March 29, 2012

No sympathy for Amir

All the talk of his naivety doesn't wash: Mohammad Amir must pay for his crime, but he must also be given a shot at redemption

If the spot-fixing saga were ever made into a Bollywood film, you can be sure that the centrepiece will be a hushed scene in which Salman Butt coerces Mohammad Amir. In his interview to Michael Atherton, Amir spoke of being duped in a hotel parking lot, but for Bollywood a more appropriate setting would perhaps be a dark alley. There would have to be a build-up, with sinister camera angles and a creepy musical score, as Butt takes pains to get himself and Amir well away from earshot. Then a whispered conversation would ensue.

The scriptwriter would have to decide how much guilt to ascribe to Amir. In this he or she would hardly be alone, for it is something the entire cricket world has been struggling with. After his confession and conviction, there is no longer any doubt that Amir committed the act. But was he a reluctant and naïve pawn in Butt's manipulative hands or a willing participant eager to cash in?

Ambiguous characters often make for great cinema, so the scriptwriter might get away with infusing Amir's character with tantalising hints of both postures. Yet in real life this would be most unsatisfying. Where Butt carries a perpetual smirk on his face and Mohammad Asif comes across as a bit of a seasoned jailbird, Amir's youth, talent and innocent looks appeal to the nurturing streak within us. We want a precise assessment of his guilt and intentions. We want to read his mind. If he did indeed rush into the spot-fixing scam with excitement and glee and the smell of money overpowering his senses, then we'll spare him no mercy. But we want to be absolutely certain before we take that step.

People keep pointing to Amir's humble background as an explanation for why he might have succumbed to the temptation of quick riches. But corruption is hardly a monopoly of the poor; the wealthy fall prey to it just as much. There are also suggestions that Amir somehow did not appreciate the scale and significance of his act, that the bowling of two deliberate no-balls in exchange for money did not strike him as being particularly criminal. This is laughable, because by the time of the ill-fated Lord's Test, Amir had already been in the thick of international cricket for over a year, having played 13 Tests, 15 ODIs, and 18 T20 internationals.

In fact, like all international players, Amir had been explicitly communicated the ICC's code of conduct by the PCB, and been lectured on it at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore. He had played under the captaincy of Younis Khan, a scrupulously honest role model. If he still did not realise that deliberate underperformance was horribly wrong, it shows callous arrogance, insensitivity and cold-heartedness, not naivety or innocence.

There is no question that Butt was the mastermind. He could have picked others for accomplices - and may well have tried - but in all likelihood he solicited Amir because he sensed the right of kind of permissive ingredients in Amir's character. To understand the psyche of these spot-fixers, it helps to refer to the context of Pakistani society, which is deeply permeated with a culture of corruption. "Innocent is he who does not get caught," go the lyrics of a socially conscious song that is a favourite of local FM stations. The subtext is that there are many visible examples of people who bend the rules, get rewarded, and get away with it. This is probably why Butt's approach appeared attractive and Amir did not rebuff him.

To understand the psyche of the spot-fixers, it helps to refer to the context of Pakistani society, which is deeply permeated with a culture of corruption. "Innocent is he who does not get caught," go the lyrics of a popular song

Amir's mindset is also betrayed by the fact that he passed up opportunities to come clean. He could have confessed right away, called a friend in the media, spoken to someone in the family, opened up to his boyhood coach and mentor. He did none of that. Even during the ICC hearings held in Doha early last year, he chose to plead innocent. He lied well and with conviction.

If we are fair and do not allow ourselves to be charmed by youthful looks and boyish manners, we will not shed any tears for Amir. We should appreciate that he does not deserve sympathy and concessions any more than do Butt or Asif. There should be no lessening of his sentence, no shortcut for his return to international cricket. The value of deterrence in this scenario cannot be underestimated. No stone should be left unturned to ensure that would-be spot-fixers are not seduced by the possibility that they might get away with it.

At the same time, cricket as a sport owes it to Amir to keep the door open for his rehabilitation. In psychiatric medicine there is a fine tradition of drug addicts becoming addiction counsellors after getting treatment. This is an ideal parallel for Amir, in that he could become a crusading champion in the fight against cricket corruption. The ICC, the PCB, and the cricket establishment generally would do well to embrace him as such. Mohammad Amir the confessed spot-fixer, who was once a celebrated heir to Pakistan's fast-bowling dynasty, now going around warning young talent to stay clean: his credibility will be unmatched.

Let us therefore forget about hastening Amir's return to the bowling crease, for he must be fully punished if the gains from the spot-fixing convictions are to have a lasting impact. But we must give him this reforming opportunity to contribute to the health, welfare and future of the game. Amir had ambitions of joining the ranks of Pakistan's grand masters, but this alternative legacy will be no less important.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi