December 22, 2013

Pakistan's Streltsov question

Can Asif and Amir be compared to the Russian wunderkind who returned to professional football after a seven-year gap?

Mohammad Amir will still be in his early 20s at the end of the ban, but should he be allowed to return to the national side? © AFP

Last week's Mohammad Asif interview to Mazher Arshad came on the heels of English footballer DJ Campbell being arrested in connection with a spot-fixing investigation - another instance of sport's lost battle against corruption, although in this case there were no calls for all English or London-born footballers to be banned for life.

In the interview Asif talked about looking forward to making a comeback, making amends for his lost years, almost to the point of being unrepentant. This is an attitude that has been prevalent in all the public proclamations that the Damned Trio - Asif, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir - have made since being sentenced by a London court. There is a belief that once their bans end, they will return to their previous roles and restart their careers after a pause of five years.

In the interview Asif came across as the gifted peacock he has always been. It is this aspect that allows him to think that he can walk back into the national team in his mid-30s and be better than the current and next generation of Pakistani pacers. But will he be able to walk back? Should he, or the other two, be able to?

There aren't really precedents in cricket. The closest might be the two generations of cricketers who had their careers interrupted by the great wars. That may sound churlish, considering the magnitude of the tragedies involved, but the comparison stands purely from a sporting viewpoint. Some players came out of those interruptions more dominant. The most evident examples would be the two great English batsmen of their eras - Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton. But of course, to compare their travails to those of the Pakistani trio would be flawed.

Obviously there have been instances when international cricketers have taken years off, but in nearly all of those cases it was as a result of injury. There were some, like Jeff Thomson, who never recovered, and others, like Imran Khan and Dennis Lillee, who came back stronger than before. But in these cases the time off was far shorter than the five years the trio has been banned for.

I guess one has to look beyond cricket to find a similar instance. The most famous sabbatical in sport was probably that of Michael Jordan, who took time off, supposedly at his peak, to go play baseball - the sort of thing that creates a thousand conspiracy theories. It took Jordan less than two years to come back, and the situation he returned to (the franchise, the coach, and most of the players) was the same as when he had left. So again, it is difficult to see too much in common with the trio. Although if they did want to find inspiration in American sports they would be better suited looking at another Michael, the NFL star Michael Vick.

If there is one instance that comes close to the Pakistan example, it is that of Russian footballer Eduard Streltsov, a teenage wunderkind who was expected to be the greatest player his country had produced. At the age of 18 he was the top goal scorer in the Soviet Top League. At 20 he was voted the seventh-best footballer by the judges of the Ballon d'Or. At 21 he was no longer playing football, convicted of rape, a far greater crime than that committed by the trio. Streltsov served from 1958 to 1963 in a gulag camp, and was still banned from professional football when he returned. He would go on to have his ban revoked and win the Soviet Player of the Year award in 1967 and 1968. He never truly fulfilled his potential but nevertheless had a career that would label him as one of the Russian greats of that era.

So can the trio repeat what Streltsov did? Amir will still be in his early 20s. Even if his development has been stunted, if he can return to be the bowler he was when he left, there could still be a decent international career ahead of him. Butt was never anything more than a decent opener, but as the last three years have shown, it's not like Pakistan have a plethora of alternatives. And Asif, well, he could rock up anywhere, anytime and be the smartest player on the field. The last time he returned, after more than a year off, it took him all of two matches to start looking sexy again. And it's not like the three are completely away from the game. At least two of them practise regularly - which came to light recently, when a club bowler, perhaps inspired by Michael Clarke's sledge to James Anderson, broke Butt's arm.

Of course, with the emergence of Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan, it's debatable whether Asif and Amir can walk into the national team, even if they are at their peak.

But the far more important question is: should they be allowed to return to the national side? Of course, it's politically correct to say no; that they are a stain on the fabric of our sport, and other such rhetoric. But surely, as the justice system instructs us, if you have served your sentence you should be rehabilitated back into society. The argument that they should be presented as examples to warn others off such activities loses momentum every time you think of subsequent cases involving the likes of Mervyn Westfield and Sreesanth.

Finally, there is the question of the national team itself. Since the trio's ban, the team has gone through one of its rare controversy-free periods. They may not be overly popular with the casual fan, or inspire rabid devotion, like some of the greats of the past did, but they have repeatedly overachieved, considering their talent. So once their bans end, Pakistanis - as part of the PCB, the national team, and society in general - will have to calculate how much talent and star power are really worth; and whether morality is something to be considered when cheering someone on.

Or we could do what Torpedo Moscow fans did for Streltsov and look at the whole episode as a grand conspiracy against us. Considering how Pakistanis revel in the Woe-Is-Us mentality, that might well be the best route to assuage our unease.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here

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