The spot-fixing saga that has occupied so much mind-space since it erupted towards the last quarter of last year has finally been laid to rest, but to believe that cricket is forever rid of underhand practices simply because the Pakistani trio has been slapped with jail terms will be both simplistic and naïve.
Not since the Hansie Cronje match-fixing controversy broke out in early 2000 has cricket been so much under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons as it is now. The lingering suspicion that, despite the presence of strict policing, cricketers might be lured into underperforming has gained credence in the last year or so following the expose that has almost irrevocably altered the careers of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer.
Having said that, while the misdemeanours of the Pakistani trio can’t be wished away, it must be kept in mind that this is no more than an isolated instance in an era where to ‘fix’ matches or to indulge in spot-fixing without getting caught is almost impossible to pull off.
So badly shaken was the cricketing fraternity in the immediacy of the Cronje confessions that the International Cricket Council was shaken out of its slumber. The establishment of the Anti-Corruption Unit under Sir Paul Condon was a necessary and inevitable fall-out of the Cronje case that threatened the very fabric of the sport. While the events of last year at Lord’s have comprehensively proved that cricket, and cricketers, are still susceptible to approaches from unscrupulous elements, to cane the sport and label it as rife with corruption will at once be both unfair and unrealistic.
It’s not without reason that Pakistan has emerged as the hot-bed of corruption. Pakistan cricket is replete with tales of remarkable talent-spotting, of young kids being pulled out of tiny villages and casual nets and thrust into the unforgiving cauldron of international cricket. A majority of cricketers from across the border have very little by way of education, and in the absence of a system that warns them against indulging in underhand practices, it’s reasonably easy to get carried away.
While cricket boards in other parts of the world have acted swiftly to try and insulate the players and ensure that it is safer to make money legitimately, Pakistan is a different case altogether. Internal politics within the Pakistan Cricket Board has prevented the governing body from focussing on more important aspects such as cricket development and player education; a lack of literacy and awareness coupled with humble backgrounds and the promise of a quick buck for little or no effort means Pakistani cricketers will continue to be ‘soft’ targets for bookmakers masquerading as player agents.
Make no mistake, there are several Mazhar Majeeds floating around, studiously looking for signs of weaknesses and vulnerability. At the first hint of an opening, they will step in and try to influence players, feasting on the ignorance of unsuspecting young men with stars in their eyes and an eye on their bank balance. Aamer’s is a classic case in study, a wonderfully youthful talent gone completely astray as he allowed himself to be misled by Majeed and his captain, who until this controversy surfaced came across as an intelligent, suave, world-wise young man.
The reactions emanating from Pakistan in the aftermath of the sentences handed out by Judge Jeremy Cooke have been interesting, to say the least. For once, there has been no righteous sense of indignation, no false pretence that Pakistanis have been made a scapegoat. The cricketing fraternity across the border has been unanimous in its condemnation of the ‘made-to-order no-balls’ that Asif and Aamer sent down at the instigation of Majeed and the insistence of skipper Butt, the common consensus being that the jail terms slapped on them by Judge Cooke are totally justified.
Cricket has done much to rid itself of the stigma that was attached to it since Cronje went down in a blaze of shame, taking along with him some other big names including Mohammad Azharuddin. Saying that, the ugly head of corruption in the sport has made its presence felt from time to time, making it clear that there is no scope for complacency or the mistaken belief that all is, and will continue to be, well.
That it needed the intrepidness and initiative of a journalist to expose this scandal has further increased the pressure on the ICC, but the governing body has thus far steadfastly refrained from indulging in the kind of ‘sting’ that netted Mazher Mahmood the story of a lifetime. Perhaps, the ICC will now rethink its stance; it might still not be convinced that ‘stings’ against cricketers is the way to go, but there is bound to be greater emphasis on keeping cricket safe from motivated, lumpen elements and to maintain the sport’s sanctity and integrity.
Corruption in cricket has a lot to do not just with lack of education and awareness, but also a lack of financial security in some parts of the world. In India and in the western world, first-class cricketers are paid well enough not to risk shame and sanctions by indulging in spot-fixing, but in certain other parts, that is not necessarily the case.
Consequently, the Mazhar Majeeds sense a window of opportunity and step in with their own grandiose, selfish plans that are lapped up by impressionable young men eyeing a quick, easy buck.
It therefore becomes imperative for cricket boards under the umbrella of the ICC to ensure that their young wards don’t go astray. It will be impossible for the ICC all on its own to solely adopt the policing role. It becomes the responsibility of every stakeholder in cricket worldwide to keep the game safe from the clutches of match-fixing and spot-fixing. That involves better pay structures in countries where it is practically impossible to make an honest living out of playing cricket, and a whole-hearted effort to instil a sense of ownership and integrity among the players.
To dismiss cricket as rife with unscrupulous practices on the back of the unforgivable antics of the Pakistani trio will be an over-reaction, but if cricket can learn from the mistakes of Butt, Asif and Aamer and put processes in place to ensure there are no repeat offences, then some good will still come out of one of the most sorry, sordid chapters in the history of the sport.