Still plenty of ifs for Butt
I realise this is something one really shouldn't admit in a cricketing publication, but I nearly lost a Wisden once. There I was, poring over my brand-new 1969 edition aboard a boat chugging down the rainswept Thames, when the wind suddenly picked up, I lost my grip and it tumbled into the water. Fortunately, my friend's mother, assuredly no fan of flannelled folly, saw my horrified response and plunged in to rescue it. She possessed no other redeeming characteristics that my 12-year-old self could detect, but no matter. Whenever I look at that 106th instalment of the planet's best-known sporting annual, and see its baggy shabbiness, I think of her.
That's why the following confession pains me. Ending a meaningful relationship is never easy, should never be easy, particularly when it stretches back to childhood. Confusion and uncertainty rage, fuelled by that omnipresent threat of regret. Memories reel back and forth, blurring and exaggerating. I may yet recant (perhaps when England next give us a winter to cherish), but, as things stand, I have purchased my last new Wisden. Partly because the game is now covered in unprecedented depth and accessible, quotidian fashion, but also because I've run out of shelf space.
It's not that the yellow brick lacks appeal; far from it. That it is barely recognisable from that 1969 model is both a sign of the times and a boon. For starters, even if we discount the e-book, there are four distinct versions: hardback, softback, condensed (scorecard-free) and large print. Coverage of the game beyond Blighty (and men) has never been so extensive. It is a further measure of changing priorities that Norman Preston's 1969 editor's notes opened with a few cheers for the growing positivity of county cricket, a sniffy dismissal of calls for six-day Tests, and a couple of sections on county imports. Only later does he deign to submit a skimpy two paragraphs on the D'Oliveira Affair. Nowhere does he address its ramifications.
The greatest service to cricketkind and even humankind provided by Lawrence Booth, Preston's latest, worldlier, successor, is his inception of a Hall of Infamy: a list of the 27 players banned in connection with match- and spot-fixing, an initiative urged by this column some moons ago and a welcome addition to the better-late-than-never pantheon. It also makes swallowing Salman Butt's latest plea to the Pakistan Cricket Board all the more arduous.
"It's good that the chairman is making efforts to revive the international career of Mohammad Amir, but he should also do it for others," proposed Butt last week. "When the ban is up, everyone should get an equal opportunity. I am not demanding anything extra." Whether he sincerely believes this is open to question.
Let's remind ourselves of the sorry context. Prior to that fateful Lord's Test in 2010, Butt, as captain, agreed not only to talk turkey with a crooked agent and his pals but to involve his key bowlers, Mohammads Amir and Asif, in the resulting scam. Even if the spot-fixing on this occasion was a test of commitment rather than a bonafide betting sting, the willingness to despoil the game, corrupt others and swindle the audience remains breathtaking in its audacity. Only Amir engendered compassion and sympathy: at 18, he was greeted as an innocent enmeshed in something into which he had naively allowed himself to be lured. Like Butt and Asif as well as Mervyn Westfield, the young Essex quickie found guilty of a similar betrayal, he did time behind bars.
In Lausanne a year ago this week, Butt and Asif's appeals against the length of their bans (ten and seven years respectively, though neither will serve more than five) were roundly rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Asif, it noted, had contested the ICC verdict "mainly on procedural grounds" while Butt "did not contest the liability findings". Amir, by contrast, did not appeal. While Butt and Asif have sought to wriggle their way out of (arguably mild) punishment, Amir accepted his.
Let's not mince words. As the ringleader, Butt occupies the same uppermost rung of the ladder of sporting villainy as another erstwhile leader of cricketers, H***** C*****. Yes, in plotting the game's first significant spot-fixing coup, the latter - or so we were told - was even more unscrupulous, press-ganging his two most vulnerable players: an ageing black fast bowler on debut (Henry Williams) and a young, headstrong coloured batsman (Herschelle Gibbs). True, Williams claimed last year that he and Gibbs had been persuaded by their learned "friends" to concoct testimony to the King Commission that would "nail" his captain, muddying the waters somewhat. On that basis, Butt abused his position even more grievously.
Yet even though the third of his appeals did not seek to overturn the original judgement, it was not until two months after that CAS ruling that Butt, having resisted so stoutly and shamelessly, finally tendered a public apology. As many have observed with all due scepticism, it was far from clear whether he was sorry for what he did or simply that he had been caught.
However, instead of bowing his head, Butt talks longest and loudest of resuming his international career. In this he has been encouraged, admittedly, by Dave Richardson's surprising and seemingly irresponsible revelation that the ICC's impending revised anti-corruption code might ease the "reintegration" of offenders, even to the extent of allowing them to resume playing at domestic level so that they are in a position to return to the game's loftiest stages as soon as their banishment expires.
For the governing body to sanction such a benign change of heart in Amir's case would be one thing; to do so in Butt's case would be both astonishing and self-defeating. The implicit message would be plain: rest assured, chaps - you can start plying your trade again before you've served your time. Can you imagine that constituting a robust deterrent to those contemplating malfeasance? Yet Richardson was adamant: any such revision would apply to all.
There is some moral equivalence between what Butt did and what Amir and Asif did, but they're still poles apart, hence the original length of those bans. That all three will ultimately serve the same suspension already feels scandalously unjust. As captain, Butt was responsible not just for his own conduct but that of his team. Nor could he easily be questioned or disobeyed, especially not by a teenager.
"I said it before and am saying again, that to all those who have been disappointed by my actions I do apologise for them," said Butt last June. "Also, the [negative] effect it had on cricket's integrity, I would like to apologise for that. I want to insist, to all those playing and wanting to play cricket, they must stay away from such wrongdoings because it negatively [affects] them and the game of cricket."
As mea culpas go, this struck me as only marginally less hollow than the 32-second apology proffered in the House of Commons by Maria Miller, who despite the loyal defensive wall erected by her prime minister, David Cameron, was forced to resign as the English culture secretary earlier this month in the wake of revelations about expenses-fiddling. At the heart of both cases lie abuse of power and trust, not to mention the thoroughly modern crime of failing to anticipate public reaction.
Even allowing for the fact that English is not his first language, it was hardly a case of Butt repeating himself: this was his first public confession. His use of "disappointed", moreover, may possibly be the most flagrant example of understatement in a cricketing context since Ricky Ponting deployed the selfsame word to describe his feelings after Gary Pratt made him look a prat. As with Miller, the level of remorse was pitiful.
What galls all the more is that Butt appears to think that redemption will be his merely by dint of insisting, via the media, that players should refrain from such "wrongdoing". How will he communicate this in person? Will he undertake a nationwide school tour, presenting himself as the captain of the national team, who, at a low ebb for his nation's international credibility, was prepared to stoop so low in pursuit of indefensibly gotten gains? Or volunteer his services to the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit? If he is contemplating either, why not tell us? In not even acknowledging that he needs to do a great deal more to regain the trust of team-mates, employers and sponsors - much less that of the paying public - he comes across as a charlatan, a Machiavellian macho man interested solely in furthering his career.
If only he would take a leaf out of Westfield's book. In a video released by the Professional Cricketers' Association last September, having served a four-month sentence in Belmarsh prison, the youngster insisted he was not seeking sympathy. "I'm not trying to tell people to feel sorry for me… because what I've done is bad but not being able to play or coach any cricket is a massive shock for me. I just want to rebuild my life and try and get back on track. If I can give back to anyone - kids, older people, it doesn't matter to me - as long as I can give something back."
Giving something back appears to be the last thing on Butt's mind. Unless that changes, and demonstrably so, he should never darken the game's doors again.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport