October 11, 2010

Why cricket can't pardon its sinners

The real world may accept the corrupt, even welcome them, but sport cannot because they break the principle sport hinges on

Why is it, someone asked, that sportspersons are expected to inhabit a higher moral universe than others? Why judge them with different standards? Corruption is a way of life in the subcontinent. People with far more sordid crimes on their hands than agreeing to bowl the odd no-ball occupy high offices.

This is true. Mohammad Azharuddin, for instance, was banned from cricket for life but could still be voted into parliament. When India's ruling party put him up as a candidate, they were safe in the knowledge that Azharuddin's misdemeanours did not compare to those of many other parliamentarians. Even so, few cricket lovers - including, possibly, those who elected him - would disagree that the cricket ban on Azhar was perfectly just. Likewise, few Pakistanis think that Mohammad Amir could touch President Zardari on the corruption scale. Zardari is not about to get banned for anything, not even getting creepy with Sarah Palin.

Yet I don't think this is a plain case of hypocrisy. There is a reason that sportspersons are held to a different standard, and it is based on the sound principle that the idea, the beautiful illusion, of sport is otherwise untenable. The thing absolutely collapses.

Sport is metaphor. Its essentially trivial rivalries in a giant triviality that is a game - cardboard heroes versus cardboard villains - only assume monumental stature in our imagination because we invest in them the power of metaphor. An innings can come to stand for a phase in your life, for a relationship, the state of the nation. A defeat can be elevated to tragedy because its participants have been bestowed with the metaphoric power of dramatic actors. The drama is premised on the point that ultimately the best effort, the highest skill, must win (though "fate" or "luck" may intervene, which makes the drama all the grander).

This is the bond between sports player and sports watcher. They may occasionally forget, but professional players are aware of this, because they were once, as children, as amateurs, on the other side of the fence. Without this bond they know sport is nothing. Ironic then, that when sportspersons deliberately underperform, they are charged with conspiring to defraud bookmakers, rather than the public. Which is to say, the relationship between sportspersons and those who watch them is so abstract that it cannot be framed in legal terms. Matters of money, on the other hand, belong to the real world.

Dishonesty in life is dishonesty in life. Dishonesty in sport is dishonesty in all we'd like to believe about life. Take that away and there's not much in it

A fixing scandal is especially fascinating in that it puts in conflict these worlds of sport, the metaphoric versus the real. The real world of sport has always operated within a gambling den; the challenge always has been to keep it insulated. Eight Men Out, the film on the baseball fixing scandal of 1919, superbly captures this conflict. It shows you that sports players are also disgruntled employees, or struggling family men, vulnerable people with economic insecurities, driven by naked greed or worn down by real-world cynicism, surrounded by sharks.

"I must have made 10 times more betting on you than you did slugging it out," a shark tells a former boxer and tanker in the film. "And I never took a punch."

"Yeah, but I was Champ. Featherweight Champion of the World."

"Yesterday. That was yesterday."

This is the context in which Pakistan's young trio could be seen falling prey to the likes of Mazhar Majeed. We've read about it: the poor payments, the humble backgrounds, the meagre education, the short professional careers. Over this the lack of playing opportunities - an indictment of Pakistan, its most talented citizens denied a right to a living because of the state's failure to safeguard visitors.

Yet, as Chicago's baseball conspirators found, it is harder than it seems to take the money and run. Once in the mouth of sharks it is almost impossible to ease out. Like it says in the film, "What you going to do, tell the cops?"

More harrowing still is the struggle with one's own conscience. Sportspersons know sport, they feel it. Well into the fix, one conspirator says to another:

"I don't care about the money."

"Yeah," his team-mate concurs. "Peculiar way to find that out, ain't it?"

The eight players of the Chicago White Sox were found not guilty in a court of law. Yet, each - including one who did not accept a cent, did not underperform, simply was privy to the dealings - was handed a life ban by Judge Landis, appointed as baseball's first commissioner, tasked with restoring public confidence in the sport. That is, like Azharuddin, they were deemed okay for the world, but not sport.

Severe action against Pakistan's beguiling young talents, therefore, would not be exceptional. Dishonesty in life is dishonesty in life. Dishonesty in sport is dishonesty in all we'd like to believe about life. Take that away and there's not much in it.

Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, if corrupt, could become political leaders or business tycoons. But I'm not sure if cricket can afford them.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 14, 2010, 16:26 GMT

    Pakistan is in a Turmoil. These Young crickets are in a state of mind that if they dont capitalize on the opportunity given, they might never have another. I mean its easy to sit infront of your PC in comfort and talk about these Players to be Evil but we are not in there shoes thus we dont know. The problem is PCB organizational structure. Come On,seriously, Cant you see Khan has been banned and PCB does not have a valid reason why and you expect other players to feel secure in this.

