August 30, 2010

Stop the tour, save the game

Cricket's decision-makers need to act firmly and decisively in the matter of the latest match-fixing allegations, for the sake of the sanctity of the sport
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Before anything else, let this be said. No two cricketers have brought more joy in the last 12 months to the true lover of the game than Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif. Say what you must about the spectacles of strokeplay or close finishes in the shorter forms, there is nothing quite as sensational, or dramatic, as a pair of quick bowlers bursting through a batting line-up. And none has provided these more regularly - and more eye-pleasingly - than the two Ms, who have in a short time built a partnership worthy of comparison with the two Ws.

What tragedy, then, not only for Pakistan but for anyone who cherishes a good contest between bat and ball, that the two should find themselves entwined in a controversy of the most heinous kind. Judgements mustn't be rushed, and life has prepared us for bizarre twists, but irrespective of where the story ends, Pakistan cricket has again plunged into an abyss, and till the players are either absolved or punished, the game will not feel normal.

It is difficult to remember anything more unreal on a cricket field than the final session of Pakistan's last Test of the English summer. The fizz had gone out of what had been a delightful series. There was the obligation of Test to be finished, but did anyone have the heart to play? The English players seemed to go through the motions, perhaps deflated by the thought that a magnificent come-from-behind victory was now certain to be overshadowed by events off the field.

What must have been going through the minds of the Pakistani cricketers? It was impossible to take one's eyes off Amir, but for reasons different than those of a couple of days ago, when he was utterly compelling as he glided in and made magic with the ball. Now you watched him walk in with the knowledge that every eye in the stands looked on in judgement. A wan smile tried to hide the storm that surely raged within as he tried to defend his mere wicket with a shadow looming over his honour. The heart ached for the bowler who had captivated us all year. Surely a boy so gifted couldn't have let his soul be corrupted at such a tender age? It was a relief when Graeme Swann spun a ball past his bat and bowled him. Surely we'd see Amir bowl in a Test match again? The alternative is too depressing to contemplate.

The bond between the fan and the sports hero is among the purest in the world. It is also among the most sacrosanct. Fans might appear impossibly demanding and cruelly unforgiving at times of failure, but in reality their affection is unconditional. The most important aspect of this relationship, however unilateral, is faith. Fans may curse their heroes in the hour of disappointment, but they rarely lose faith in them. Failure hurts because it is real. Sportspersons can sometimes be forgiven for taking adulation for granted, but they must never test, much less abuse, faith. Once shaken, faith is the hardest to restore.

Mohammad Amir must either stand tall or never bowl a ball again. Nothing in between is acceptable

That's why the administrators must act urgently, decisively and clinically. Nothing can be more damning and debilitating for a sport than allegations that faith has been sold. Cricket was lucky to recover from the last match-fixing scandal as quickly as it did, but the loyalty of fans cannot be taken for granted.

Irrespective of how the investigations go, Pakistani administrators must ask some tough questions of themselves. Why is it that their cricket has not managed to shake off the ghost of match-fixing? Why will the whispers around their team not go away? Is it because the board itself is so dysfunctional and so utterly shambolic that it has been unable to provide any sense of stability, let alone guidance, to its cricketers?

Or is it because it never managed to make a clean break with the match-fixing, merely chopping down a few rotten trees but letting the seeds remain? Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum, who presided over the match-fixing enquiry and himself admitted to being lenient towards a player or two, has blamed the PCB for not implementing his recommendations in full. Too many players indicted by him were let off with fines and left within the system. It's hard to tell what message it sent to the players, and hard also to deny that the taint of match-fixing has never been fully cleansed.

True, innocence must be presumed till guilt is established, but the videos are disturbing and the allegations grave. It's hard to imagine how normal cricket can be played under such circumstances. Until the players are absolved, or punished - and anyone, however promising, found to have compromised the sport must be banned for life - cricket will be meaningless.

The PCB must suspend the tour and get on with the business of finding the truth. Among other things, there has been talk of matches in the ODI series being fixed. Cricket can't be played in an atmosphere where even a fair result will be doubted. It's terrible for the fans and even worse for the players.

The cost of losing out on a few one-day games is a trifle before the cost of the sanctity of the game. Mohammad Amir must either stand tall or never bowl a ball again. Nothing in between is acceptable.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo