In praise of zero tolerance
So Mohammad Amir has been released from Portland Young Offenders Institution, where he had been incarcerated for the not-obviously heinous crime of deliberately overstepping and the palpable one of fraud. To say emotions were mixed in deepest Sussex would be an understatement akin to saying Simon Cowell is partial to opening his mouth.
One half of me, the forgiving, paternal, life-is-not-black-and-white-but-beige-and-grey half, can't wait to see that benighted young man take the new ball for Pakistan again: saturnine mane flapping, elbows wagging, pitching leg and clipping off as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I want to see that smile again, that guileless expression of youthful joy. Teenage world-beaters are scarce, especially in a sport as demanding of patience and wisdom as cricket. That's why his misdeeds attracted far more compassion than did those of the captain-whose-name-we-needn't-mention. How fervently we'd hoped it was all a ghastly trompe l'oeil. Say it ain't so, Mo.
Unlike Bertrand de Speville, the other half of me, the monochrome-sense-of-right-and-wrong half, can't help but wonder whether that five-year ban from the game was too lenient. Echoing the almost invariably sagacious MCC World Cricket Committee, the erstwhile Hong Kong solicitor general advocates removing the minimum punishment for acts of on-field corruption, attracting suitably short shift from Dubai: "Certainly there is a risk that to remove the minimum sanctions would be to send the wrong message to those considering engaging in corrupt activity." An extremely big risk.
This is where cricket can learn from baseball. In 1921, eight Chicago White Sox players were tried for throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds (probably the only famous episode in North American history where Reds were the good guys). Their signed confessions, however, mysteriously disappeared, ensuring all eight went free, protecting baseball's jealously guarded image. Whereupon the game's newly appointed commissioner, a flamboyant, garrulous, publicity-hungry judge by the suitably ornate name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned all eight sine die for "consorting" with gamblers.
The "Black Sox" saga penetrated and unsettled the American psyche: for many, it represented the end of innocence, however mythological. Even non-Americans are familiar with the plaintive plea allegedly uttered by a young lad to "Shoeless Joe" Jackson as the great hillbilly hitter descended the courtroom steps in Chicago: "Say it ain't so, Joe." Nearly half a century later, such were the reverberations, came a best-selling book by Eliot Asinof, which in turn begat a 1988 movie directed by John Sayles, both entitled Eight Men Out. Asinof and Sayles sympathised with the players, and justly so, depicting them as ill-paid, mistreated serfs whose nickname reflected the dubious priorities of the club president, Charles Comiskey, who plied the press with booze and fine vittles while deducting laundry bills from salaries.
Cue an important if neglected postcript. In 1924, Jackson, whose peerless hand-eye co-ordination lay in stark contrast to his illiteracy, sued the White Sox in Milwaukee over back pay and a dodgy contract. While admitting having accepted $5000 from the gamblers, he claimed he had wanted to come clean to Comiskey, only to be rebuffed (indeed, Asinof quotes Jackson saying he begged to be benched before the Series began, though no source was cited). What is abundantly clear - and not just because those confessions vanished - is that there was a cover-up. The last thing the baseball mandarins desired in that Chicago courtroom, haunted as they were by other less-publicised betting coups, was a guilty verdict.
That Milwaukee jury believed Jackson, who'd flourished with the bat against the Reds but made a costly, atypical fielding error; 11 of the 12 jurors were convinced he'd given his all. Equally convinced he'd committed perjury in at least one of the trials, the judge overruled. As recently as 1999, such is the intense sense of injustice that continues to attend any mention of Jackson, Senator Tom Harkin attempted, forlornly, to have him admitted to baseball's Hall of Fame (though in 2005 he did persuade the US Senate to honour his feats).
EVEN IF HE DIDN'T PURPOSELY fluff that catch, is it sufficient to defend Jackson because he, and his colleagues, double-crossed the gamblers (the latter refused to fulfil their end of the deal, saw the Sox win three games, then reportedly threatened to kill the wife of pitcher Claude "Lefty" Williams if he didn't stick to the plot, extinguishing the revolt)? Even if Buck Weaver was guilty solely of refusing to snitch (he never took a dime, played beyond reproach, and was described by one of the fixers as "guiltless"), at least six conspirators received their due. Ends justified means. The impact on American sport seems to have been far-reaching and profound.
