September 20, 2010

Butt has shot himself in both feet

The PCB chief's statements attacking a board that has worked hard to bring international cricket to Pakistan are beyond the boundaries of sanity. But the ICC is also to blame

Ijaz Butt is not a tabloid. Even if he had been one, then hurling accusations at another team for having thrown a match probably wouldn't have passed for acceptable behaviour. He would have been chided for not going to the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit or police officials first and handing over some proof before revealing all; chided, that is, for not following a process.

No, Butt is not a tabloid. He is the sitting board chairman of a full member of the ICC. To say what he has said publicly scrapes even the barrel of unacceptable social decorum. To do so to the team of a board whose chairman has gone out of his way to help, as Giles Clarke has over the last year, is outside the bounds of sane behaviour.

Clarke heads the ICC's task force on bringing cricket back to Pakistan; he has pushed the idea of an international XI playing here. In September's Wisden Cricketer, Clarke writes knowledgeably and with some passion of the importance of international cricket returning to Pakistan. If a slap in the face was acceptable as a return for favours, then here is Butt's response.

Forget Clarke: what is the chairman saying to his own team? "Sorry Gul and company, that super win of yours, against all odds, from an unwinnable position and all that? Sorry, that was only because the other team might have thrown it." And it should be worrying, very worrying, that the debate Butt is starting displays a total lack of understanding of the nuances of modern fixing. How can Pakistan be blamed for fixing when they lose and when they win, asks Butt. If he doesn't know - or chooses to ignore - the irrelevance of spot-fixing to the ultimate result of a match, harder times lie in wait.

To be kind, it is understandable that the PCB feels under siege. The second set of allegations from the Sun feels considerably less substantial than the first. Scoring patterns, a few overs, dons in Dubai and Delhi, a source; compared to the News Of The World, this is all very inexact. Other papers in the UK have also speculated wildly and often inaccurately.

A breed under siege needs to hit back, to retaliate. And retaliation, if you feel you've been genuinely wronged, can be justified and useful. But a basic minimum requirement is to identify the correct target. It wasn't Clarke or the ECB who started this. It was a tabloid. Sue them for defamation, take them to court. Launch an investigation against them. Is the ICC's executive the target? Speak to other ICC members about it. Develop a consensus, build a coalition, make friends, influence people. Take them to court if you really feel the need. Ranting from this kind of a written statement is not retaliation, unless shooting yourself in the head is an acceptable form of retaliation.

The PCB may well even have a fair bone or two to pick with the ICC. The suits at the ICC's head office are more expensive these days. The interiors of their offices are flashier too. Overall the edifice is slicker. And they still can't, in this day and age, do something as basic as getting in touch with two leading boards to let them know that they are about to release a very significant statement that concerns a match their sides have just played. Neither the PCB nor the ECB, as is apparent from their stances, were told this statement was coming out.

The ICC claimed it tried to contact Butt all day on Friday before releasing the statement on Saturday morning. Butt was in Delhi, having met Sharad Pawar earlier in the week. Pawar is the president of the ICC. Butt and Pawar's meeting was widely reported around the world, on ESPNcricinfo, on TV in India and Pakistan, and by wire agencies.

The ICC, it appears, remarkably, was unaware of this meeting so they tried Butt on his phone, one that, because he was in India and because there is no roaming cellular service between the two countries, was unavailable. The ICC did not think to contact someone at the PCB HQ in Lahore, the spokesman perhaps, the chairman's assistant, the chief operating officer, or the GM cricket operations - both of the latter are regular ICC meeting attendees - to leave with them a message, or Lord help us, to find a way of contacting Butt.

Should the ICC have released a statement at all? On balance, if they hadn't, then a tabloid-fuelled frenzy of speculation and accusation could've been worse. Should they have done so without consulting either board? Absolutely not.

Newspapers don't run conspiracies, they run a business, which requires them to make money by selling more papers. And the ICC governs a sport that has fewer full, elite members than a human has fingers. By getting rid of Pakistan, it makes its own sport considerably less competitive

None of this - the ICC's incompetence, or even the allegations of the Sun - constitute, however, a "conspiracy to defraud Pakistan". It is a neat bit of wordplay (surprisingly neat actually), cynically designed to win over local opinion numbed into buying such theories instead of looking inwards. To one channel, in his wide-ranging assault, Butt said the purpose of the PCB's investigation was to prove to people in Pakistan that the board should not be blamed for this, as they have been equally since the Lord's Test.

A reality check is needed. Why would anyone conspire against Pakistan? To bring them down from the giddy heights of sixth in the Test and seventh in the ODI rankings?

Newspapers don't run conspiracies, they run a business, which requires them to make money by selling more papers. News of fixing sells, now more than ever. And the ICC governs a sport that has fewer full, elite members than a human has fingers. By getting rid of Pakistan, it makes its own limited, increasingly uncompetitive, sport considerably less competitive, and competition is the one thing that will sustain it. Strictly on the field, in such a tough summer, let's not forget that Pakistan have done better than many had thought, in winning two Tests, two Twenty20s and at least one, possibly more, ODIs. New Zealand, Bangladesh and West Indies hope for results such as those.

But how much longer can it go on? The PCB's relationship with the ICC has broken down entirely, that much is clear. Furthermore Butt has ensured that what few friends the PCB has are swiftly being lost. South Africa, privately, are making noises about playing Pakistan. New Zealand might do soon. More neutral Tests in England are unlikely. India is hostage to political winds.

If the darkest day in Pakistan's cricket actually does come, and talk of giving Pakistan a temporary break becomes reality, it will not be the result of any conspiracy. It will be the result of the worst administration ever to have run cricket in this land.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo