school. Salman came up to me again and asked me whether I was going to bowl them. I told him again that I was scared. He said, “do it, nothing will happen.”’
Evidently at some stage during the afternoon of the 25th, before Majeed met the journalist at the Copthorne Tara hotel in the evening with the specifics of the fix, Amir decided to accede to their request. The phone records show that in the late afternoon of the 25th, after practice had finished, Amir spoke to Majeed for a minute at 5.30 p.m., to Majeed’s brother Azhar for a minute at 7.15p.m., and again to Majeed at 7.30 p.m. and 7.55 p.m. In between there were texts about tickets for the match. At 9.25 p.m. Amir texted Majeed his room number and by the time this meeting had finished the deed had been agreed.
At no stage, insists Amir, did Majeed mention anything about money.
From Amir’s hotel, Majeed went to meet the journalist at the Copthorne Tara with his now confident predictions.
What are we to make of Amir’s story? Nobody else has spoken of the meeting in Majeed’s car, as well they wouldn’t since Butt pleaded not guilty and Majeed would not want to jeopardise the mitigation of his own guilty plea. It is Amir’s word only.
Three pieces of evidence corroborate his story.
The first is the phone data which shows that between around 12.25p.m. and 12.40 p.m. on the 25th, all three parties were in the vicinity of Swiss Cottage where the team hotel (the Marriott) was. Sometime after 11.09 a.m. Majeed made his way from Chelsea and arrived in NW3 at around 11.43 a.m. At 13.05 p.m. Majeed’s phone trail put him on Park Lane. Phone data put both Amir and Butt at the team hotel in Swiss Cottage, prior to heading off to Lord’s for the afternoon practice. Amir’s phone revealed he arrived at Lord’s no later than 1.24 p.m. It is conceivable, then, from the phone evidence that the meeting took place.
The importance of August 25th for Amir is manifest from the phone evidence: this was the first time he had any contact with Majeed’s ‘safe’ phone. Throughout the episode, Majeed used two phone numbers, one ending in ‘786’, with which he seemed to conduct his normal business, and one ending in ‘819’ from which many of his suspicious calls and texts were made. The first contact Amir had with the ‘819’ number was at 11.12 p.m. on the 25th- during the meeting with the journalist in which the no-balls were promised in great detail.
The third is Amir’s curious text sent from Mazhar Majeed’s brother’s phone on August 28th, after the NOTW had informed the police and after the police had searched the three cricketers’ rooms. After that search, Amir was in the hotel lobby when he bumped into Azhar Majeed, Mazhar’s brother. He asked to use his phone and he sent the following text to Ali: ‘Amir here. Don’t call my phone. ICC police have taken my phone. Are you able to delete those calls you made to me. If you can do it, ok. Don’t reply.’
This text is consistent with Amir’s story that he knew nothing of the meetings between Majeed and the journalist, nothing of that scam and nothing of the money that was on offer from Mahmood’s fictional syndicate. At this stage, he was convinced that he was in trouble for his conversations with Ali before the Oval Test, not for the no balls he bowled for Majeed during the Lord’s Test. He says Majeed and Butt had told him that he would be finished, that the ICC knew of his incriminating conversations with Ali. Amir’s actions in texting Ali and telling him about the ‘ICC police’ are consistent with that.
Here is the irony: Amir bowled the no-balls because he thought, by doing so, it might help save his career. He was troubled by his involvement with Ali, and he says his captain and agent- two of his closest friends, remember- had warned him that this would jeopardise his career and they promised to help him out of his difficulties, if he bowled the no balls. Instead of saving his career, the no-balls ended it.
But what of the money, of the marked £1500 that was found in his room? Shortly after 9.30 p.m. after the first day’s play at Lord’s, Amir sent two texts to Majeed saying ‘ok’ and ‘come 227’. Majeed made his way to Amir’s room and it was at this point that Majeed gave Amir the £1500 in what turned out to be marked notes. Amir says that Majeed arrived into his room ‘looking like he had hit the jackpot, he was so happy. Like when I am happy to get a wicket, he was happy. He said “you are my younger brother” and he was buzzing with excitement. He suddenly came forward and told me to keep £1500. I said I didn’t need it. Why would I need it? I don’t require those things. He insisted, saying keep it anyway. He insisted.’
‘I knew why he was happy and that’s why I said I didn’t need it. He gave it to me in an envelope and I put it in the safe away from my own money. I had £8000 of my own money lying open in a bag. I never set eyes on Mazhar’s money and I didn’t touch it. No-one is that stupid not to realise that if he is getting me to deliver the no-balls, it must be because of some sort of bet. This was precisely the reason which I knew was behind his happiness.’
Clearly, Amir knew that he had done wrong, that he had, to use his own words, ‘cheated cricket’. Nevertheless, there is still no reason to suspect that Amir knew of Majeed’s scam with the NOTW journalist, nor the £150,000 that had been handed over. Financial gain played no part in Amir’s decision to bowl the no-balls. ‘I didn’t do it for money,’ he says. He also says that they would not have had to make up the story about the ICC knowing about his texts to Ali, if they were sure that he would simply do it for the money.
In the trial, Butt painted a picture of Amir as being far from an innocent. There are only two things to say in respect of any earlier evidence of fixing: one is that a source within the ICC’s anti-corruption unit acknowledged that at no stage before the summer of 2010 was Amir’s conduct under suspicion (despite the deep suspicion that descended on many of his team-mates). And as Justice Cooke said in his summing up, there is no evidence that Amir was engaged in a fix at the Oval.
Second, is the reaction of the journalist’s initial source, who is known to the Times. This source initially alerted the ICC to his suspicions and it was only after he became frustrated by the ICC’s inaction that he contacted the journalist. In doing so, the source’s aim was to shine a light on the corrupt practices within the Pakistan team. Amir was an unintended consequence of that.
There are a number of horrendous ironies in all this, not the least of which is Amir’s brilliance during the two matches in question. He was Man of the Match at the Oval and bowled superbly at Lord’s. Perhaps the greatest irony is that Amir thought, because of the warnings he says he was given by Majeed and Butt in the car, that he was bowling two no balls at Lord’s to save his career, when in fact they ended it.
It seems to me that there are only two interpretations that follow on from Amir’s version of events. Either you believe him, which doesn’t in any way exonerate him from the guilt of the no-balls at Lord’s, but does provide some context and understanding of the hole he found himself in and the pressure he was under- context that suggests that much of the basis upon which he was imprisoned and banned from the game was false. Or you don’t believe him.
Instead, you believe Majeed who said in his conversations with the journalist that Amir was corrupt. And you believe Butt, who used the opportunity granted by Amir’s guilty plea and silence at court, to round on him and describe him as far removed from the innocent naïf that others have painted him as.
Me? I thank God that I did not, at seventeen years of age, find myself in the kind of dressing room that Amir walked into. In my 25 years playing and watching international cricket, I cannot think of a story that has sickened me more.
Think for a moment about what Amir was feeling as he ran up to bowl those two no-balls. This was a young bowler absolutely on top of his game. Here he was, not only playing but playing brilliantly but having also to think about bowling two deliberate no-balls. ‘I can’t tell you how horrible I was feeling,’ he says. ‘I thought, “what the hell am I doing?” I knew it was wrong, and that I was cheating cricket. No matter how minute the dishonest deed, at the end of the day cheating is cheating. Every day I played the game, I wanted to be the best I could be and here I was doing this stuff and at Lord’s. On the other hand I was thinking how kind they were being to me and that they were helping me.’
‘Before the second no-ball, Salman said to me “you remember?” I felt sick again. I felt like I was killing myself. I remember being in a state of panic I was so scared. At lunchtime, the coach Waqar said to me “what the hell is going on?” I couldn’t look at him, I was panicking so much, and sitting there in silence ashamed of myself, so I just started to tie my shoe laces. That was when Salman said to Waqar that he told me to run forward and bowl a bouncer.’
