from The Economist, September 2010
Homeless, faction-ridden and riding a losing streak, Pakistani cricket was already having a bad year. But the sensation allegation that its players plotted with gamblers to fix elements of a recent Test match against England has turned a bout of badness into full-blown crisis. Three players have been suspended by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), and could further face criminal charges. If the accusations stick, the national side risks becoming an international pariah. Our leader argues that the plight of cricket in Pakistan is symptomatic of the country’s graver ills.
The diminution of the national cricket team is a catastrophe in its own right. It had already been reduced to a touring side; Test cricket was suspended at home in 2009, following a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore. (The same incident also stripped Pakistan of its right to host matches in the 2011 World Cup.) Making matters worse, teams in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) have stopped hiring Pakistani players. Despite Pakistan’s status as Twenty20 world champions, none of its nationals were selected for the 2010 tournament. Individual IPL clubs said they had been put off Pakistanis by visa difficulties. Rumour would have it that it was political pressure, and not red tape, that got to the Indian owners.
It may be hard to see today, but cricket needs Pakistan as much as Pakistan needs cricket. It is the second-biggest market for the sport after India, and is home to the world’s most fervent fans. The spot-fixing affair ought to provide new motivation for the ICC and the other Test-playing nations to bring international cricket back to Pakistan. Giles Clarke, the chairman of the England Cricket Board, wants to see a plan drawn up for just this. It must include improved security for touring sides. Agents would have to be accredited. (Mazhar Majeed, the man at the centre of the spot-fixing allegations, being a prime example of an unaccredited agent.) Greater attempts must also be made to form a players’ association, such as to foster an ethic of fair play and provide guidance for the young and inexperienced.
The case of Mohammad Amir, a bowler implicated in the spot-fixing allegations, demonstrates the need for something like this. The intensifying search for cricketers of the highest calibre has turned up players from all corners of Pakistan—no longer is the side dominated by men from the wealthier, sophisticated urban centres. Mr Amir has been a regular for the national side since the tender age of 17. His rapid rise, from a village in northern Punjab to universal acclaim in St John’s Wood, has been dizzying even to watch. Perhaps it could help explain even a grievous lapse of judgment. His co-accused, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, have no such excuses. Clubs and managers in other sports have learned, often to their cost, that young players in the spotlight need support and protection. The Pakistan Cricket Board has failed woefully in this capacity.
The ICC must also pick its way through of a maze. Its dilemma is clear: it wishes to give the strongest possible indication that match-fixing is unacceptable, and the most obvious way to do this is to ban guilty players for life. However, to do that could hobble Pakistani cricket for years, and, in the case of Mr Amir, deprive the sport of its most exciting young talent. The solution would be to settle for considerable fixed-term bans. For Mr Amir, or even Mr Butt, a still-sprightly 25, four or five years away from internationals would not necessarily end a career. Yet such punishment, meted without exception, would provide a powerful deterrent.
In addition, clubs in the IPL must be encouraged to consider picking Pakistani cricketers in 2011, as their quality demands. The Pakistani players’ loss of earnings from the IPL’s de facto ban has been suggested as a reason for players’ alleged involvement in match-fixing schemes. In comparison with people who earn the country’s median income, all of Pakistan’s international cricketers look like wealthy men—but not when they are compared with their English or Australian counterparts. Cricket should strive to be a meritocracy off the field, as well as on it. Participation is also a matter of national pride. Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s biggest star and an IPL club owner, described the absence of Pakistani players in 2010 as a humiliation. He has the opportunity to force a change with the next season.
The three players accused of spot-fixing at Lord’s will remain suspended until the ICC concludes its investigation, which is likely to take several months. Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, believes that the trio were set up. If he is proven right, then the players should enjoy a golden opportunity to redeem their names on the field. The Pakistan team is scheduled to tour India in 2011, where it has not been since terrorists attacked Mumbai in November 2008. The series would be of great political and sporting significance, though last week’s developments have done nothing to make it more likely. It will take much diplomatic groundwork to make these matches happen—but there is much for cricket to gain.