Government plea ensures the tour from hell limps over finishing line

As final match approaches, Sports minister warns that abandoning tour would damage Pakistan relations

At around 10.15pm tonight – and everybody is counting – Pakistan's 13th tour of England will draw to a close. The fifth and final one-day international will be done and dusted, the winner of match and series probably the side that calls the toss correctly and bowls second.

That it has got this far after weeks in which the game's reputation has been sullied almost by the hour is not to everyone's taste. But as Hugh Robertson, the Sports minister, made clear yesterday this was no longer about mere sport.

"The point I made to the ECB, and I'm delighted they took it on board, is that whatever the irritation, upset and anger – and I understand all those – it is one of those things when cricket is more than just a game," he said.

"Had the series been cancelled it would have had very serious implications to England-Pakistan relations not just in sport but across the piece. Pakistan have major issues to deal with, such as the floods and terrorism, and this was not the time for a country like us, whose role should be still to support them, to play any part in trying to kick them out."

This is a coalition, then, which positively discourages England's cricketers from playing Zimbabwe yet virtually insists that they play Pakistan. But whoever prevails at the Rose Bowl, somebody will ask a question, whether veiled or direct, about the probity of the proceedings. It used to be bad enough being involved in a batting fiasco and simply being considered inefficient at your job but to collapse and then be suspected of conspiring in your own downfall is much worse.

Ian Bell, the recalled England batsman, must have been wondering what awaited him when he was summoned to the squad on Sunday night after recovering from injury. But there is a party line to toe and they are toeing it collectively with more precision than a chorus line.

"I do think they are difficult circumstances to be involved in, but the guys knew they wanted to do what was right for the future of cricket and for the bigger picture," said Bell. "We spoke a lot about doing our bit for the cricket supporters who shouldn't be victimised for what is going on behind the scenes and who just want to pay their money and support England."

The last part of the tour has been conducted in an acrimonious air of unreality and the England and Wales Cricket Board undoubtedly feel grievously disillusioned with the country to which it extended a hand of friendship. Such depths have been plumbed that the captain of England, Andrew Strauss, is seriously contemplating legal action to ensure the maintenance of his good name.

Pakistan arrived in the country in late June as honoured guests. They leave having been considered to have thrown the hospitality back in their hosts' faces. England offered Pakistan a haven because the terrorist threat and general instability has made it impossible for them to play at home. No international team would travel there.

So Pakistan came first to play four matches – two Tests, two Twenty20s – against Australia. Giles Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, was proud and happy to promote the cause and insisted that they would be welcome for other neutral matches next year and for the years to come.

Not now, not for a long time. The tour slipped headlong into cataclysm when spot-fixing allegations were made last month. Clarke made his feelings of rejection plain on the morning they were published by declining to shake the hand and barely being able to look at one of the accused, the teenager Mohammad Aamer, as he presented him a man of the series award after the fourth Test.

It was that Test in which Aamer and his fellow fast bowler, Mohammad Asif, are alleged to have bowled no-balls to order with the collusion of their captain, Salman Butt. All three have been suspended by the ICC while investigations are concluded but it does not look good for them.

The NatWest Series of one-day matches has continued uncomfortably. But the tour took another dreadful turn last Friday when, after The Oval one-day match, scoring patterns in Pakistan's innings were said to have matched a pre-arranged plan involving illegal bookies. Pakistan won the match by 23 runs.

Information was passed by The Sun to the ICC, which felt it has no choice but to launch an inquiry. Since when, all hell has been let loose again. Ijaz Butt, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, conversely accused England's players of throwing the Oval match "for enormous amounts of money" and England almost called off the tour.

The one point that all agreed on is that the end cannot come too soon. Both countries can then take a breather which may last some time. The temperature was raised further by the scuffle between Jonathan Trott of England and Wahib Riaz of Pakistan at nets before the fourth ODI at Lord's on Monday. Both sides clearly made the political decision to try to play down what was an unseemly exchange and no punishments have been handed out. Trott was kept well away from the prying media yesterday.

In this inflammatory atmosphere, it seems almost perverse to mention that the cricket has been ripping. England won the first two matches but Pakistan have pulled level because they have used wonderfully the advantage of bowling second under floodlights. But please let it end.

Timeline: How a scandalous three weeks played out

28 August The News of the World alleges Pakistan are involved in a spot-fixing scandal, stating that agent Mazhar Majeed was paid £150,000 for three pre-arranged no-balls to be bowled. He is arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers before being released on bail. Mohammad Aamer, Mohammad Asif and captain Salman Butt's phones are confiscated by police before they are interviewed.

30 August The ICC confirms that 82 matches involving Pakistan are under investigation.

2 September The three accused players are charged by the ICC under the anti-corruption code.

3 September ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat confirms that Butt, Asif and Aamer are being questioned by police. They are released without charge.

5 September News of the World releases footage of the former Pakistan Test player Yasir Hameed in which he claims of the trio: "they were doing it [fixing] in almost every match."

10 September Salman Butt, Asif and Aamer's lawyers confirm the trio are to leave England for Pakistan and will play no further part in the tour as the one-day internationals begin.

17 September Police pass the Pakistan spot-fixing file to the Crown Prosecution Service.

18 September ICC launches an investigation into The Oval one-dayer after receiving information from The Sun on pre-ordained scoring patterns.

19 September Ijaz Butt, head of the Pakistani cricket board, claims that the England team were paid "enormous amounts of money" to lose the third one-day international held at The Oval. "There is loud and clear talk in bookie circles that some English players were paid," he says.

20 September Butt tries to distance himself from his previous remarks: "I have never said this. The bookies are saying this. I am not saying this." The England team threaten to sue Butt. Meanwhile, Jonathan Trott and Wahab Riaz are involved in a confrontation before the start of the fourth one-day international at Lord's. England batting coach Graham Gooch has to pull the pair apart.

Probable teams

England A J Strauss (capt), S M Davies (wkt), I J L Trott, I R Bell, P D Collingwood, E J G Morgan, M H Yardy, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson.

Pakistan Kamran Akmal (wkt), Mohammad Hafeez, Asad Shafiq, Mohammad Yousuf, Fawad Alam, Umar Akmal, Shahid Afridi (capt), Abdul Razzaq, Umar Gul, Shoaib Akthar, Saeed Ajmal.

TV Sky Sports 1, HD1, 2-10pm

Weather Warm and sunny with a chance of light showers in the evening. Maximum temperature: 20C.

The series so far

First ODI (Riverside): England won by 24 runs.

Second ODI (Headingley): England won by 4 wickets.

Third ODI (The Oval): Pakistan won by 23 runs.

Fourth ODI (Lord's): Pakistan won by 38 runs.

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