James Lawton: Only the toughest action will now do. Corruption must be rooted out once and for all
Monday 30 August 2010
Twenty-nine years ago Sir Ian Botham made himself one of cricket's great proprietors of its most glorious uncertainties. He led England to the most improbable of Ashes Test victories over Australia.
Here yesterday, on a summer's day that seemed by design one of bone-deep cold and disenchantment, it was as though a squalid but deadly little bonfire had been made of that achievement and all the others that down the years have lifted the hearts of those fascinated by the games we play.
Botham's outrage was plain on his face but expressed quietly enough when he looked down on the remnants of a Test match that had overnight been turned into a macabre and futile ritual by the most brutally detailed account of the Pakistani betting scam.
"All that," he said with a wave in the direction of the last action of a Test match which for the previous three days had seemed so brilliant and tumultuous, "is meaningless. It is destroyed".
But then how can it be re-made as Scotland Yard tests the evidence that appears so damning and confiscates the mobile phones of three of the Pakistan players, and anti-corruption investigators of the long embattled International Cricket Council fly into London with the gnawing knowledge that the game they are hired to protect has, once again, been blown wide open?
Only the toughest action will now do. After the uneasy years that followed the banning of the South African captain Hansie Cronje and his Indian counterpart Mohammad Azharuddin, and with the huge surge in betting that has accompanied the march of Twenty20 cricket, only the most draconian statement can announce the necessary fight to the death.
Botham's reaction went to the heart of the problem. Lord's, as he suggested, was not afflicted by thunderous indignation. There was a sense of detachment from what it was seeing, and it meant the bowling of such English heroes as Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann suddenly might have been happening on neighbourhood parkland rather than at the historic heart of cricket.
And if there was indifference towards the heroes, it was also true that the alleged villains were operating in a moral vacuum of their own making.
The bowlers – Mohammad Asif and the teenaged Mohammad Aamer, who was later announced with painful embarrassment as Pakistan's man of the series – who delivered their no-balls to the order of the fixer, and with what now seems such grotesque exaggeration, were not booed to or from the wicket. Aamer, who in a year had emerged from poverty and a life-threatening illness to announce himself as potentially one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game, did have to walk through a Long Room made chilly by unspoken reproach, but it wasn't a lynch mob at Lord's.
Perhaps the anger will come later. Meantime, much of the reaction will be conditioned by the strength of the authorities' response.
England's captain Andrew Strauss spoke with great dignity while refusing to bury his concerns. It would be nice to think the matter would go away, but it wouldn't and there was no way to sidestep the reality that all cricket had been touched by doubt.
That Pakistan is a place of endemic poverty, and thus inevitable corruption, complicates the situation, as does the fact that among the world's players theirs are among the least rewarded, a problem that has only been compounded by the vast income generated by the neighbouring Indian Premier League and the denial of home Test matches and revenue in the wake of last year's terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore.
There has also been much speculation about the running of the IPL, including allegations of match-fixing, following the suspension of the league commissioner and founder Lalit Modi. Because of the huge popularity of the IPL, and the fact that India now has the greatest financial muscle in the world game, there have long been fears that the ICC's scrutiny of the effects of massive betting interest has not been as intense as it might.
Such concern can only be inflamed by the allegations of the flagrant conduct of the four accused Pakistani players, including the youthful captain Salman Butt. On several occasions he was asked if he or any of his players had behaved corruptly, including the alleged throwing of a Test match in Sydney. He didn't deny outright the charges attached specifically to the Lord's Test, but he did swear that neither he nor his players had ever given less than 100 per cent effort.
His voice was as low as Botham's, but it was harrowing to look at his expression. It was something that came away with you from Lord's, along with the certainty that cricket cannot easily endure another day like yesterday. Honour can be retrieved. Credibility is, for the moment, the more serious matter.
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