James Lawton: What next for Pakistan? Cricket must not cast them into the wilderness

If there is one hope to be nurtured, though, it must be that the infant career of one of the accused, Mohammad Aamer, is not stifled at birth
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The Independent Online

Yes, we can send the Pakistan cricketers home today with all the derision we like, perhaps even put on a mock act of fumigation.

We can fill a bowl with water, wash our hands and return the Pakistanis to the corruption that is endemic in their daily lives and into the hands of administrators who cannot open their mouths without suggesting they are hardly qualified to be put in charge of the disposition of the village sewage.

We can banish from our memories, for at least a little while, those occasions when Pakistani cricket was not the symbol of everything that is wrong in the game but so much that was capable of carrying it to a higher plane.

But then we could also remember how it was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1992 when Imran Khan – the lordly Imran, performing with the hauteur of a Mogul prince – completed the job of leading his team back from the abyss to win the World Cup with the volcanic support of a 22-year-old named Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Imran bristled with pride that day. He put his arm around Inzamam's shoulder and said it was a great day for Pakistan and its cricket and that the future could not beckon more brightly.

A superb tradition had been established in just 40 years from the time they played their first Test match in Delhi, and when Imran spoke you indeed thought of what Pakistani cricket had come to mean.

You thought of his cousin Majid Khan, who, like the captain, had spent summers playing at the Parks for Oxford, at his sparkling best. Once, while waiting to bat for Glamorgan, he walked around the boundary ropes in pointy-toe slippers of such ornate elegance they might have come from a palace of the Raj and then his bat glittered in the morning sunshine.

Now, with a little effort, we can conjure so much of Pakistani cricket that should not be forgotten as it languishes at a point so low that it was never going to be significantly adjusted by any result at The Rose Bowl yesterday.

There was the power and beauty of the seam bowling of Fazal Mahmood, Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran, and, supremely, Wasim Akram.

There was the guile of Intikhab Alam and Abdul Qadir.

There was the Olympian patience at the batting crease of Hanif Mohammad and the fertile style of Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan.

This is not a cricket nation so easily buried, however much dust we are inclined to kick in its face.

Today the popular judgement here is likely to be that Imran was trapped in an illusion – and today we can, with some derision and an easy conscience, consign it to the bleakest of sports history. But will that truly make us feel much better about a summer of cricket that has dragged the spirit so low?

Would the superior reaction not be to pledge to do something to try to help the Pakistan game, not as the pariah it has become but the jewel it has from time to time revealed itself to be?

A hopeless, naive mission you may say but what, really, is the alternative? Quite simply, it is still possible to say through the disillusion and evidence of wrongdoing, it is the amputation of what could one day again prove to be one of the most brilliant limbs of the world game. But then what can be done to rehabilitate Pakistan?

Something, certainly, of more significance than the currently porous anti-corruption measures and disciplinary action, enabled not by the world cricket authority but a few undercover reporters from the News of the World, must be attempted.

International cricket might just make Pakistan a missionary project and set up an untainted commission, formed by some of the game's most respected figures.

Who better to be placed in charge of the project than Imran Khan? He has dabbled in the tumultuous politics of his troubled country for so long without a notable impact.

This would be the perfect opportunity to do something of lasting value to the morale of his stricken nation. Given his great prestige inside and out of the country, Imran might just have the leverage to make a difference. His chance would depend on whether – and it is a huge if – the Pakistan government can be persuaded that the image of its national game is too important to its people to be any longer left in the hands of the buffoons and poltroons who have recently turned an already grievous situation into an ordeal of mistrust.

What cricket cannot afford to do is write off Pakistan as a lost cause before properly recognising that it is not in a position to hand down such arbitrary moral judgement; not, at least, without acknowledging that the richest part of its empire, India, is also beset by terrible doubts about its freedom from spot- and match-fixing and that even such a sturdy sports nation as South Africa was unable to escape one of the worst examples of corruption in the history of any sport.

None of this is likely to sweep away the great mountain of doubt and dismay that has accumulated in England this summer – or diminish the challenge of attempting to reform a Pakistani game that operates in a society where corruption is not so much a threat as the norm and the legitimate rewards of the most successful Pakistani cricketers are dwarfed by those of their chief rivals.

If there is one hope to be nurtured, though, it is surely that the infant career of one of the accused, Mohammad Aamer, is not stifled at birth by the sheer force of moral indignation.

For some of us, in this country particularly, such an outcome would be at extremely sharp odds with the forgiving tendency in at least one other corner of our national sport. Aamer is 18 years old but the cry, made with some stridency, is that he should be banned for life.

It is a call which surely sits uneasily with the tolerance widely displayed towards one of England's most celebrated sportsmen, Dean Richards, who at a mature age conspired to cheat systematically but is currently, and without hint of uproar, negotiating ways of bypassing a three-year ban.

Aamer's lack of protection and guidance does not exclude him from any blame if he is found guilty of wrongdoing – or the need to pay some price – but it cannot be right that he is cast into the darkness without any chance of recall. The sports vigilantes, as cricket itself, need to take a broader, more compassionate view. Pakistan may have earned their opprobrium. But that doesn't mean they should also have forfeited all possibilities of help.

They need to be reclaimed, not just for their sake but ultimately ours. They need to go without jeers in their ears but the hope that, if they return, it is to display not the duplicity with which they are currently charged but a birthright to play in a way that, at its best, strengthens every corner of the game. It should be the challenge not just of Pakistan but all of cricket.