Sure, there have been oodles of bribery cases in college basketball, and boxing and horse racing have never been renowned for their lilywhiteness, but since 1919 no player in the principal professional team games has incited a match-fixing scandal (admittedly, in 2007, Tim Donaghy, an NBA referee, confessed not only to betting on games in which he had officiated but making decisions accordingly). Such is the enduring dread of any link between baseball and bookies, Pete Rose, holder of some of the diamond's most dazzling records, was banned for life in 1989 for wagering on games while managing - oh, the irony - the Reds.
Zero tolerance is the name of this particular game. The WCC, indeed, has recommended life bans for captains, vice-captains and coaches, though applying such ruthlessness to a sporting sin may still be a step too far for some. If nothing else, one feels decidedly queasy about repeating the soiled mantra of the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in 1993 instituted zero-tolerance policing, slashing crime while unleashing unchecked brutality.
All the same, in this context I'm with the ICC: what counts is indeed the message. And in spectator sport, whose credibility is so utterly dependent on the unwritten but incontestable contract between participants and paying public that everything is on the level and that the former are always doing their best, that message must be unequivocal. Punishment must fit crime. And the greatest crime that can be perpetrated on a cricket field, without actually inflicting grievous bodily harm, is to script the plot. And no, that doesn't drag drugs into the picture: unlike gambling coups, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs cannot guarantee an outcome.
All of which prompts a bouncer many, myself included, would rather duck: should micro-/spot-fixing carry the same punishment as match-fixing? Duck, because it brings us back to that wavering over Amir.
Andrew Strauss is adamant his suspension should not be reduced; needless to add, I'm with him. The only time I contemplate renouncing my unconditional love of cricket is when a close finish rouses suspicion of jiggery-pokery - a knee-jerk reaction, yes, but heartfelt. But in advocating zero tolerance, would I favour extending Amir's ban sine die? Pass. Let's put it another way: if he wasn't as good as he is, and if I couldn't help but attribute his downfall to naivety, malign influence and a disadvantaged background rather than naked greed or cynicism - i.e., if he was someone else - would my response be more assertive? Possibly.
WHICH BRINGS US, INEVITABLY, to the similarly perplexing case of Mervyn Westfield, the once-promising Essex and England Under-19 fast bowler due to be sentenced for spot-fixing on Friday. At the Old Bailey last month, Westfield, now 23, became the first English flannelled fool to be convicted of on-field corruption, having pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to underperform against Durham in 2009. Intriguingly, while Haroon Lorgat contended that imprisoning him "could only help" the anti-corruption campaign, more than 57% of respondents to a Daily Telegraph poll felt that would be harsh.
It may or may not be a measure of Westfield's unprivileged roots that he risked his career for £6000 and boasted of his ill-gotten gains to a team-mate. Tony Palladino duly blew the whistle, then insisted Westfield was not alone on the circuit in his weakness, whereupon the ECB declared a three-month amnesty during which other whistles could be blown without fear of reprisal. According to chairman Giles Clarke a number of players have since come forward, but it's hard not to be sceptical.
A few days later I asked the most principled county cricket alumnus I know whether, had he learned that a team-mate had done what Westfield did, he would have put whistle to lips. He pondered for a few moments then said he wouldn't. Couldn't. But what if he knew that, with a game on the line, a team-mate had intentionally bowled a wide or spilled a catch? Another long pause. The dilemma dulled his eyes. He honestly wasn't sure. He did wonder, though, whether Palladino had left Essex because of the fallout, and worried how he was coping in the Derbyshire dressing room.
Should there be a moral distinction between spot-fixing and match-fixing? It is hard to see why. Agreeing to give your wicket away is much the same, philosophically, as vowing to be out for 19 or fewer (you didn't think I could write about this topic without at least alluding to H***** C*****, did you?). Both involve underperformance and unacceptable deception. Both erode trust where trust must be absolute.
Eerily enough, while I was writing this, I received an unsolicited message from a Test player who was embroiled in a match-fixing saga a couple of years back (he wanted to me to join his network on LinkedIn). When I mentioned the coincidence he declined to rise to the bait. Cue more emotional wrestling.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton