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Heartbreak: the allegations that rocked more worlds than one

September 17, 2010

It’s been a few weeks since the news broke about the spot fixing allegations. My cricketing world has since melted down – update by update, word by word, every day worse than the last. Initially I resisted the urge to write about the scandal – and lately I have found myself unable to. Unable to talk about cricket, unable to read the sports pages, unable to accept what happened, unable to digest how we’ve all been duped for so long. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that fixing was rare…perhaps I shouldn’t have expected others to live up to my personal standards of morality. This episode is heartbreak and betrayal both – my choice of words is, perhaps, too dramatic, but it also honest. How does one begin to describe a trust shattered after decades of belief?

I’ve been a cricket fan all my life – hard core even by subcontinental standards. Like millions of other kids, I spent every day possible on the streets playing this game and falling in love with it. Day, night, through sun, through rain, even through dust storms in the desert. The first time I broke a law was because of cricket: breaking and entering to retrieve lost tapeballs from assorted houses and from the public school, even after being caught. (This was in Saudi Arabia, where irate neighbors called the cops and where the cops couldn’t be bribed or sweet-talked into leniency.) The first time I had serious fights with my parents was over cricket – over the right to spend my time fielding at mid on and waiting to get my overs to bowl in or to get my turn to bat. The first time I rebelled against religion was because of cricket – I can’t remember the number of times the local imam yelled at us for playing even after the evening prayers had begun, can’t remember the number of times I was late for iftar at home because the match didn’t get over in time. It took years of daily practice to transform me from a mediocre player to a relatively decent one – from being the kid who never got to bat to being promoted to one-down.  When my high school got nets in senior year, I was probably the happiest guy on the squad, and more than one friend has called me cricket-crazy. I was the guy who was happy to bowl all day long, happier to bat all day long.

My enduring memory of happiness from high school is hitting consecutive sixes and getting a wicket in the first over in front of a home crowd (granted, there were only a few hundred people, and many didn’t even understand cricket, but they roared all the same.) I learnt how to deal with loss after losing the final of a tournament by two runs and one wicket, when I bowled the second last over of the game and had two catches dropped (one by myself). Over the years cricket taught me about perseverance, team work, integrity, and perhaps most crucially, about myself.

Sport is, and has always been, sacred to me, in more ways than I can ever explain. It has always been my safety net from depression, my way of releasing tension, my free ticket to unadulterated joy, a primary source of self belief. As I’ve grown up, it’s been my refuge from an imperfect world. It was, and still is, far more pure than any other form of human activity. You can’t really cheat in sports – if you’re good, you’re good, and that’s that. Any corruption is ultimately self-defeating – those who take drugs to boost performance know within their hearts that it’s just because they’re not good enough, and that is a far more terrible punishment than any life ban. You can either hit a straight drive, or you can’t – there is no substitute for ability. There’s no ambiguity about the perfect yorker – nothing fake about a shot off the middle of the bat. Yes, there is cheating (who hasn’t appealed for a nonexistent caught behind?), and nepotism, and the use of steroids: vile and disgraceful blots on sports, that is all. Like any other human activity, this too is smudged with shame. There’s nothing like fixing, though.

You feel like you’ve been spit on – like everything you stood for is now false – like nothing is sacred anymore (if it ever was to begin with). You feel used, your emotions toyed with, your happiness and depression peddled on the streets by pimps who couldn’t care less. Everything is called into question – was that a legitimately dropped catch? Did he hit that reckless shot on purpose? Was that sweep premeditated even before the toss?

What makes it worse is that I was the diehard fan who defended the players and the game for years. When people dismissed the Pakistan team as a bunch of match-fixers, I asked them how it was possible to ‘fix’ a diving catch or plan a perfect googly. While most of the country sank into depression after Sydney, I rationalized; even had the audacity to celebrate a good performance after St. Lucia. Whenever someone criticized the Pakistan team and painted them as nothing but a bunch of incompetent and lazy losers, I spent hours defending them – actions that I do not regret, but that now seem potentially misguided (even though I wasn’t alone). I recently spent an entire afternoon proving to my aunt that the Pakistani team did have talent, skill, and effort, and proceeded to teach her four year old son how to bat as an encore. He has since found a hero in the Pakistan cricket team: Mohammad Aamir.

Heartbreak indeed. Michael Holding was merely the first to publicly acknowledge how hurt he was by the news – I would bet a few shillings that he’s not the only one to shed some tears. That two of the finest bowlers in the world were implicated in this prostitution of the game is doubly disappointing – I confess I would not have been so hurt if it were some league cricketers. Mohammad Asif has been my favorite bowler in Test cricket after Pigeon’s departure; as Peter Roebuck put it:

“Watching Mohammad Asif bowling is another cricketing pleasure. He does not send down a mere delivery; he puts together overs and spells. In that regard he resembles Glenn McGrath, a subtle and beautiful bowler capable of turning maidens into exciting productions.”

I could take his drug abuse – and still don’t think that nandrolone could have ever given him the ability to out think a batsman or to swing the cherry both ways. I cannot, however, see him intentionally frittering away his considerable talents for some money. I would rather have had a Mohammad Aamir with a chronic no-ball problem, than a Mohammad Aamir with an intentional no-ball problem. Now, however, I can’t hold the suspicion and cynicism back. It will be a while before I look forward to another cricket match, it will take something special to make me enjoy a game.

Simon Barnes said it all in one phrase: something good has been lost.

“If there was ever a time to turn to the back pages to find a good news story, it is now. How nice it must have been to turn, if only for a moment, from the horrors of daily life to the tale of a matchless young talent who had taken six wickets and reduced England – England, the former colonial masters – to gibbering wrecks.

But now the people of Pakistan must read allegations of corruption. True, it’s not match-fixing. Just three piffling no-balls. But three piffling no-balls, if done on purpose and for cash, destroy your belief in a sincere contest, destroy your belief in sport. Without belief, sport is nothing: and these allegations make atheists of us all.”

Sport, however, is too resilient and wonderful for some lowlifes to ruin the joys associated with being involved in it. On that note, thank heavens for Aisam ul Haq and Rohan Bopanna, who somehow managed to win a million hearts after losing, and for FC Barcelona and Arsenal, who combined to produce 11 goals of the highest quality in the opening matchday of the UEFA Champion’s League.

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