Butt of all the critics – or the devil incarnate?
Captain is charged with playing fast and loose but he seemed the ideal choice
Until a week ago, Salman Butt was simply another cricketer. He had good days and bad days, had never quite fulfilled himself as a batsman and had entered our collective consciousness this summer only because of the determined dignity he appeared to bring to the captaincy of Pakistan, a position to which he was elevated because they had run out of options.
In the past seven days, Butt has become the devil incarnate, the symbol of all that is wrong with the game at large and Pakistan in general. Nothing has yet been proven against him or the other two players who have been suspended while the International Cricket Council conduct an inquiry into their alleged misdeeds. Suffice to say, it is not looking good.
Within a day of Butt being incriminated in an explosive report in the News of the World last Sunday, it was revealed that he was already being investigated by the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit. That was not the case with Mohammad Aamer, the 18-year-old fast bowler, for whom widespread sympathy was expressed, as if he was Butt's plaything.
Mohammad Asif, the other extremely accomplished bowler and the third player to be provisionally banned, has some previous form. On several occasions he has been caught up in illegal drugs, both performance-enhancing and recreational, and he was one of two Pakistani players (the other being Shoaib Akhtar) sent home from the 2006 Champions Trophy in India after they failed dope tests.
All of these players and their colleagues have been made fully aware of the contents of the ICC's anti-corruption code and the penalties for transgressions. Indeed, the quietly impressive new head of the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said their responsibilities would have been made clear not just once but three or four times. He also firmly believes that match-fixing is still "most, most improbable" and that spot-fixing is the curse that must be wiped out.
But still it is Butt who has been seen as the baddest bad guy as the story has unfolded in the past week. It might take some doing but he has been compared unfavourably with Shahid Afridi, whom he replaced as Test captain. Afridi resigned in July after one match, when Pakistan lost the first of two neutral Tests to Australia.
Always tempestuous and frequently on the wrong side of the cricketing law, Afridi was last in trouble during the winter, when he was seen wrapping his teeth round a ball to try to alter its complexion and induce reverse swing. But Afridi, it is being said, has cheated so his side can win; Butt, however, is charged with more heinous misdemeanours – playing with the state of the game seemingly without regard for how they might affect the course of the match.
Aamer and Asif are accused of having bowled no-balls to order in the Fourth Test against England at Lord's with the collusion of Butt. The newspaper that exposed them did so by paying £150,000 to a middleman fixer, Mazhar Majeed, the owner of Croydon Athletic Football Club among other business ventures.
Majeed was arrested by police and later bailed. He claimed to have seven players under his control but so far only the trio of Butt, Aamer and Asif are being investigated both by police, who may or may not bring criminal charges, and the ICC, who have laid a variety of charges under article two of their anti-corruption code. If the righteous hand-wringing of their High Commission in London is to be accorded plausibility – they smell conspiracy against their country – they could soon come to represent the wronged "Pakistan Three".
As soon as Butt was appointed as captain he seemed the perfect man for the job. In English eyes, it is true, or at least journalistic eyes, this was partly because he speaks well-modulated English. But he also brought a certain statesmanlike quality.
He talked earnestly of the dreadful position of his countrymen and the havoc wreaked by the floods, of how the performances of the team in a cricket-mad country could help ease their troubles. The eyes of his compatriots, he said, were on them. Time after time he pleaded for this young team to be given time so they would eventually start winning regularly. If well-placed leaks – and there is no suggestion that they are true – are to be believed, he has been up to nefarious activities for a while. It would be a huge shame on many levels if this were to be so, but it will be difficult to prove conclusively. Most things to do with cricket match-fixing are far from straightforward.
A recent Test match which has been frequently cited as being rigged was Pakistan's catastrophic defeat to Australia in the Second Test at Sydney in January, after they led by 206 on first innings. Four catches went down, it is true, as Australia's ninth wicket put on 124 but it is also true Pakistan kept appealing during that time and twice asked for referrals against the centurion, Mike Hussey, that were struck down. The top scorer in Pakistan's first innings, which gave them their ascendancy, was Salman Butt with 71.
When Pakistan were defeated by Australia at Lord's earlier this summer, knowing voices were raised at their wretched batting in both innings. But the top scorer twice, with 63 and 92, was Salman Butt.
Whatever the fate of Butt – and if the ICC commission finds him guilty of taking money and spot-fixing, a life ban is probable as a statement of intent – the last week has brought deeply unwelcome attention to cricket. Nobody was sure match-rigging, or at least spot-fixing, had gone away, but nobody quite wanted to concede that it may still be rampant. Indeed, the ICC insist that it is not.
It has been too easy to overlook the players themselves these past few days. But if the vast majority of them are clean – and they are – then it may be worthwhile listening to them. One idea that will be floated to the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations is that an amnesty might be declared and that players be encouraged to come all and tell the lot – with anonymity and freedom guaranteed. It might just work.
It might, who knows, be too late for Butt. He has come a long way from the seven-year-old kid in Lahore who was inspired by the World Cup win in 1992 and went on to shine at maths, physics and chemistry but wanted to know only cricket. Perhaps too far.
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