Butt thrown to the wolves as ICC scrambles to restore game's integrity

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In so many ways it was fitting that Pakistan headed west yesterday. That was exactly where their cricket appears to have been going for most of the past decade.

As the team bus left the London hotel where players' rooms were searched at the weekend by police seeking evidence of misdeeds, discussions were proceeding about salvaging something from the wreckage of their tour. The talks, mostly involving long-distance telephone calls between England, Dubai, Pakistan and South Africa, were aimed primarily at reaching a deal to ensure the rest of the programme can still take place.

By the time the players and the back-room staff had reached Taunton, where they are due to play a warm-up one-day match against Somerset on Thursday, there was agreement. The limited-overs matches between England and Pakistan, starting on Sunday, will proceed despite abundant misgivings.

There is too much money involved both for the six grounds concerned and for the England and Wales Cricket Board, whose broadcasting rights package might be imperilled. But there will be compromises. Salman Butt, the captain, and Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, the fast bowlers, who were most heavily implicated in the betting scandal, will be suspended while police investigations continue.

It is not quite a done deal. With Pakistani government involvement, matters could change at any time. The ICC is also desperate for the integrity of the game to be restored and for the confidence of the public, as the chief executive Haroon Lorgat said last night. How they acquire all that might be an open question.

Asif and Aamer are the pair alleged by the News of the World to have deliberately bowled no-balls in the fourth Test against England at the behest of a fixer, Mazhar Majeed. Butt was reported to be an instrumental part of the plan. He was not due to be captain of the limited-overs team, making way for Shahid Afridi, but he was in the squad. Although Majeed apparently told the newspaper that he had seven players under his control, that trio seems to be a sufficient trade-off.

If there was sympathy for the 18-year-old Aamer, who was named Pakistan's man of the series after the conclusion of the fourth Test won by England by an innings and 225 runs on Sunday, captain Butt was thrown to the wolves. It was revealed that he was already being investigated for previous possible misdeeds by the International Cricket Council's anti-corruption unit.

Apart from the natural sadness that the impressionable Aamer might have squandered his chance of greatness, there is also particular agonising about Butt among those who have followed this tour. He has not been a particularly successful international cricketer and has rarely been sure of his place in the team, as 32 Test matches from a possible 54 and 74 one-day internationals from a possible 122 since he made his debut indicate. So he has not frequently been around to influence matches either in terms of results or spot-fixing.

Butt took over as captain in England when his predecessor, Shahid Afridi, suddenly resigned when Pakistan lost to Australia in the first of two neutral Tests in June. Butt was immediately impressive. Pakistan won the following match at Headingley, to halt a sequence of 15 consecutive Test defeats against Australia.

The new captain conducted himself with a quiet dignity, which was in complete contrast to the excitable Afridi. He talked regularly of the young team and how it must be given a chance to learn from mistakes and of the floods back home. The team, he said, must do it to lift the hearts of the people to whom cricket meant so much.

The general reaction was that Butt was just what Pakistan cricket needed. He seemed calm, fair and a natural leader. All that might still be so and, as he said in his nervous post-match press conference, people could say things but it did not mean they were right.

The trouble is that all this follows hard on the heels of so many controversies involving Pakistan, and now it is open season. Over the years too many of their captains and senior players have been fingered for match- or spot-fixing, nudges and winks exchanged when a close match they should have won has been lost.

A damning report was produced by a senior judge, Mr Justice Qayyum, at the beginning of this decade in which he made sweeping and well- informed accusations against senior players.

Some but by no means all of his recommendations were adopted and several players suspected of match-rigging are still involved in big-time cricket. Mushtaq Ahmed, the former leg-spin bowler, is now England's spin bowling coach following a county career of high achievement. When doubts were raised about his appointment, the questions were treated as an unnecessary and unwanted intrusion. Wasim Akram, the great fast bowler, was another mentioned by Qayyum and he is now a commentator.

Qayyum said yesterday that, although some recommendations had been implemented, the PCB had not been "strong enough" to implement others. "I suggested the Pakistan Cricket Board keep a tight vigil on the players and recommended some of the players should not be given any responsibility in team matters, but some of them are still involved in the team's coaching," Qayyum said. "It took me two long years and I summoned some 52 players and officials, who all accepted match-fixing existed in cricket." Among his recommendations was that players' assets be examined annually. It never happened.

Now there seems a chance to act properly at last. While Lorgat was making the right noises, that has happened before. It was always likely there would be another scandal, whether involving Pakistan, the Indian Premier League or any other (mostly) short-form cricket attracting huge gambles.

Lord Condon, the first head of the ICC's anti-corruption unit, said when he departed in May: "I have spoken to people who have been threatened and others who have alleged a murder and a kidnapping linked to cricket corruption. Twenty20 represents the biggest challenge to the integrity of cricket for probably 10 years. It is that heady cocktail of party atmosphere, cricket and celebrity."

Condon's successor, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, is expected to fly in to England from the ICC headquarters in Dubai this week. It will not be into a party atmosphere.

How the cricket world sees it

*DAILY MAIL, PAKISTAN: 'An act of high treason'

"Once again the nation has been subjected to shame. Once again its honour and prestige have been sold and undermined. Personal lust for money has superseded the national interest. Those who have been involved in this episode of match-fixing drama have committed an unpardonable crime and what they have done is nothing short of an act of high treason, punishable by death."

*THE DAILY STAR, BANGLADESH: 'Pakistan taint cricket again'

The latest allegations will heap further suspicion on cricket in Pakistan, which is already at a low ebb.

*DAWN, PAKISTAN: 'Angry Pakistanis pelt donkeys in protest at fixing'

Protesters in Lahore slapped donkeys with shoes and pelted them with rotten tomatoes on Monday to vent their anger at the latest fixing scandal. Protesters led a procession of donkeys, with the names of players accused of taking bribes stuck on the foreheads of the animals.

*THE AGE, AUSTRALIA: 'Extortion, threats to players – not money – could be the cause'

If these allegations of fixing are proven, it could be related to extortion, threats and the well-being of their own family.