ICC eyes closure in landmark case
On Friday and Saturday, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir will finally be given a definitive vision of their future. Just over five months from the day they were provisionally suspended by the ICC on charges of violating the game's anti-corruption code, the trio arrives in Doha, Qatar to await a verdict from a three-man commission headed by Michael Beloff QC.
Beloff, along with Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa and Sharad Rao from Kenya, heard arguments from the ICC's prosecuting team and the players' defence in Doha last month over a six-day hearing. On request from the players, they decided to defer a verdict to Saturday. If found guilty the trio faces the code's maximum sanctions of life bans; the minimum punishment is a five-year ban with possible financial penalties.
In a late twist in the run-up to Saturday's verdict, the UK's crown prosecution service (CPS) announced they would also be making a decision on whether to pursue a criminal prosecution against the players on Friday. London's Metropolitan Police has been carrying out its own investigation into the same case concurrently. The three players, along with Wahab Riaz, were questioned by police in September last year, soon after the tabloid News of the World video sting operation in which it was alleged the players had bowled pre-planned deliberate no-balls during a Lord's Test.
The police also questioned Mazhar Majeed, the player agent and allegedly the man who set up the scenario of the deliberate no-balls. Though the police and ICC investigations are separate and have no jurisdiction over the other, should different verdicts emerge from both cases - for example, the CPS deciding not to pursue the case against the players with the ICC punishing them - uncomfortable questions will no doubt be raised in Pakistan, not least by the players themselves.
Whichever way the verdict falls, the case is a landmark one for the ICC and its investigative arm, the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit. The provisional suspensions were the first handed out to any player by the ICC and the tribunal hearing, the first prosecution carried out by the governing body. "The ICC is acutely aware of the importance of this case for the sport of cricket," the ICC's legal head David Becker told ESPNcricinfo. "For this reason, over the last five months we have dedicated a massive amount of resources in preparing for this case and in ensuring that the hearing is conducted in a fair and robust manner."
Becker, with Jonathon Taylor and Ian Higgins from the Bird & Bird legal firm, formed a three-man prosecution team at the January hearings. Privately the ICC is believed to be extremely pleased with the way the hearings went in January and confident of a judgement in their favour. The only disappointment would have been at the deferment of a verdict; but given that the tribunal had absorbed six days of information and evidence, understanding that any judgement would be heavily scrutinised globally, and keeping the possibility of an appeal in mind, the players' request for the tribunal to take more time before arriving at a decision, was a realistic one.
"The hearing lasted longer than we expected," Becker said. "There was no doubt that additional time was necessary for the tribunal members to properly deliberate over the evidence and write a considered judgment."
The mood in the players' camp has been more difficult to gauge in the interim. Butt and Amir, in particular, had been vocal in their defence in the run up to the hearing, but since then have been silent. Amir appeared in the spotlight briefly for having participated in an unofficial club game in Rawalpindi, while Butt's voice has only been heard as yet another in the debate over the Pakistan ODI captaincy.
Amir, on whom much focus has rested because of his youth and the manner in which he announced himself on the global stage over 2009-10, is in good spirits according to his lawyer Shahid Karim. "We hope it stays that way," Karim told ESPNcricinfo. "We just have our fingers crossed and are hoping for the best."
Butt was captain during the Lord's Test under the scanner and unlike the other two, he faces additional charges for the preceding Test at The Oval, which Pakistan won. Sources close to him point out that his mental strength has seen him through the last five months. "Sure there are an extra few white hairs and wrinkles," one said. "But if he can deal with all that has come his way so far, he can deal with anything and he will come back strong. We have got three very experienced members of the tribunal there, three very accomplished and wise men and we have got to have faith in the tribunal and the process."
At the heart of the matter the tribunal would have discussed among themselves was the central question put forth by the ICC on the opening day of the hearing: in light of the NOTW video were the subsequent no-balls bowled by Asif and Amir flukes or fixed? In the answer to this question, raised again during the closing arguments, lies the key to the players' futures.
Officials familiar with the hearing suggest the players failed to prove decisively that the events were random and Majeed's comments a freak occurence. The initial defence, of Butt and Amir, is believed to have denied outright that the no-balls were fixed and expressed bewilderment at Majeed's comments in the video. But as the hearing went on, positions are said to have shifted slightly.
Asif, it is understood, said he was asked to bowl a faster ball by Butt and that he inadvertently overstepped in the process. He is also believed to have said that though he didn't know it at the time, in hindsight it does appear as if something was not right about the situation. Amir, who overstepped by an unusually large margin, is believed to have later argued that he didn't bowl the no-ball deliberately and was simply trying to bowl a faster ball to Jonathon Trott. This would partially tie in with a leaked statement of Pakistan coach Waqar Younis, made to the ACSU and repeated at the hearing as a witness, who said Butt told him in the dressing room that he had asked Amir to bowl that ball to Trott.
As part of the broader defence the players are also believed to have raised concerns about the nature of the sting operation, and in particular, the reputation of NOTW, which is currently also the subject of various legal battles over a separate phone hacking scandal in the UK. Questions were also raised about the chief investigative reporter Mazher Mahmood, who broke the story and who was also present at the hearing as a witness.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo