A cleansing process
Is prison a deterrent? Maybe, maybe not - the debate will rage for as long as men are put behind bars. Does the threat of prison make you sing like a canary? Indubitably, if the closing stages of the spot-fixing trial at Southwark Crown Court are anything to go by. Rightly - in the unique circumstances of a case that gripped the world game - the defendant's pleas for leniency fell largely on deaf ears, but not before the enormity of the fate that loomed before them had served to prise open a seethingly corrupt can of worms.
For the best part of four weeks, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif had maintained an air of jaunty indifference in the dock, as they faced down their accusers with the sort of practised ease that comes - one can surmise - from living a lie. At the last, however, their facade was replaced with the haggard, desperate look of men facing the final curtain. Meanwhile the dramatic late appearance of the teenager Mohammad Amir revealed a face as guilty as the plea he had made to Justice Cooke at the pre-trial hearing on September 16.
On the 22nd and most perfunctory day of the trial, the three cricketers implicated in the News of the World sting in August 2010 were jailed for terms between six and 30 months with their agent, Mazhar Majeed, going down for 32. In the short term the game is sure to mourn the loss of yet another veneer of innocence but the overwhelming emotion ought to be one of relief. This feels like the start of a cleansing process, the like of which cricket has been incapable of addressing for the best part of two decades.
Eleven and a half years have elapsed since Hansie Cronje's dramatic late-night phone call to Ali Bacher, four days after it emerged that the Delhi Police had recorded his conversation with the bookmaker Sanjeev Chawla. Either side of that thunderclap, however, the sport has been dogged by half-measures and vague innuendo, from the limited scope of the Qayyum and King Commissions, via the discredited testimonies of whistleblowers such as Don Topley and Zulqarnain Haider.
It is as easy to rail against the iniquities of the many enquiries that have been established as it is to slide your front foot over a white line to order. Sure enough, in Doha earlier this year, another half-measure was brought to bear when the findings of the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit led to five-year suspensions for each of the three implicated players (with further suspended sentences of five and two years respectively for Butt and Asif).
Admittedly, Doha provided punitive action where none had been taken for a decade, but as a deterrent it was lame. However, what the sport has lacked until this seminal moment is a body sufficiently portentous to demand a pause for thought. Loss of livelihood is one thing - there are ways to get round that. Loss of liberty, on the other hand, is a far more powerful incentive to stick to the straight and narrow.
Here at last is the moment at which cheating for monetary gain stops being an in-joke, as acted out by jaded professionals with too many miles on the clock and too few years in which to capitalise on their athletic prime. "The image and integrity of what was a game but is now a business has been damaged in the eyes of all," said Justice Cooke in his closing statement - a damning assessment that ought to have made several onlookers at the ICC's headquarters in Dubai squirm as visibly as the defendants in the dock.
Of course, there will be many reasons to remain sceptical about cricket's willingness and ability to address the cancer at its core, but the dominoes are at last beginning to topple. Whereas Doha was emphatically a dead-end, new lines of enquiry are now opening at every juncture. It was not, as the judge pointed out, for him to decide whether this case represented the "tip of the iceberg" or not - but the ACSU will soon be poring over the same evidence that condemned the Southwark Four, and this time they need to start earning their corn.
After 20 days of drip-fed information in court, the revelations came in a torrent on the 21st - not least from the agent Majeed, whose desire to preserve his liberty persuaded him to shred what little remained of Butt's reputation. The agent's claim that it was Butt who introduced him to the world of fixing sounds outlandish in isolation, except that it tallies perfectly with his original statement in a Gloucester Road brasserie on August 18, 2010, during the original News of the World sting.
"They were the ones who actually approached me," Majeed was recorded as saying at the time. "This is the beauty of it. I was friends with them for four to five years, and then they said this happens. I said, 'Really?'"
Furthermore, he claimed that Asif - whose defence had centred on the fact that no marked notes had been found in his hotel-room - had actually received more than a third of the NOTW bung to prevent him from joining a rival fixing nexus.
That notion demands a blow-by-blow reappraisal of the infighting that has dogged the Pakistan dressing-room for years - as recently as the naked dysfunction that marked their dreadful tour of Australia in the winter of 2009-10, and as long ago as the days of the Sharjah beanos, about which rumours have circulated for years.
Pakistan as a team has long been patronised for its "maverick" tendencies - its outlandish ability to blow hot one day and cold the next, with the transformation sometimes being achieved within a session. What are we to make of all that now? As Wednesday's revelations hotted up, Fareshteh Gati-Aslam, one of the forgotten heroines of the first wave of exposes at the turn of the millennium, tweeted from Karachi: "Paying for the greater sins of their betters before them."
And what, indeed, are we to make of Butt's comments, midway through the trial, when his arrogance was still in full flow, and he was able to talk about cricket in the same breath as the World Wrestling Federation - saying "everybody knows it's fixed but it still has a lot of following"? Perhaps he really believes he's got a point, not least in this day and age when starry-eyed CEOs send out emails extolling the virtues of "cricketainment", and when the sheer volume of contests prevents even the most ardent fans from wallowing in posterity.
The standard cry of the sportsperson is that he or she will give 100% in any given situation - perhaps even 110% if they are prone to hyperbole. The impression given by Butt and Asif throughout the course of their trial was that 90% commitment would suffice, with the extra 10% to be slipped into the back pocket. And, as Butt protested at Lord's on the very day he was busted, in his five-match tenure as captain last summer, he delivered Test victories against both England and Australia. Again, perhaps cricket's unique staccato rhythm lends itself to such Janus-faced ambition. As Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the head of the ACSU, conceded last year, fixing on every level is almost impossible to eradicate.
Such grey areas are sure to endure, and so long as betting remains illegal on the subcontinent, the true identity of cricket's puppet-masters are sure to remain as murky as the $50 billion industry into which these players have been drawn. Nevertheless, thanks to the provisions of the UK's 2005 Gambling Act, a remarkable precedent has finally been set. If Doha were now to be replayed with such a robust legal process laid out before the enquiry, it's unlikely that even the ICC would have missed their opportunity to make proper examples of the trio.
As it is, there's only one way that these players will now be able to rebuild their lives, and that is to serve their time, and then sing like they've never sung before. Other players have already been implicated, and as the sport's rumour mill has been saying for years, the miscreants are not limited to Pakistan. If these men are one day to earn forgiveness in the eyes of their sport, they must be obliged to dismantle the lie they have been living - piece, by piece, by piece.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo