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Three jailed Pakistani cricketers, and hope.

November 4, 2011

Searching for silver linings on a cloudy, cloudy day: three jailed Pakistani cricketers, a system imprisoned by incompetence, and the possibility of respite.

I felt a little sick today as I scrolled through the tweets and learned that three of Pakistan’s best players in recent years would go to jail. There is a mixed sense of anger and injustice rippling through Pakistani fans, but more than anything else, there is a sinking feeling that we all hoped we would never have to experience again. As @madihariaz tweeted, ‘The whole of Pakistan just let out a collective sigh of ‘FUCK’.’*

Last year I wrote that the scandal had melted down my cricketing world, and again there is that indescribable feeling of sadness. I thought of Salman Butt scoring a century against India in that one-off ODI a few years ago, being groomed as captain, and being our only steady opener in years. I thought of Asif getting whipped in Australia, telling Bob Woolmer with characteristic confidence that he would be back, and proceeding to rip the heart out of every batting lineup he faced thereafter. I thought of Amir’s evident joie de vivre on the green, how the commentators salivated over him in the 2009 T20 World Cup, and how he magnificently fulfilled that promise in his first, and maybe last, English summer.

Damn it.

Now I’m thinking back to the joy that had enveloped Pakistan cricket in the summer of 2009, when England reverberated with the sounds of ‘Pakistan zindabad’ and a weary nation found the energy within itself to sing and dance the worries away with the most unlikely, and most Pakistani, victory imaginable.

 

Pakistan cricket is and has always been a rollercoaster, partly because of a national obsession with drama and thrill, partly because we have both incompetence and brilliance in ridiculous measure. This characteristic is now so ingrained that fans tend to view any semblance of consistency with suspicion above all**.

And I will now cling to this famous unpredictability to emerge with hope from the events of what has surely been the most dramatic cricket trial ever.

Could this represent a turning point in the PCB’s management of such issues? One of the most notable developments in the aftermath of the NOTW sting was the unprecedented pressure placed by the ICC and international cricket community on the PCB to change. Everyone recognized that a significant portion of the blame lay with a board that had often turned a blind eye to indiscipline and let off stars that were linked to match-fixing, and a number of changes were forced through.
Ijaz Butt hung on till the end of his tenure, though, and there is no guarantee that the system will improve as the new PCB head is another political appointment. However, there have been signs that the board is taking a much tougher stance. Malik, Kaneria and (Kamran) Akmal have been barred from playing on grounds of suspicion and have been forced to present police clearances. It’s also possible (though I confess ignorance) that Wahab Riaz’s exclusion from the ODI squad has more to do with his past connection with Mazhar Majeed than ‘fitness’.

While the match-fixing and betting mafia’s power remains largely untouched, hopefully this episode will reduce the likelihood of Pakistani players making the wrong decisions or being placed under duress. Clearly, the point of the jail terms was to send a message (whether it was received or not, as reports of conspiracies abound back home, is entirely another matter). Maybe someone will take a second look at protection for young players and make reinforcements. Maybe someone will think twice before calling up a person who has rumours of sticky connections. Maybe we will have more Zulqarnains and fewer Amirs. The ability of our team to unearth great fast bowlers has never been doubted; the ability to keep them performing and have more Guls than Shoaibs has. That’s the silver lining in this cloud. If another promising player comes along and is saved from being sucked into the vortex, then maybe this will have been worth it.

Is it going to happen, though? Realistically, the bookies are far too entrenched and powerful – it seems like the scandal that broke out in the aftermath of Cronje’s confession acted as a vaccine and only strengthened the resistance of a virus that has plagued cricket for decades. Even now, players are under threat and it says much about the strength of those threats, and the inadequacy of the justice system, that few are willing to take names in public.

The fact remains that the Anti-Corruption unit that was setup by the ICC totally failed to catch the illegal activity in England last year*** and it was a bloody tabloid that pulled off the sting that caught Majeed, Butt, Asif, and Amir. Will the results of this trial push them to the next level and actually land a blow on the international betting syndicate? At the very least, the police should be investigating Mazhar Majeed’s contacts in Dubai and India for all they’re worth, and then castigated if they fail to make real progress. This trial wasn’t a success – it was a damning indictment of the ICC (yet another). It is now up to the ICC (and international sport’s law enforcement system) to apply a standard of fairness and resist the urge to single out and maligne the Pakistani cricket team – this is clearly a global problem.

In any case, Ahmer Naqvi and Ejaz Haider (along with many, many commenters on Twitter) have already pointed out most of the problematic elements of this case. I really can’t claim to know whether justice was carried out or not – all I know is that no one could have possibly come out of this smelling of roses.

Let’s hope, however, that blooming talent is no longer nipped in the bud by a host of promises, threats, and text messages in the middle of the night.

—–
*Please, for a change, put away your badges, whether they be patriotism (“most Pakistanis can’t even speak English!”) or social justice (“typical bourgeoisie English-speaking class”).

** As I write this, the Pakistani team is 1-0 up against Sri Lanka in Dubai (albeit being hammered on the first day of the third Test) and is on course to continue its best run in Test cricket in 5 years (it has drawn 2 and won 2 of the last four series). Yet it is still being criticized – for being too boring. Captain MBA-ul-Haq has indeed fashioned a #teammisbah that is as defensive and bloody-minded as he is – but a record of DWDWW is unquestionably better than LDLDL.

***They may have prevented other fixing though, and should be given credit for that. It must be a nightmare trying to measure positive outcomes from the ACSU program – by definition, part of success is a lack of activity. So it’s pointless to engage in counterfactuals – my only point is that regardless of other performance, they were caught unawares last year.

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