    Pakistan is a different world Sir, Instead of us sitting here and trying to figure out a way to cut there 1 source of income, we can think of ways to Provide them security thus they wont do it. Talk about how to get rid of the corrupt PCB Chairman etc..

  • B on October 13, 2010, 14:15 GMT

    This is sophistry and pretty crude sophistry at that. A child can see that the logic is forced and hollow: if money is the exclusive domain of the real world, what exactly does cricket run on? And I don't just mean the pimps who run the IPL or the sanctimonious high-and-mighty ECB in bed with the Texas billionaire but all professional cricket. Just try and reflect on putting aside your Pakistan-bashing instincts honestly, for once, and perhaps you might just see what I mean.

  • Khu on October 12, 2010, 16:44 GMT

    I agree with Khurram Sarwar, as so many times there have instances that British athletes were banned, media here, somehow showed them respect and they were taken back into the sports after their ban was over so what's the problem, however, personally I believe that anybody that gets caught and is proved guilty, should be banned, after all it's a cheat. Any way good luck to the trio till they are proven guilty. And Rahul is trying to make a point which should not be taken personal by any countrymen, he mentioned Indian cricketer first. Thanks all for sharing.

  • Mohammad on October 12, 2010, 15:37 GMT

    Mohammad Asad from USA......... let's wait for the verdict regarding Pak trio......... Dishonesty is dishonesty -- whether in sports, politics, business etc..... Azhar ( now member of parl..) is exception in politics..........

  • sonny on October 12, 2010, 14:18 GMT

    Just because Azharuddin got a life ban are you suggesting corruption in cricket was outrooted in india, or that Hanse put his hands up no one else was doing it at all, the australians are at it big time and the rest of the cricketing world and india is a leader...........the big boys of betting are dotted all over india so to keep on having a go or dig at Pakistan as if your on some crusade or mission to try and prove a point. yes what they did is absolutely wrong and i condemn them but as a writer your trying too hard against Pakistan alone and not trying to find a solution or the unlying problem....banning players well as you mention it has been done before but has it worked?.....the answer is clearly no as its been happening for years just that no one got caught and its still happening as we talk surely.

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2010, 12:07 GMT

    I do believe the words are being misinterpreted. Corruption in the real world is as unacceptable as it is in sport: however, sport needs to ensure that it does not make the mistake of accepting it like gets accepted in real life. The real world has already made a mockery of the whole system; let it not happen to sport as well, for sport remains, so far, largely clean. That forms the basis of this article - that sports, being clean, allows people to look at it, aspire to it, and forget real life for a moment. The moment this is lost, sport will be lost as well.

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2010, 11:43 GMT

    Battacharaya is very right. How many politicians get outsted before they been caught filling their pockets and after a term by someone else they be re-elected. This is happening in Mauritius. Same alternate person again and again. So why couple of no balls get a talented youngster like Mohammed Amir ban for life. Unfair don't they.

  • Dummy4 on October 12, 2010, 4:40 GMT

    this is another lame attack on Pakistan's cricket by an Indian who just want to see Pakistani cricket vanish. the article is biased in itself, why cricket cannot accept the trio back. In any other sphere of like or game if you wish have been riddled by cheaters and players who did wrong things and got punished for that, but once the punishment was over they got back competing. The trio has not yet been convicted, so if they are innocent then it would be interesting to see if Mr, Rahul writes an article calling for the ban of English media ? every sin carries a punishment and if the person comes out of that punishment a better person that who are we not to accept it, if they are guilty they should be punished and if they come out of punishment better people then there is no argument of not accepting them. Sports have long known to get people back after offences, of cheating, drugs etc. I am afraid this is another propaganda to dirty people mind towards Pakistan.

  • PATRICK on October 12, 2010, 3:09 GMT

    Both the ICC and PCB need to take a hard line on this. It baffles me how when Afridi bit the ball that all he got was a 2 match ban from 20/20 matches for this and then he was handed the captaincy in the next month. In other sports e.g. athletics, he would have been given a two year ban from all international sport. Whilst the offence may be deemed less serious than match fixing, the principle is the same.

  • ahsan on October 12, 2010, 1:07 GMT

    Since the 1980's England cricket team and the press in England has done everything within their power to unsettle the Pakistani players but sadly this time though they found two Brits of Pakistani origin willing to play along with the set up. According Rahul Batterycharger, these Pakistanis cricketers are guilty even before the UK Crown Prosecution Services determine if there is a case to answer etc.

    Also, I look forward to the Rahul's "unbiased" columns when India visits England next year and his take on the intimidatory tactics of English cricket team, fans and the press. Especially of the fans when the a decision is referred to the third umpire. Hope he doesn't blame that on the Pakistanis because people of his ilk would love nothing more than to see the back of those pesky Pakistanis from all international stages.

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