Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A harsh lesson for Pakistan to learn

Predictably the conviction of Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif on cricket corruption charges is producing hurt, bitterness, resentment and embarrassment in Pakistan. Former cricketers have appeared on television saying it is all a matter of shame. Fans are angry Pakistani stars have been ensnared by the British legal and penal system.

These are natural emotions provoked by unprecedented events, but sometimes you have to chop off a gangrenous limb to save a life. Losing the limb is painful, even debilitating. Yet it must be done for survival. Pakistan's convicted spot-fixers represent the gangrene that had been eroding the fabric of Pakistan's game. It hardly seems a coincidence that, following their exit from the team, Pakistan's fortunes on the field have improved.

Just as the salvaged patient and his family need to be grateful to the surgeon who performs the amputation, Pakistan cricket and those who love it owe a debt of gratitude to the News of the World and its clever investigative team. Were it not for this now-defunct tabloid's brilliant sting, we would still be in denial.

Over the years, several other cricketing names have been implicated in the treacherous schemes of rigged cricket outcomes, but prior to today nothing had been proven in this manner. South Africa captain Hansie Cronje's being convicted resulted from a confession, not prosecution. By far the most important reason why Butt and Asif are now facing prison terms is the penetrating quality of the media exposé that brought them down. Pakistani fans who are upset that their compatriots have been specifically targeted should understand that ultimately Butt and Asif fell victim to the weight of the evidence against them, not to any kind of national or other form of discrimination.

Corruption is notoriously difficult to establish. At one level this means that whatever is proven in a court of law, like today, represents the tip of the iceberg. Judging from the copious amounts of hearsay and innuendo related to match-fixing and spot-fixing that cricket followers have experienced in recent years, it could be a very large iceberg indeed. They may be the only ones who have been caught, but it is likely Butt and Asif are not the only ones involved, and this is surely not the only instance.

A major benefit of this guilty verdict is its value as a deterrent for would-be fixers. Butt and Asif are crooks on a grand scale, and must be sentenced and stigmatised accordingly. Granted they are not murderers or violent criminals, but they heartlessly trampled the innocent expectations of a hopeful nation. That is a close second.

The fight against corruption in cricket is far from over. In fact - with due respect to the ICC's ACSU and other related efforts to date - it has quite possibly just begun. Implications of the verdict against Butt and Asif are multiple and far-reaching, starting with the paradigm shift that corruption in cricket is no longer just a conspiracy theory. Take a moment to let that sink in. We have cherished cricket as a gentleman's game and revered it as a metaphor for morality. It is neither. Yet berating cricket as a sport would be the equivalent of blaming the victim of a rape. The fault lies with corrupt players and the corrupt bookies who entice, seduce and mislead them.

It is fortunate that the dynamics of the situation have taken the matter out of Pakistan's hands. Pakistani Test cricketers are about to go to jail in a foreign country for something they did on the field of play. This is not something you can brush under the carpet

Significantly this verdict provides an opening into the demand side of spot-fixing's supply-demand equation. So far all the anti-corruption hoopla from cricket administrators has focused on the dishonest players who provide the spot-fixing services. The crooked gamblers and shady punters who have created such an overwhelming demand for these services have been left untouched. The ICC and its member cricket boards now have an ideal opportunity to expand investigative probes into this murky betting underworld. They will have at their disposal powerful global entities such as Interpol, as well as local law enforcement agencies in all the Test-playing nations. At the core of rigged cricket betting is an engine of organised crime. It must be searched out wherever it exists, and it must be killed. And safeguards must be put in place that provide the game with enduring protection from this evil. A good deal has already been done in this regard, but Butt's and Asif's guilt reveals that it has not been enough.

Pakistan cricket has proved itself to be resilient before, and in all likelihood will do so yet again. Since the forfeited Oval Test of 2006, this team has suffered doping scandals, petty administrators, a coach found inexplicably dead in his hotel room, terrorism against a visiting team, and - for the foreseeable future - inability to play at home. The team's upswing following last year's infamous Lord's Test, when the spot-fixing disgrace initially broke, suggests it has moved on.

This is a welcome sign, but it comes with a critical caveat: nothing is to be gained by moving on unless there are lessons learned. In a sense it is fortunate that the dynamics of the situation have taken the matter out of Pakistan's hands. Pakistani Test cricketers are about to go to jail in a foreign country for something they did on the field of play. This is not something you can brush under the carpet. It is a lesson that will be learned, even if forcibly. Circumstances leave little choice.

Apart from Butt and Asif, other Pakistan players have been named. None of them is currently in the team. Depending on the continuing fallout of this ongoing crisis, they could remain sitting out for a long time, perhaps forever. Pakistan cricket is lying with its underbelly bared in the blinding glare of spectator attention and media spotlight. Forget actual wrong-doing, this team cannot risk even the remote perception of wrong-doing. That, if nothing else, promises to keep tricky behaviour in check. That can only be good news for Pakistan cricket and its fans.

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