The sorriest aspect of the spot-fixing allegations against the Pakistan cricket team is not how appalling they are but how believable. When Hansie Cronje was caught by the short and curlies 10 years ago and fessed up to fixing, there was genuine horror and disillusionment. Tough-as-tungsten Hansie on the take: whoda thunk it? At the sight of a soft-spoken man in a hoodie behind a growing pile of cash explaining the whys and wherefores of no-balls in a Lord's Test, one's first reaction is: yep, that'd be right. Cricket is so filthy rich, ethically disoriented and atrociously administered that nothing comes as a surprise anymore.
Insert boilerplate here: the evidence against Mohammads Amir and Asif is damning but not proven; it scratches the surface of a complicated issue; it involves the boasts of a man with reason to boast. But somewhere along the line, cricket has gone beyond satire. Suraj Randiv bowls a no-ball on the spur of a moment's pique, and is vilified; when players are accused of cashing in on deliberate no-balls, there's no scale left on the moral outrage-o-meter.
This inherent believability of the charges should give us all pause. After all, on what grounds are we entitled to have believed that the Pakistan cricket team was secure from corruption? President Asif Ali Zardari is a multi-billionaire known as Mr Ten Per Cent for his sticky commercial fingers. Pakistan's institutions are being overwhelmed by multiple, overlapping crises, now exacerbated by a natural disaster of horrifying proportions; a general sense of every man for himself prevails. The country's hopes of hosting an inbound cricket tour do little but dwindle, thanks partly to the security situation, partly to a board of control that could dissolve into factions over the flavour of cordial at a drinks break. Poorly paid, poorly led, chronically insecure Pakistani players surrounded by paranoia, cynicism and nepotism would seem absolutely ripe for the plucking, especially when the Indian Premier League, from which they are barred, is making such a mockery of relative rewards. To some players, going flat out in a Test match must seem kinda daggy and uncool, given the instant riches obtainable from Twenty20 mediocrity.
Fixing results is rightly viewed as the most heinous of sporting offences. Fundamental to any game, observed the sociologist Anatol Rappaport, is the "assumption of similarity" - the idea that "one's opponent intends to win if he can", will be influenced by "similar considerations" and the "same kinds of strategies". Spot-fixing, at least on the face of it, is qualitatively different to the actual doctoring of outcomes, closer on the continuum of malpractice to insider trading than outright fraud and/or embezzlement. And just as some in the securities industry are known to regard insider trading as a "victimless crime", spot-fixing is not so obviously a blot on honour as playing dead for dollars. After all, the losers if a spot is fixed are illegal gamblers punting with illegal bookmakers - and who cares about them?
The problem is, as Lady Macbeth found out, that spots don't rinse easily. Spot-fixing is a calculated deception; in order to work it has to be. But when sensed to be a factor, it casts doubt on the integrity of every surrounding event. And once a player has known sin, as it were, he makes himself a target for more elaborate malfeasance. The players compromised in the 1990s were usually sucked in quite casually, then implicated in scenarios from which extrication became more and more difficult. If News of the World is to believed - and there is admittedly a certain novelty involved in using that expression - results were not beyond the fixers' ken.
In the comparison of the first fixing wave a decade ago with this latest version, one should not ignore the changed context: the climate of "easy money" and unquestioned entitlement in which cricketers are now brought up. No sooner has a modern player emerged these days than he is being plied with commercial "opportunities", to promote this product or that, to endorse this little programme or accept that itty-bitty payola - opportunities, however commercially defensible and sanctioned by custom, to effectively lie for money. This car is great! This drink is cool! In such schemings, of course, there will invariably be involved a so-called "agent", taking a cut for at least purporting to "look after" the player's interests. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Pakistanis' travails is that that the inducements are alleged to have come through a trusted intermediary, Mazhar Majeed, also responsible for the team's various commercial arrangements: a lazy, na ve or debauched mind might well have failed to distinguish between the different categories of "sponsorship".
"No sooner has a modern player emerged these days than he is being plied with commercial "opportunities", to promote this product or that, to endorse this little programme or accept that itty-bitty payola - opportunities, however commercially defensible and sanctioned by custom, to effectively lie for money"
The sad fact is that a certain kind of personality will always be susceptible to illegal inducement, especially if such inducements fall into the category of "easy money", in which nobody really gets hurt, and not much harm seems to have been done. And from this it can be inferred that the security measures the ICC took 10 years ago to quarantine international teams from potential corrupters, however well-intentioned, were bound to fall short of fixing fixing. They bought cricket a decade to clean itself up, which was valuable in the short term; by acting cosmetically, lending the appearance of integrity rather than achieving its actuality, they might prove to have been counter-productive in the longer-term. Because it remains the case that a player willing to sell his services will find buyers whether allowed to use a mobile phone in the dressing room or not. Where cricket really needed to act, meanwhile, by inculcating a culture protective of the game's welfare, it has failed abjectly; if anything, the fast buck mentality and constant moral improvisations of administrators have conduced to the opposite.
The maladministration in Pakistan that leaves not just financial holes in balance sheets but bullet holes in team buses is just the beginning. In the last two years, two member boards of the ICC (West Indies and England) have gone guilelessly into partnership with a businessman whom the US Securities and Exchange Commission has since called "a fraud of colossal proportions". Two other member boards (Zimbabwe and South Africa) have had forensic accountants called in to examine their financial irregularities, the findings in both cases not seeing the light of day. Sri Lanka's former captain Arjuna Ranatunga claimed last month that "the money from TV rights deals" in his country had been flowing "into the pockets of some individuals"; nobody bothered denying it.
The BCCI can claim at least to have taken action against an administrator for the dubiousness of his dealings, the irony being that Lalit Modi, for all his sins, real and imagined, was arguably its ablest officer. The ICC's idea of a good day's work, meanwhile, is mooning John Howard. Corruption has become cricket's gravest challenge, and it neither begins nor ends with the Pakistan cricket team.