Amir, of course, was in the middle of a magnificent spell of bowling before he bowled the second no-ball, but his moment was tarnished. ‘When you cheat to achieve a goal through a short-cut then you lack the heartfelt satisfaction that you would have experienced otherwise. And that is how it was for me; I had none of that profound contentment. I knew that whatever was happening was wrong.’
‘Memories of the first time that I visited Lord’s were also rushing through my mind. We had come here on an under 19 tour in 2007 and I had said to my friend that I would come back one day and give an outstanding performance for Pakistan. You know that if you perform well at Lord’s it boosts your image and you go down in cricketing history. Those wickets were cherished as my best ones but also my worst.’
In the days following, Amir starved himself through worry. He says that he could scarcely eat for days, and didn’t drink so that he began cramping. ‘I felt as though I had been shot dead by someone. I was so worried and I a state of absolute panic. I was overwhelmed with a feeling that I did not belong to this world anymore.’
Amir’s conversations with me have thrown some light on the nature of fixing. He insists that he knew nothing of Asif’s no-ball. The notion of an overarching syndicate or mafia-like organisation is clearly false. Fixes that happened were clearly based on friendships and loyalties within the team and would have been known only to those involved. The story also reveals something of the cunning of the fixers, and just how vulnerable young players can be: ‘it is not by pointing a gun to you head that they trap you; it is not written on anybody’s head that they are a bookie or a fixer. They befriend you and get you with kindness. They eventually succeed in trapping you somehow.’
It was Amir’s misfortune to have Salman Butt as a friend. How does he feel about him now? ‘I am sometimes angry but also sorry for his family. He is in prison and has been banned for ten years. What more can I do to him now?’ As for Mazhar Majeed, Amir is more sanguine. ‘He is the only one who has said sorry to me.’
The regrets are many, principally why he failed to come clean earlier: ‘I just didn’t have the courage, I was scared. Everybody was saying: “I can help you, I can help you” and I didn’t have clue who to trust. After all the man who I had trusted the most had got me in trouble. When I finally pleaded guilty, it was such a burden off me. I felt a profound sense of relief. I couldn’t put up with the lying anymore.’
The last time I talked with Amir was just before he returned home to Pakistan. He was looking thinner and frailer than people would remember, although still striking with his glossy black hair. Initially in prison, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to try and play cricket again, even if cricket would ever want him back or how the Pakistan team would react to him. Now after his release, he has started to think about the possibilities again, even though he has a long way to go until his ban is lifted.
His main motivation for speaking to me was simply to tell his story and let people know the circumstances surrounding the Lord’s match. He has to live in Pakistan for the rest of his life and, regardless of whether he plays cricket again, he does not want to be known as a match-fixer.
He remains profoundly regretful. At no stage did he put this regret more eloquently than his statement in the trial, immediately after being sentenced to prison: ‘Last year was the most amazing year of my life, but it was also the worst year. I got myself into a situation that I didn’t understand. I panicked and did the wrong thing. I don’t want to blame anyone else. I didn’t want the money at all. I got trapped and in the end it was because of my own stupidity…I apologise to everyone for what I did and that I did not accept responsibility earlier.’
Those who have spent time counselling him, say that his moods swing from confusion, to anger, to resignation, to relief that he has been able to recognise the dangerous path he was travelling down, back to depression. It is clear to those closest to him that if he is forced to sit out of cricket for the full term of his ban, he will find it impossible to play again.
Whatever lies ahead for him, things will not be easy. The reaction in Pakistan of those who previously viewed him as a hero will test him to the limit. As he ponders these difficulties, he would do well to heed the words of Dryden:
“The gates of Hell are open night and day; Smooth the descent and easy is the way; But, to return, to view the cheerful skies; In this, the task and mighty labor lies.”