Pakistan's Amir experiment a lesson for cricket
The Pakistan team in New Zealand is smack dab in the centre of an experiment like no other in cricket. They have in their midst a team-mate who, along with two others, served time in prison for accepting "corrupt payments" relating to a match and being part of a "conspiracy to cheat" his colleagues and the paying public.
The selection of Mohammad Amir for the tour to New Zealand meant that Pakistan have had to welcome into their dressing room someone who rooked them five years ago. It was as if the players and staff were given high-quality gear and told they absolutely must wear it even if it was uncomfortable and abrasive.
How do cricketers and team-mates handle what they have been dealt? The line between perpetrator and wrongdoing, once stark and established, must suddenly be completely erased. It is the senior men who must now guide the rest to work with the prodigal, a teenager who once duped them and disgraced their entire cricketing community. Amir himself must offer proof of a repaired integrity and earn afresh the faith of those in the inner sanctum, where he has been allowed in again.
Cricket finds itself at a key intersection on this twisting road through sporting retribution, remorse and redemption.
Talking to current and former players and support staff from several countries about Amir's situation is to be reminded of the complexity it contains - in human equations, man management and team psychology.
Shahid Afridi, Pakistan's T20 captain, and Misbah-ul-Haq, the Test captain, made the first moves. In the eyes of the wider public, Amir has his age and ability working in his favour. Contrary voices, particularly those of Mohammad Hafeez and ODI captain Azhar Ali, were forceful in their protest against Amir's inclusion. They felt what Ramiz Raja called the "pangs of betrayal".
Former Pakistan fast bowler Aaqib Javed has experienced the debilitating rage and bewilderment of betrayal twice over. In 1999, he deposed before the Qayuum Commission investigating the match-fixing allegations in Pakistan, and paid the price for speaking openly about some of the biggest names in his team: Saleem Malik, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis. Aaqib's playing career with Pakistan ended early and abruptly.
As coach and mentor, he watched Amir and Mohammad Asif grow as young bowlers, and in 2010 he was Pakistan's bowling coach in the Lord's dressing room when the News of the World story broke.
An intelligent, thoughtful man, Aaqib now coaches UAE. His deposition before the Qayuum Commission cost him treasured cricketing friendships that have taken 15 years to return to what he calls "talking terms", and have been replaced by "professional relations".
But he is steadfast about his stance on the issue and has no regrets. "Not at all… there is a point in your life where you have to say yes or no, and I did that," Aaqib says. "I'm one of those people who doesn't like these things. I have no problems with others who have a different point of view. This is the way I am."
Was he questioned by his team-mates about talking to Qayuum? "I was asked, 'Why did you do that to us?' I said, 'Look, there are things in life about which I can't even spare my father.' That's my point of view."
He is unamused by the fast-tracking of Amir, understands what Hafeez and Azhar feel, and wants them to find a way out of the rage and frustration. "They felt this is not right, but at the end of the day, you are not the ones who made the decisions," Aaqib says. "While they can have their point of view, they have to respect the decisions made." It is how he has made peace with the contradictions and compromises that thrive in cricket.
Waqar, now Pakistan's coach, is tackling a dressing-room situation that no other international coach has handled before.
One of his colleagues says: "For those who have played with Amir, you can understand if people say that I don't ever want to play with that person again. You put yourself on the line and some guy in your team is going the other way. [But] if you've done your time, you've done your time. At the end of the day they are young kids, they make mistakes."
What Pakistan need at the moment is a leader or a strong senior group to maintain the team's internal equilibrium. "It's a trust issue," says the coach. "The leadership has to look at that very seriously. The player has to earn it again, the team has to be given time to feel it again. No matter how good the returning player is, you do want a happy team. It's a balancing act."
To start with, clearing the air helps: "Whatever issues there are, they have to be out in the open, talked through and everyone's got to say, 'All right, we'll start again…' If that isn't done, it's not going to be a very happy changing room," he says. "You can't have any skeletons in the closet."
This Pakistan cricket experiment is like no other. Nothing comes close, certainly not the Indian experience in 1999-2000. After former captain Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, the latter one of the one-day superstars of the '90s, were banned by the BCCI for their role in the betting and match-fixing scandal, their former team-mates say they were relieved they didn't have to face them in the dressing room again.
Their anger and sense of being stabbed in the back has diluted over the past 15 years. In the interim, the case for the banned players was made under a set of specious arguments: People commit worse crimes and they don't get punished. He didn't kill anyone, are you going to hang him? You won't even shake hands? At one point they didn't. What has been restored today is a rudimentary formality.
"Initially it was awkward, but not anymore," says a former Indian player. "Now it's fine." They remember being friends, they remember matches and what "Azzu" was able to do at the crease, and the pain of its aftermath.
"It is just something that is there in you," says another. "But you learn to detach yourself, you treat it professionally. You shake hands, say formal things and it's over. After all, they are not going to come back and play."
Across the border, Amir already has, and Asif and Salman Butt may well do so. Aaqib believes there should be no difference made between Amir and the other two, using youth and ignorance as a crutch. He offers an analogy: "If someone working for a particular bank was caught for corruption and went to jail, would he come back to the same bank? To me, it's difficult. But if you are letting one guy into the team, then there should be no problem with the others."
We can argue till the moon turns blue whether Pakistan cricket's reinstatment of a player found guilty of corruption is the only way or the best way to dealing with corruption in cricket. Yet, now that we have got here, Pakistan's unique case has offered up a glimpse of a possible middle ground. It lies in the confessional, in the acceptance of wrongdoing.
"Just from the outside," says the first Indian player, "these guys said, we are sorry, we made a mistake. For us, nobody admitted anything. They said, 'I haven't done anything wrong, it's a conspiracy.' So nobody has learnt from that episode. In the case of these guys, it's uncomfortable but there's the confession, and at some stage, you will feel we need to move on."
More than a legal gambit or a PR tactic, apology and remorse have the power to work at an instinctive level. It is where the righteous defence of "he didn't kill anyone" can actually have an effect. Had Hansie Cronje lived longer, who knows what cricket would have discovered about itself.
Despite a career scarred by corrupt team-mates, it is Aaqib's disposition that contains guidelines for conflicted minds in the game. He laughs. "I don't want to be the enemy of everyone in the world. You can't protest and leave your cricket and your coaching and turn away because you thought people should live in a particular way and that was the way it should be. It is not."
His words speak of cricket's own capacity for redemption. "In families, you have good brothers and sisters and bad brothers and sisters, but it doesn't mean you run away from home."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo