I asked Sarfraz Nawaz once why he thinks every match ever is fixed. The full answer is for another day, though its referential range is worth sampling: Benazir's assassination, Scotland Yard goons, Sharjah, Bob Woolmer, sting operations, and of course government cover-ups.
Finally, having gushed forth names, incidents and amounts, he ended: "You have to see, these are all designed and fixed things. If I see a match, I can see things are fishy. Children say misfield has happened. I see something. The toss, declaring early, you can tell. Sharjah, why has it been banned? These new Twenty20 leagues, what is this? All fixing. What are you talking about?"
It was a little like asking believers why they believe.
Sarfraz is sharper than the droopy eyes let on, especially when talk comes to bowling. But nobody talks to him about bowling. The point of speaking to Sarfraz is to get headlines on matches being fixed and corruption in cricket.
Everyone knows that he speaks mostly without basis. But that has long since ceased to matter, and I don't think it really ever did. If you go through the Justice Qayyum report, you'll not find much hard evidence; many players, ex-players, administrators and journalists speculate lots about hearsay but provide few facts, except a few poor-quality audio tapes and copies of cheques.
Sarfraz has become the medium through which people believe the worst they want to believe, even if the belief is only in passing. It has become easier, more comforting to believe that a match was deliberately lost and move on. Sarfraz has become Pakistan's great comforter.
Two ghosts have haunted Pakistan this decade: Osama bin Laden and the Fixed Match. Neither presence has ever decisively been proved. But someone with only the thinnest veneer of authority has merely to say one or the other exists in Pakistan and watch the ensuing tizzy. Then, having satisfied ourselves neither does, all will be forgotten until the next time someone says it. It isn't unlike watching those experiments where an animal presses a button that inflicts pain on it, only to forget about it and do it again, again and then again.
The deepest scars of the match-fixing years have been left on Pakistan. To be felt properly one cannot regard them just at the level of headline, of which there have been plenty, but look at the population. That a match is fixed has become a casual belief, like the one that says the US, Mossad or RAW is behind all the trouble in the land. Man get out, match fixed; man go slow, match fixed; man drop catch, match fixed; man bowl wide, match fixed; man has money, match fixed.
Nobody is immune, not the sweeper on the street, the boy in the park or the senator or parliamentarian in power. Earlier this year, a boundary was crossed when two coaches of the national side suspected their own players. Like disease, this is transmittable. In India many people will believe some of Pakistan's matches to be fixed. On the evening after Pakistan lost the Sydney Test, two Australian acquaintances refused to even entertain the notion that the match wasn't fixed.
This can be explained. India and South Africa made more or less clean breaks after their investigations in 2000. Sourav Ganguly and Shaun Pollock (and then Graeme Smith) immediately began new, successful eras for their sides as captain. Big existing fish such as Hansie Cronje and Mohammad Azharuddin were banned for life and smaller fish, such as Ajay Jadeja or Ajay Sharma or Henry Williams, were not only punished but never played for their countries again.
The Qayyum report, on the other hand, was a classic Pakistani attempt at inquiry, one which bathes in its ambiguity and smells fresh of cover-up afterwards. Saleem Malik was banned for life, but he hadn't played for Pakistan for over a year. Similarly Ata-ur-Rehman had last represented the country in 1996. The rest, mostly big names, were absolved but in varying degrees. Even now we remain uncertain about the full extent of the involvement, if any, of Wasim Akram, Mushtaq Ahmed, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Saeed Anwar and Waqar Younis.
This left the door open for all manner of speculation, as well as their continued involvement. A number of them played on till 2003. One does occasional coaching stints for the board, and they keep asking for another to come back as a batting consultant or selector. Two became national coaches, two went on to captain Pakistan. The board tried to make one coach of the National Cricket Academy.
