Cricket: Punishment doesn't fit crime in cricket's need for scapegoat
Last Saturday evening, as I left Stamford Bridge, I asked the Asian security man staring ruefully at the cricket on television how the Test match was going. It was a highly insensitive question.
Pakistan were following-on, he said. Body language experts would have told me to leave it there but I kept going, wondering what score they'd made in the first innings. "74," he said, his face reddening with shame as if he were personally responsible. This was the highlight of Pakistan's weekend.
By that stage, the players were already aware of the News of the World story and the police were heading to their hotel. Their lives were about to change.
By the end of the week, Pakistan had added paranoia to the shame when its High Commissioner claimed that the whole story was a plot by the newspaper.
Mohammad Amir's life has changed anyway. He is 18 years old and the most devastating quick bowler most experts have seen for a generation.
Last Sunday, he was named as Pakistan's man of the series. He was handed the oversized cheque by Giles Clarke. Clarke couldn't look him in the eye as he did it. Amir might have wanted to look at the four grand cheque. It was four times his monthly retainer from the Pakistan Cricket Board.
Two years ago, Clarke had no problem looking Allen Stanford in the eye when he landed his chopper on the Lord's lawn with a million bucks in the hold. Everyone was a winner, baby!
There is no direct link between Stanford and what is alleged to have been happening to Pakistani cricket, but there may be, as they like to say, a mindset.
Stanford now sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell as he fights the US government. He had a walk-on part as cricket began its high-voltage romance with money. Stanford was a matchmaker. Now he is among the disgraced. Cricket will gain nothing if Mohammad Amir ends up among them too.
Amir is on £250 a week as the game enriches so many through Twenty20. In January, they burned effigies on the streets of Lahore of the then IPL commissioner Lalit Modi, also subsequently disgraced, after none of the Pakistan players available were selected for the IPL. The speaker of Pakistan's parliament talked of a "planned conspiracy" and again Pakistan was left with shame, anger and paranoia. These are the forces that sustain their genius on the cricket field but also make them self-destructive and combustible.
Giles Clarke's expression as he handed Amir the cheque was ominous. Many have lined up to praise Clarke's role in keeping Pakistan in international cricket following the attacks on the Sri Lanka team in Lahore, but as he shunned Amir, it seemed like there was some old colonial self-righteousness entering the story.
Punishing Mohammad Amir would be a greater betrayal of cricket than allowing him to go free. It would be an act of cynicism, the conscious pursuit of a scapegoat, as even banning Amir for life may not provide a deterrent.
There is too much talk about redemption in sport -- a player's return from a hamstring injury, the overthrowing of a speeding conviction is told as if he has seen the light -- but Amir should at least be given the chance to mess up again.
"We have two lives -- the life we learn with and the life we live with after that," a character says in The Natural, Bernard Malamud's novel about baseball, corruption, life and man's infinite capacity to spurn redemption.
The context and the reputation of all who have gone before might destroy Amir. In other worlds, they have laughed at similar examples of "spot-fixing". Matt Le Tissier admitted messing up a spread bet when he underhit a kick intended to go straight into touch. He remains available for after-dinner work and inane punditry. West Ham's players did something similar and it was all part of the banter, just another East End jape.
But the News of the World also captured Mazhar Majeed claiming that the Test match between Australia and Pakistan in January was fixed. The footage is not good. It is supposed to be hard for professionals to drop a catch or fail to run make a run-out deliberately and make it look convincing. Over every missed catch or failed run-out, the commentators sounded baffled, just as they were baffled by Amir's no-balls. The players weren't missing these chances convincingly. This, of course, doesn't prove anything.
In pursuit of salvation, last week they summoned Shahid Afridi, perhaps the game's most unlikely hero. Afridi was recently captured on camera biting into a cricket ball, an attempt, perhaps, to demystify the dark art of ball tampering.
Pakistan bring their rap sheet with them when a story like this breaks. One newspaper last week listed 17 current players who have "serious disciplinary issues to address".
Ball-tampering pops up a lot, but ball-tampering divides cricket's new and old world. In many ways, it is honest cheating, an attempt to win the game rather than lose it, or go against the best interests of the team.
It does not subvert the sport like the latest allegations. Other Pakistanis are more complex: Shoaib Akhtar, the Rawalpindi Express, has tested positive for Nandrolone. He has hit a team-mate with a bat which led to a five-match ban, soon extended to five years. He has claimed that the ban was because he refused to pay the then PCB chairman a slice of his earnings. He was sued for defamation as a result of this, then criticised the board for breaching his anonymity when it was revealed that he missed last year's Twenty20 World Cup due to genital warts. So he has form.
Shahid Afridi has form too; he is self-destructive and combustible like all the rest, but he has placed himself in opposition to the only thing that can destroy Pakistani cricket. He is said to have told players to stay away from Mazhar Majeed and have warned the authorities about match-fixing.
He may not offer redemption, or even hope, but there might be a little less shame.