Cricket: Hostility raises the stakes

Wasim: Still to face the wrath of a nation
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The Independent Online
MUSHAHID HUSSEIN, Pakistan's slick and slightly rotund Minister for Information, put another chunk of chicken tikka in his mouth and rubbed his belly with his hands. "Our cricket team," he said as he chewed, "have done extremely well. I think it is about time all this bashing stopped. We should be very proud of them instead of giving them all this stick."

Few in this cricket-mad country share his sympathies. When Wasim Akram, the defeated World Cup finalists' captain, steps off his flight from London later this month, he will face an even more hostile reception than that which greeted his nine team-mates when they slunk, shame-faced, back to their homeland late last month and needed 200 armed police just to get them out of Karachi airport. "Kill the traitors," screamed the headlines of one Urdu newspaper.

In the wake of all this a Lahore newspaper reported yesterday that eight players - Wasim Akram, Moin Khan, Ijaz Ahmad, Waqar Younis, Mushtaq Ahmad, Saqlain Mushtaq, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Salim Malik had decided to retire from international cricket in the wake of the allegations.

And yet the worst may be yet to come. Last weekend the Ehtesab (accountability) bureau - the Pakistani government's anti-corruption investigators - announced that they had been asked by the prime minister to follow up reports that several members of the Pakistani team had been living it up in London casinos and bars. The head of the bureau, Senator Saifur Rehman, also confirmed that officials would be looking into allegations that several games - particularly the final against Australia - had been deliberately lost in return for massive bribes from book-makers.

The players know too that a high court judge, appointed by the government last year to look into the match-fixing allegations, has said that he will send his report to the president of Pakistan in the coming weeks.

The judge, Justice Malik Mohammed Qayyum, has told reporters that he is convinced that a number of Pakistani players have taken money in return for throwing games. He has also sought help from Ehtasab. "I have asked them to let me know what information they have collected during the World Cup. I am expecting a reply by Tuesday," he said. "Some of the players are people I really admire. I have been really disappointed." Three lists of names will be presented to the president. The first list will comprise players who the judge believes have definitely taken bribes, the second those who may be innocent and the third those who are definitely blameless. It is likely that anyone on the first list will face a substantial ban.

Around 50 witnesses, including former and current players, cricket officials and four alleged book-makers, have been interviewed by Qayyum so far and, late last week, the judge announced that he was broadening his inquiries to include the recent World Cup. On Thursday his office said that Wasim Akram, Salim Malik and Mushtaq Ahmed would all be summoned for interviews with the judge. Javed Miandad, the team's former coach, has also been requested to give evidence. All the players strenuously maintain their innocence.

Qayyum is known also to want to interview the former fast bowler Ata ur Rehman who has been reported to have claimed that Akram gave him around pounds 4,000 to bowl badly in a one-day match against New Zealand in 1994. So far the judge has found it hard to obtain solid evidence rumours.

For their part the Ehtesab bureau are as interested in the allegations of "merry-making" as they are in any alleged match-fixing. The bureau are particularly interested in speaking to Ijaz Ahmed, who was reported to have been in a casino until 4am on the Saturday morning before the final with two other players. "If it is a case of breaking the management's rules and not keeping curfews and their play suffering then it is a case of bringing the country into disrepute and that is a crime. Their activities may even have involved liquor."

Since Pakistan's humiliating defeat in the final the country has been in mourning. It is difficult to exaggerate what the sport means to the people of this poor but almost neurotically proud nation. "For two weeks we just haven't been able to talk about cricket," said Syed Talat Hussein, of The Nation. "We've been trying to blot it out."

Most Pakistanis have welcomed the investigations launched by the government. "We have to get to the bottom of it all," said Ahmed Hussein, who sells sports equipment in the northern town of Rawalpindi. "If anyone has done anything wrong they must be punished. We have to look to the future."

But few are optimistic. Even the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Khalid Mah-mood, was down-beat despite saying that he expected the national side to be given a clean bill of health. "One can say that some of our people specialise in self-destruction," he said.