Cricket: Paying a hefty price for culture of greed
Pakistan's players suffer in a country where everyone seeks riches, says Osman Samiuddin
Democracy comes and goes in Pakistan, but to the country's cricket it came after the 1978-'79 series against India and, in all its imperfections, it has since stayed. Of the three players at the centre of the spot-fixing allegations, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif are breathing -- and were once exhilarating -- proof.
Before that India series -- more a countrywide party -- the Pakistan side was a closed boys' club, essentially a side from Lahore and Karachi; 38 of the 49 Test cricketers born in Pakistan (as opposed to the 30 born in pre-partition India) who played for Pakistan until then came from those two cities. Cricket was an urban game, given to attracting dandy college boys.
That contest, which Pakistan won, was watched and followed by millions around the land. Television, new to cricket broadcasting, did its thing and took it further; radio, dying out, had already done what it could.
Superstars such as Imran Khan and Javed Miandad were emerging; India was the opponent, but more the enemy: the two had fought a war eight years earlier and not played for 18; money and sponsors were waking up. These were the sparks that lit a revolution.
After that series, cricket opened itself up fully to the country; 121 Test cricketers have come since but just under half from the two cities.
More and more they have come from all over Punjab, the most populous province, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the north-west. The city boy with access to a good college and some money is nearly gone, replaced by many Amirs and Asifs, who come from villages with pretensions of being small towns.
They are not as educated as the players who went before and, even if they were, consider that the public education system ceased producing quality long ago. Asif and Amir, like many others before them, landed up in the big time without connections, without any push and no money, nothing but their skill. That talent was spotted in a system, no matter how decrepit, but a system nonetheless. Both have since made a life for themselves in the big city; if that is not one by-product of democracy, the spotting and rewarding of merit, then what is? This is cricket as the one equaliser in a land of vast disparity.
The standard tale is that they come into more money than their families have seen in a lifetime - and quickly, too. They have more power than players of the past ever did; the modern board administrator is a clown, the modern player a public hero. They have more people watching them. They now need to bling it up. A fancy car, or three, is bought, a big house, maybe one for the family as well, who are also brought to the city. Other celebrities multiply around them. A girl, or three, appears on the scene.
Suits are at them, wanting to put their faces up in brighter lights. Entire entourages grow around them, of extended families and drop-out friends, who have to be fed, clothed, kept and entertained. Muhammad Ali knew about them a long time ago.
These are not unique stories. They are everywhere; ghetto basketballers, working-class footballers, slum-town cricketers. Maybe cricket, currently trying to work out how much money it can make for itself, brings its own context. Money-making has become too serious a business in this business for it to be steered by transparency and accountability.
Perhaps Pakistan brings its own context, too. The impermanency of life here breeds a peculiar hoard mentality: get in quick, get rich quicker because you never know when you will be out forever, from a job, from politics, from a team. Over the last 10 years particularly, rampant consumerism has eaten away at urban Pakistan, which has long been sweet on ostentation in any case. Just having wealth is not enough. Showing people you have it is more important.
Moreover, gambling, even though illegal, is fine by most people. It is, some will argue, ingrained to an extent. A friend conducted a focus group of boys and young men recently on cricket and was shocked to learn that they were happily taking and placing bets on street matches.
And the Pakistan Cricket Board cannot be relied upon to handle an email, so handling the life and career of a boy is out of the question. They will not protect them from anyone; if fans, journalists, politicians and bookies want a piece of a player, the PCB do not get in the way. Neither have players here ever helped themselves; thrice efforts have been made to form a players' association and thrice they have failed. It is the strongest indictment of a culture where every one is out for himself.
Nobody is there to warn young players of the ways of this new world they inhabit, because stardom in Pakistan really is the loneliest pursuit. And maybe it is not even as much about the rural-urban shift as much as it is a class shift, from making money to live to making money for money's sake.
Their place in life, in the grand unwieldy scheme of society, shifts visibly and firmly. Yet too much can be made of their condition and too little of individual greed. Cricketers have come from places much smaller than Asif and Amir, from poorer backgrounds, and gone through entire lives -- let alone a career -- without a scandal to stain them.
Pakistan's players do not get paid as much as counterparts around the world, it is being said. This is true. They have also missed out on the life-changing riches of the Indian Premier League.
But, at 250,000 rupees, 175,000 rupees and 100,000 rupees per month in the three grades of the PCB's central contracts, they are not paid peanuts. They live in Pakistan, not India, Australia or England, and in this country that kind of salary is seen by very, very few.
Add on match fees -- roughly the same again as the monthly retainer -- and on-tour fees, board and personal endorsements, salaries from their first-class sides (which are run by organisations such as banks, airlines and power companies, offering the option of a stable, secure job after retirement), deals with counties and league clubs and now Twenty20 domestic sides, and most elite players really are kings of this land.
This is why the alleged leadership of Salman Butt is the most difficult aspect to grasp. Amir's errors can too easily be explained by his youth and his background, and Asif has previous, having failed a drug test. But Butt?
Whenever there is talk of him it is inevitably of his English-speaking and educated ways. He is a truly urban product, to a degree polished. "He's been brought up well," Bob Woolmer once said of him. Had he not been a cricketer, he could have been nine-to-fiving somewhere and who knows, his floppy locks might have got him into the music gig.
Earlier in his career, on the kind of TV show meant to humanise celebrity, he was asked how he felt, as a big-city boy, fitting into a team full of small-town guys.
The answer was predictably well-judged, designed to cause no offence: "It's great, you learn about the country, its people," and all that. Amir, Asif and Butt being in one team together is probably Pakistan cricket's greatest democratic triumph.
Arguably it is among the country's more significant feats, for in what sphere really do men here stand together regardless of where they come from, what they speak and how much they have?
Typical, then, for such a contrary country that somehow this stands to become one of the greatest tragedies, too.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo.com