Another day of lost belief
Apparently a cricket match concluded at Lord's today. Apparently Graeme Swann claimed his ninth five-wicket haul in 24 Tests, and England won their seventh Test out of eight by a resounding innings and 225. Apparently Umar Akmal slammed 79 not out from 68 balls to double at a stroke his previous series average of 17.5, and apparently there was a presentation ceremony in the Long Room afterwards. Far from being a final curtain call, however, it was the drawing of a veil over a series whose shameful conclusion now begs so many questions.
In the course of a turbulent decade, cricket has known too many days like this for sweeping conclusions to be drawn from a single source of evidence. And yet, there was an atmosphere around Lord's today that reeked of a once-in-a-generation betrayal. Ten years ago, the Hansie Cronje revelations destroyed the sport's integrity and drew the cynic in every supporter that much closer to the surface, and since then, too many whispers have persisted for anyone to believe that the cancer had been cut out at the core.
But the chance to suspend one's disbelief is the very reason why so many people are drawn to sporting events in the first place - which is why the charade that was played out in front of a quarter-full Sunday crowd was so painful to behold.
In ordinary circumstances, six wickets in a victorious session would be ample justification for breast-beating and bold statements about bringing on the Aussies, but afterwards England's captain, Andrew Strauss, said each wicket felt like a token breakthrough at 600 for 2. "We all understand the greater context," he said. "It's a pretty sombre context and not one we really want to be involved in."
Nothing felt right about today from start to lunchtime finish. At 9am, when the ground was still largely deserted and an expectant hush should by rights have existed, a heightened police presence provided the first violent jolt to the senses. Meanwhile rolling news footage of the Pakistan team bus, revving uncertainly outside the their hotel in Swiss Cottage, couldn't help but hark back to the last great furore involving these two teams - the Oval Test abandonment of 2006, when once again the fourth day of the fourth Test proved seismic. Now, unlike then, the show did go on - when perhaps the gut reaction was to wish it had not done so.
Nothing, however, was quite as shocking as the haggard appearance of Pakistan's captain, Salman Butt, whose eloquent explanations of his team's enduring failures had earned him genuine admiration throughout a difficult - and intermittently triumphant - campaign. This time, however, he faced the press with a full maelstrom of emotions etched on his face. That he survived the ordeal was thanks entirely to his team manager, Yawar Saeed, who used every stalling tactic in the book, including the pretence of deafness, to draw the sting of a massed media.
Butt offered just the one defiant answer. When asked if he would resign, he shot back: "Why? Pakistan won a Test match against Australia after 15 years and [in] England after nine years, so does that make me resign from this current situation?" It was a valiant attempt to clutch at the straws of fleeting success - more of which later - but three far more insidious strands are threatening to break the back of his young team. Namely the trio of no-balls, allegedly delivered to order by Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.
There's no smoke without fire, as the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit has long conceded, with Lord Condon signing off from the role back in May with the admission that the problem of match-fixing will never be entirely eradicated. But these three deliveries could yet prove to be the first three licks of flame through a fabric that the sport patched up, without conviction, around the time of the Qayyum and King Commissions. In isolation, they amount to nothing, for three runs in a total of 446 is trivial, unless you've got an Edgbaston 2005 finish around the corner. In implication, however, they could lead to so much more.
"They are only allegations at this stage, but they are allegations of the worst kind," said Strauss. "For those of us who love cricket, it's not a good thing. A lot of allegations are so hard to prove, but if someone is found categorically guilty, the only way - for me - is for them not to be able to play international cricket again. Because if that leads to a cleaner sport in the future, that can only be a good thing."
Strauss is absolutely correct, of course. The half-measures that were meted out a decade ago were disastrous for the game, with a handful of players carrying the can for their generation - among them three Test captains and a token bowler in Ata-ur-Rehman - while a raft of others, including Pakistan's current coach Waqar Younis and his fellow legend Wasim Akram, were stained by association but exonerated through a lack of specific punishment. A bright red message of intended deterrence turned into an amber signal to proceed with caution.
This much was reportedly acknowledged by Mazher Majeed himself, allegedly the fixer at the centre of the News of the World investigation, who was quoted by the paper as saying: "They've toned down match-fixing a lot, they've made it very, very difficult." But it still remains possible, and as it happens even harder to pinpoint, thanks to the growth of the internet and onset of spread-betting, through which it has been possible to target specific and subtle "brackets" of action, instead of completed innings, totals and results. The real shock of the pre-ordered no-balls is the microscopic extent of the control that the fixer appears to have been able to exert.
And yet, the three main men allegedly in the firing line can each offer a key plea in mitigation. Asif and Amir can point to some of the most sensational fast bowling seen in England for two decades - 31 wickets at 24.29 doesn't look like the work of a pair of under-achievers - while Butt can restate his boast that both Australia and England have been brought low on this tour, no matter how circuitous the route to both victories turned out to be.
There in a nutshell is the paradox of spot-fixing. It need not affect the endgame, and as this investigation unfolds, it may even prove to be so endemic that the players themselves see no harm in accepting the bonuses that come along the way. A sporting career is, after all, distinctly finite - even one as youthful and brimful with promise as Amir's. And in a country as traumatised as Pakistan, where one's brief time at the top could transform not only one's own life but that of everyone around you, is it so wrong to reach that extra metre? A love of money may be the root of all evil, but can it always be classified as a sin?
The answer, as it happens, was seen in the squalid circumstances of the final day at Lord's. As a match stripped of innocence dribbled to an awful and ignominious conclusion, anyone who believes in the magic of hero worship and the joy of escapism was dragged into the gutter as well. If it was bad for the punters who watched at close quarters, the abuse of trust for those Pakistani fans back home was abominable. At this time in the country's troubled history, the need to believe is paramount.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.