When asked by a group of journalists what happens to Pakistan in World Cup games against India, Aamer Sohail's response was immediate. "Nothing happens to them in the ground" he said, followed by a pause, and then, "whatever happens, happens off the field." It's the sort of thing that could have a hundred different meanings, but Sohail's knowing smile and the cackles from the journalists hinted at the one thing any such suggestion, especially by a cricketer from Pakistan's '90s generation, tends to hint at.
Immediately, it became headline news (or "Breaking News", according to the cable news channels), and soon Sohail would respond that he didn't mean what everyone thought he meant; even if the video can now be found under headlines such as "Aamer Sohail hints at purported 'fixing' of India-Pakistan matches." In a vignette, one saw why Sohail is referred to as Sarfraz Nawaz 2.0 (who is not just the boy who cried wolf but the boy who can only cry wolf), but also why the national team will never get this particular monkey off its back.
Pakistan and India didn't play each other in the World Cup until 1992. Pakistan have lost all five head-to-head matches since. Each of those losses has been explained with the same excuse. By 1992, rumours of Pakistan's supposed dishonesty had already taken root in the minds of their fans. But it was really with Javed Miandad and Imran Khan's departures (excluding Miandad's return in 1996) that the floodgates opened. Two of the three most senior players at the time (Wasim Akram and Saleem Malik), and the two who would lead Pakistan in the majority of their ODIs and Tests until the Qayyum Report, ended up with their legacies tarnished by these allegations; the third would stand as one of the few not stained by those charges, and ended up being referred to as Mr Clean in certain circles.
The seven years following Miandad's ousting as captain were defined by these rumours. Growing up in Lahore, every elder you came across would chime in with their own (apocryphal) anecdotes and tales of bookies. Your protestations, were rebuffed by accusations of na vet and childish ignorance. Every injury, every match lost, even a wide bowled as a loosener at the start of a spell, was explained as pure corruption. As the world moved towards professionalisation, Pakistanis kept believing that they possessed the best team (or at least the best individual players) in the world, and that when they entered the field without muddled or crooked minds they'd beat anyone in front of them.
The 1999 World Cup final and the Qayyum Report only reinforced this view, and damaged the relationship between the fans and their heroes irrevocably. A decade later, by the time Akram's foibles had been washed away by the passage of time and he had become the biggest draw in the local ad game, three Pakistani players would be caught for their sins. Every journalist, retired administrator and barber on the street corner had been proven right: this was proof that everyone we had always suspected was guilty, and therefore even the guilty weren't to be treated any differently (and thus Salman Butt ended up being hired as an analyst for a TV station during a World T20, and Mohammad Amir's possible return is celebrated by the majority). The mantra became that if everyone is guilty, then no one is.
The story of this is best told in Osman Samiuddin's book. It is appropriate, and downright depressing, that while every other era in the book is covered by expanding on the greatest victories during that time period, the last 20-odd years are defined by a chapter on the Qayyum Report. A generation of Pakistanis has grown up without the magic that sport provides, without properly dealing with the lowest lows (and so not being able to appreciate fully the highest highs).
And while the last two decades may make for miserable reading, the most disheartening part might be how it has affected the national team's evolution and the fans' psyche. The loss in 1996 to India is explained as being down to a crooked captain not taking the field and Pakistan twice throwing away their advantage. Thus we don't have to deal with the fact that beyond the two Ws there wasn't much in store in the pace department, meaning if one was injured and the other went astray, the bowling suddenly fell apart, or that the middle order was in such a state that a couple of has-beens had to try to salvage the game after a top-order collapse - perhaps the two actual reasons for the loss.
"Pakistan still don't have a quality No. 3, they are still reliant on a couple of batsmen, they don't have any bench strength in pace bowling, and they struggle to rotate the strike"
Or that in 1999, Pakistan's batting was completely reliant on Saeed Anwar and Inzamam-ul-Haq, and if they failed, so did the batting (Pakistan, after all, won only two of their final six matches in that tournament, with Anwar scoring centuries in both). Or that in 2011 Pakistan refused to finish the game off, allowing India to score about 30 runs more than they should have, and ended up with Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq tuk-tuking like they were Miandad and Malik in 1996.
And in the end that's the problem with this mindset. Pakistan still don't have a quality No. 3, they are still reliant on a couple of batsmen, they don't have any bench strength in pace bowling, and they struggle to rotate the strike: all of their problems in previous World Cups have combined and exacerbated. You can't treat an illness if you refuse to diagnose it, after all. The problems in Pakistan cricket come from a domestic system that fails to provide adequate players for the highest level; they come from a cricket board that earns a fraction of what it should, considering its status in the country, and thus invests far less in the game than it ought to; they come from a group of players and management where when it comes to ODI cricket the conservative option is to be 20 years behind the world and the aggressive option is to be ten years behind.
When fixing becomes a crutch to hold on to, all other problems are washed away. Across the Radcliffe Line, India too has had its fair share of fixing scandals, banned ex-captains and questionable administrators, but the defending champions could rightly enter this World Cup as one of the favourites. Yes, the societal and economic factors can't be excluded from any such discussion, but perhaps the lack of obsession with fixing might also help in this regard?
But I digress. The situation now is that Pakistan have lost ten of their last 13 ODIs since Saeed Ajmal was reported (including three under Shahid Afridi's captaincy). Perhaps it's time to move on from quick fixes and actually deal with the problems at hand.
Or perhaps not. Instead, when Pakistan get knocked out in the World Cup, it'll be because they were crooked. The easiest excuse will be brought forward again and so the cycle will restart. On to 2019 then.