Nothing has more epitomised the chaotic fallout from the Hansie Cronje Affair than the case of Ajay Sharma. It throws into the sharpest relief the difficulties faced by the International Cricket Council this week when they meet to try, belatedly, to restore their sport's battered reputation by putting an end to match-rigging. Or, as it still is in the absence both of firm evidence and firm action earlier by the ICC, alleged match-rigging.
Since Cronje sensationally admitted to taking $8,200 from a bookmaker in return for who knows what - while continuing to deny actually fixing the result of a game - accusations and imputations have been flying around like swill in a pigsty. Sharma, a one-cap wonder who played his sole Test for India in 1987, was claimed this week to have been involved with Mohammad Azharuddin in illegal betting on one-day internationals.
A long article in the res-pected magazine India Today revealed apparent details of phone calls said to have taken place between the two on the eve of several of India's recent one-day matches. Sharma, it said, was wanted for questioning by police and had fled the country for somewhere in England. The implication was that he was in hiding.
Juicy stuff. Sharma, it transpired, was indeed in England. Not somewhere, anywhere in England, but in the Lancashire town of Padiham, an annexe of Burnley, for whose cricket team he will be this season's professional in the Ribblesdale League. Negotiations between Sharma and Padiham began last November and were eventually completed in early March. Whether Sharma is guilty of illegal betting, bribery, sharp practice or merely talking to his pal Azha to pass the time of day (and, like everybody else implicated, he dismissed any and all allegations as baseless) that timescale hardly constitutes fleeing.
"We just can't contemplate that Ajay has had anything to do with this," said Padiham's chairman, Keith Clayton, on Friday evening. "He came here on Wednesday of last week as he was always going to do. We met him at Heathrow and drove him north. At nets we joked about betting on a match in the Ribblesdale League."
The Sharma business will probably not feature specifically on the agenda of the summit meeting of the ICC's 18-man executive board on Tuesday and Wednesday. But it illustrates their conundrum. Where do they start? Had they acted two or three years ago, when rumours became rife, they might have avoided their current plight.
They will insist they have put in place, by consensus, a Code of Conduct Commission responsible for instigating inquiries worldwide when and where necessary. But nothing has happened and still nothing is happening.
David Richards, the ICC chief executive, has given an interview to Sky Television to be broadcast tomorrow in which he repeats much of what he said to this newspaper a fortnight ago. He reacts quite sharply to the suggestion that the ICC have not acted over the Cronje Affair and makes it clear the inquiry in South Afr-ica is an ICC inquiry under the Code of Conduct Commission.
"It's an ICC inquiry and we're on the front foot in all of this," he says. Yet they are on the front foot, it appears, driving straight to mid-off. The South African inquiry, launched with urgency and an apparent will to clean out the Augean Stables, has yet to appoint a chairman, let alone set terms of reference. It is supposed to report by the end of May.
It may, or, more probably, may not, but an opportunity has been lost to show the cricket world that this time they mean business. The ICC summit, provoked, make no mistake, only by the strong verbal intervention of the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, will convene before the South African inquiry.
All of the 18 delegates at the summit will have their say, which should produce some fascinating insights. One wonders if Jorgen Holmen, the associate-member representative from Denmark, will give the lowdown on match-fixing in Copenhagen. Anything is now possible.
The board will then con-sider a plan to be put forward by Richards. He was declining to give details yesterday but it is not difficult to work out that it will take the form of an ICC emergency commission of the sort urged by outside observers two years ago. They might also profitably suggest an amnesty in the hope that cricket can start again.
Richards said yesterday: "It is important to address the issue of confidence in the sport. What we must do is assure all those people who support and love our sport that they know they can have complete confidence that every game is played in a truly competitive fashion. There can be no contrived results nor any misdemeanours perpetrated by any players." Fine words, but only words. And there have been plenty of those recently.
The chief executive must now persuade his executive to go along with him. By way, no doubt, of setting up a twin-pronged attack, he and the outgoing president of the ICC, Jagmohan Dalmiya, had dinner on Friday night after Dalmiya flew in. Dalmiya himself last week was accused of, and later held a press conference to deny, siphoning off money during TV negotiations in India.
"Did you do it, Jag?" Richards might have been tempted to ask. "No, did you, Dave?" Dalmiya might have replied. Nobody in this ridiculously drawn-out but important saga is above suspicion.
There have been so many sideshows that it has been difficult to tell where the carnival is taking place. England have not been without a sideshow of their own. Chris Lewis was both praised and damned by Lord MacLaurin last week for bringing to the ECB allegations (which had been made to him by a fellow purportedly offering him £300,000 to help to fix an England match against New Zealand last summer) that three England players had already been on the take.
Lord MacLaurin said that these allegations were unbelievable but also said Lewis had shown guts in coming forward. The ECB at least acted promptly by calling Lewis in. But the issue refuses to go away. There is now a dispute between Lewis and the ECB in general and the international teams director, Simon Pack, in particular, about whether Lewis offered them the names in August only to be rebuffed because Pack said it was all hearsay.
Well, Lewis and Pack can sort this out among themselves. Bear in mind, however, that Lewis devalued what he had to say by saying it in the News of the World as well as to officialdom. Pack, as is his wont, has said nothing at all.
Nobody is above suspicion in the present climate but nobody truly believes that any England players have taken money they should not have done. It has served as a distraction, as has so much else in the past three weeks of smoke and mirrors and Chinese whispers. Evidence is what we seek. On Tuesday and Wednesday the ICC must try to work out ways of gathering it. At least they now know how to get hold of Ajay Sharma.
Cricket's international jury: The 18 ICC delegates
Jagmohan Dalmiya - President of ICC Accused, without evidence, of taking money for favours. Presidency ends this summer.
David Richards - ICC chief executive Has copped plenty of flak, but at least recognises game "is hurting".
Malcolm Grey - President-elect of ICC Dalmiya's New Zealand successor has made the right noises, so far.
Denys Rogers - Chairman of Australian Board Didn't cover himself with glory over Warne and Waugh. Now in favour of life bans.
Lord MacLaurin - Chairman of England and Wales Board The man who provoked the summit. Might have handled domestic case better.
A S Muttiah - President of Indian Board Caught up in domestic disputes. Defended players, now backs government inquiry.
Sir John Anderson - Chairman of New Zealand Board Businessman and progressive chairman. Likely to pursue action.
Yawar Saeed - Manager of Pakistan Board Ex-county player, will say the right things. But will he bring Pakistan's fixing report?
Sidath Wettimuny - Sri Lanka representative Ex-Test player who wants corruptionrooted out. Favours international inquiry.
Percy Sonn - Chairman of South African Board Inexperienced. Took over amid racial acrimony in winter. Has to grow up quickly.
Patrick Rousseau - President of West Indies Board Lawyer. Used to controversy at home.Will try to seek action.
Peter Chingoka - President of Zimbabwe Board Long-standing official. Still young. Goodadministrative and diplomatic skills.
Jimmy Rayani - Chief executive of Kenyan Board The last thing his aspiring cricket country needs is match-fixing.
Saber Chadhury - Bangladesh representative May not want to rock boat with application for full membership pending.
Jorgen Holmen - Denmark representative Overshadowed, but could bring neutral,outsider's view.
Ali Bacher - Chairman of ICC development committee Still has obvious questions to answer in his South African role.
Clyde Walcott - Chairman of ICC cricket committee The great West Indian batsman is sage. But is he forthright?
Ehsan Moni - Chairman of ICC finance committee Should know about cash, if nothing else.Reuse content