November 16, 2010

The curious case of Zulqarnain Haider

There's plenty in Haider's story that does not compute, but equally there is the fact that he wouldn't have given up his career if his claims weren't serious

A confession: over a week on, little of the curious case of Zulqarnain Haider makes sense to me. Certainly nothing in it makes the kind of sense that much of the British press has made of it. In that simplified, romanticised narrative he is already the sole knight raging against the darkness that engulfs all of Pakistan. It's no fun - and probably not very healthy - to be the cynic, but with more questions than answers at this stage, I cannot buy into this so readily.

Is he really cricket's latest whistleblower? As I last understood the job description, whistleblowers reveal the rottenness of an entity they are a part of, usually at great cost to themselves. Rashid Latif outed several people in his own side in the mid-90s, including the captain. He was a whistleblower.

So far Zulqarnain has outed an Asian man who speaks a little Urdu. To the ACSU: good luck finding him in Dubai, short of neither Asians nor Urdu-speakers. ESPNcricinfo understands the ACSU has not been told a great deal more so far than what Haider has publicly said. This is not whistleblowing yet; this is finding an incredibly convoluted way of reporting an approach by a suspect personality.

The other revelation is concerning a domestic 50-over game from March 2009, and it isn't much of a revelation. Haider was dumped as captain of Lahore Eagles ahead of the game, against National Bank of Pakistan (NBP), because, he says, he refused to pick players imposed upon him. The scorecard has a bizarre, men-against-children look to it. Two players who played for the Eagles hadn't played before and have not played since; one of them conceded 78 runs in three overs. As part of the narrative, this game is thus fixed, Haider faced threats then as he did now and so domestic cricket in Pakistan is crooked; moreover an NBP side with Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Kamran Akmal is a fine bit of clinching evidence.

Why let the truth get in the way of a good yarn, eh? One of the players selected was no cricketer but no fixer either; his father is a local Lahore administrator who desperately wanted his son to play a representative game. It is the kind of forced selection that the subcontinent's domestic- and junior-level cricket is littered with. It is a problem, but of a different type entirely.

The Eagles, incidentally, are the poor cousins of Lahore, the second-string team in which play the second-string talent of the city. They had lost three games fairly convincingly before this one. Above all, the match wasn't even televised, and TV we know, is the oxygen of bookie-dom.

With these kinds of exposés Haider is simply an asylum-seeker, not a whistleblower.

And much else besides should be questioned. Why did he leave updates on Facebook for all to see? And go to a TV reporter first instead of approaching the PCB or the ACSU? That, I find difficult to dispute, says more about Haider than it does about either the PCB or ACSU. The PCB is inept, incompetent, disgraceful, but to assume they may be in cahoots with the underworld is still a considerable leap. And Tim May's argument that the ACSU cannot be trusted to keep secrets is irrelevant here at best. The one thing that is blindingly clear is that Haider is not a man looking for anonymity.

To swat the story away, as some have, on the basis that Haider is no player of significance is to be blind. He was the wicketkeeper, a position Pakistan should know only too well, is uniquely capable of affecting the course of entire matches

Nor did he approach anyone in the team. It's been easy to forget over the last few months that there remain characters in and around Pakistan cricket untainted by such muck; could not even one, such as Younis Khan, or Abdul Razzaq be spoken to in confidence? Haider says he wanted to protect the team by not telling them. And telling the rest of the world instead protects his teammates how?

Why wait four days and play one game before leaving? Why go to the UK and leave your family in the hands of Lahore police, which as every citizen of that beautiful city knows is in no hands at all? These questions are not to dismiss him or his deeds. These are logical questions that must be asked of a man who has taken a grave step.

Indeed, there is no need to be as dismissive and vindictive as some of the reactions from the rumpus that passes for a cricket fraternity here.

The approach itself is as believable as not. Who would still approach a side under such scrutiny? Or is it simply that the hooks are in that deep? But to swat it away as some have on the basis that Haider is no player of significance is to be blind. He was the wicketkeeper, a position Pakistan should know only too well, is uniquely capable of affecting the course of entire matches. Approaching a wicketkeeper, in fact, makes immense sense. Calling into question his mental health, as the team manager has done, is in outright bad taste.

What little I saw of Haider as a cricketer I liked. He isn't a great wicketkeeper - and the bar has been set remarkably low by Kamran Akmal - but clearly there is something in him that functional teams should like; a little fight, a little heart, something that equates to more than just the parts.

But a significant part of me looks at how energetically he hunts for media attention (and how much of it he has already attracted in a short career) and then to this episode, and does so with real worry and suspicion that none of it may be of any real consequence. Another smaller part can't help but worry why else someone would give up a budding career as an international cricketer if not because of something very serious and disturbing, something of immeasurably greater consequence.

The lack of any real resolution between those parts is the real frustration of the last week.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo