Disgrace: Pakistan cricket and its discontents
Outlook (India), 6 September
On top of floods, war, bombs, a corrupt and incompetent government with a much feared military in the wings, the long-suffering people of Pakistan have now been betrayed, once again, by their cricketers. Most will not be shocked or will profess not to be shocked: over the last 15 years there has been a steady erosion of faith in Pakistan cricket, which has come to be held in the same low esteem as many of the country’s other institutions. It’s one of the reasons cited, along with exorbitant ticket prices, for the low turn-out from the Pakistani diaspora at this summer’s Test matches in England.
But while people in and from Pakistan may not be shocked they are bitterly aggrieved. And rightly so. The antics of the three players accused of spot-fixing in the Lord’s Test have destroyed the little portion of relief cricket affords for millions coping with trying conditions.
Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir had impressed the cricket world at large by their commitment, intelligence and talent in the course of an at times humiliating, at times triumphant, summer in England. It’s hard to believe, or to understand, how these three could do something so stupid, so crass, so risky, so insulting to team-mates, opponents and fans. But believe – and understand – we must.
In the past, Pakistani cricketers have been subject to false allegations, insinuations and slander. Wasim and Waqar, now universally acknowledged as among the modern greats and held up as role models, were lambasted by much of the British media in 1992 as “ball tamperers”. In 2007, the team was outrageously accused of complicity in the “murder” of coach Bob Woolmer, who had in fact died of natural causes. But this time the offence is specific and the evidence material. The Rupert Murdoch owned News of the World has its own agenda, and its methods are dubious (effectively inciting a criminal act), but the recording it has produced makes a powerful prima facie case against the three cricketers, who have not as yet actually unambiguously denied the charges.
It’s curious that despite a decade of investment in anti-corruption activities, and receiving report after report on the subject, the ICC still does not have a fixed procedure for dealing with an allegation or a fixed schedule of penalties. When serious allegations emerge, their consequences are hammered out in closed-door negotiations among various interested parties, in this case, the ICC, PCB, and the ECB, with the Metropolitan Police and Pakistani investigators in the wings. The opacity and implied horse-trading exacerbate the popular distrust and cynicism sewn by the allegations themselves. Justice is meted out on an ad hoc basis, and ad hoc justice is no justice.
There is an unresolvable tension between the right of the accused to due process and the immediate requirements of the game. Players must be considered innocent until proven guilty but the spectacle cannot wait: it becomes a grim farce when spectators or players lack confidence that it is genuine. There has for many years been an obvious need for a system of suspension without prejudice as part of a transparent process for addressing allegations. The cricket establishment’s failure to come up with this is, however, only part of its wider culpability.
It’s not hard to see why young players would develop a lax approach to the integrity of the game when those further up the hierarchy routinely display contempt for the law and the ideal of public service. Senior PCB officials are adept at feathering their own nests and getting away with it. The president of the country, Asif Ali Zardari is widely known by the soubriquet of “Mr Ten Percent”: it was he who appointed Ijaz Butt as head of the PCB. Butt’s brother-in-law is defence minister and a Zardari crony. As a result of the mesh of vested interests in Pakistani cricket, scandal after scandal passes without clear resolution. Treatment of alleged offenders is wildly inconsistent. Thanks to political, business or even criminal connections, individuals regularly escape the consequences of their own dishonesty or incompetence.
Conflicts of interest abound in cricket, and not only in Pakistan, as the IPL scandal confirmed on a grand scale. Administrators, politicians and businessmen are bound together in a web of mutual benefit. Seeking to rig a franchise auction, siphon off public funds or evade millions in taxation are all much more serious offences than three deliberate no-balls delivered in a Test match. But unlike the cricketers, those responsible are unlikely to pay an appropriate penalty; in fact, many will continue to wield power and accrue profit from the game. Recent events have reconfirmed one of cricket’s oldest double standards. Players are always judged more harshly than administrators. It’s not hard to understand why accused players would wonder why they should suffer while others who have profited handsomely from misbehaviour are not held to account.
The IPL and spot-fixing scandals are both the products of a culture which has made the pursuit of personal profit the acme of human achievement. In certain circles, even to question its sacrosanct character is to forfeit social legitimacy. In a world where wealth is assumed (wrongly) to “trickle down”, the accumulation of fortunes by whatever means is lauded as a public benefit. Accountability and social responsibility are considered optional extras. Sport itself has become a powerful vehicle for this message. Nike advises us to “Just do it” and in a current advert adds the disturbing slogan “I Am The Rules”.
Cricket, especially in south Asia, has been transformed by the coincidence of a leap in communications technologies and the liberalisation of capital. It’s in this nexus that one finds the origins of gambling influence and match-fixing, as well as other phenomena deforming the game. The BCCI has been deemed by the Indian tax authorities to be primarily a “commercial entity” with only a secondary interest in the development of the game. Maximising television and sponsorship revenue has become an end in itself. Money rules and it’s widely implied that only the naïve or unambitious would have it any other way. The ECB plunged into partnership with Alan Stanford simply because he was a billionaire. They didn’t stop to ask where his billions came from and were genuinely shocked when Stanford proved to be a mega-fraudster.
One of the sad but striking parts of the News of the World recording shows the way the agent-cum-fixer Mazhar Majeed treats the young cricketers – as inferior beings dependent on his largesse. And they seem to accept this role. After all, he has the money and the connections, just like all the others they have been told to obey and admire.
Corruption in high places is never an excuse for corruption in the lower ranks. We’re asking the young players to resist a rushing tide, but we are right to do so.