The unclear message was that they were guilty, but not totally, but enough to be punished, but not too harshly: only Malik and Rehman got more than financial penalties. When Qayyum told Cricinfo in 2006 that he was lenient with a couple because he had a soft spot for them, it was an astonishing confession. Malik even took advice from Qayyum when appealing against his ban in the Supreme Court.
The main players all hung around and so did the stench that nothing ever really stopped. Naturally then, when Bob Woolmer died in the Caribbean, many people put together two and two - the presence in the team set-up of two named in the Qayyum report - and got five. When rumours about the ICL refused to go away, they were partially fuelled by the presence of the same pair.
That a match is fixed has become a casual belief, like the one that says the US, Mossad or RAW is behind all the trouble in the land. Man get out, match fixed; man go slow, match fixed; man drop catch, match fixed; man bowl wide, match fixed; man has money, match fixed
It goes deeper than that as well, beyond the region's obsession generally with betting. Match-fixing feeds conveniently into a number of traditional Pakistani nerve centres. There is, for example, already a deep-seated distrust of public figures in the hearts of the vast majority of the population. This has developed steadily over the course of nearly 60 years of megalomaniacal leaders, corruption, cultish politics and extreme maladministration.
That a politician, a president, a judge, a policeman, an army general or a bureaucrat is corrupt is, and long has been, inevitable. It is a given. Cricketers used to be above this, but match-fixing simply dragged them down into this already well-built narrative. And once that transition happened, it became impossible to go back to being clean; of course a cricketer can be as corrupt as any of the above, for is he not from this land?
Fixing also fits neatly into our thirst for a good ol' conspiracy theory, and nothing has more currency in Pakistan. Some newspapers and TV channels exist almost entirely on such fuel. Wives conspire against in-laws, employees against bosses, maids against other maids. Banks are, according to TV show kooks like Zaid Hamid, a Zionist conspiracy. The birth of Bangladesh was a vast conspiracy. The USA conspires against us on a daily basis. India is in a perpetual state of conspiracy against us. Attacks within the country's borders - even some outside it planned by Pakistanis - are a conspiracy against the country. Without such conspiracies, the state will fall down.
It is a convenient and cheap way out, and it suits everyone. There is no need to examine deeper causes because denial and inertia are easier than rational, analytical debate. So when Kamran Akmal drops four catches in Sydney, it has to be because he was paid to do it by some dodgy bookie. Unsubstantiated allegations are then hurled about around him. That he is unarguably a terrible wicketkeeper who has been doing precisely this for four years doesn't come into it: Cricinfo's ball-by-ball data from 2006 onwards shows that, at a minimum, Akmal has fluffed 31 chances in his last 25 Tests.
Pakistan's great comforter will happily tell you all those Tests have been fixed if you want him to. And he'll find enough supporters because even those who laugh when they say we go crazy for conspiracies add - with a worried laugh - that conspiracy theories have a way of coming true in Pakistan.
The danger is that
if we believe every match or performance is fixed, we belittle the gravity of it. There have been genuine warning signs regarding Pakistan over the last decade, not least the unexplained social function
on the 2007-08 India tour, which required ACSU interviews subsequently. The ongoing investigation at Essex
, involving Danish Kaneria, is another.
But these should not be treated on a level similar to, for example, the uninformed and baseless allegations Jamshed Dasti made after the Champions Trophy last year, or senators did after the Australian tour inquiry committee, or the media did after a typically blundering Ijaz Butt press conference earlier this year. Perhaps the very point is to numb ourselves hoarse for it when and if it really does happen again.
At the time of the investigations, when I wasn't writing or reporting on cricket, I had to tell myself repeatedly to believe all that I read, even what may have been speculative and false, in order to make some little sense of the wholeness and reality of the mess. Otherwise it felt out of reach, like that accidental strand of hair in your mouth that you can't quite grasp.
It never fully sunk in. And I don't think being here for much of the last decade has helped the actuality of it sink in any further, even if the after-effects are painfully clear.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo