Sensationalism trumps clarity as cricket faces fight to preserve its soul

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The Independent Online

Cricket was yesterday left in its habitual state of reeling confusion by the latest allegation of match-rigging. The punch-drunk sensation was natural after a week in which corruption has been the game's constant companion, fed a little by direct accusation but grown fat on innuendo, implication, rumour and suspicion.

The frenzy of speculation was further charged by 18 pages in yesterday's News of the World, which had broken the original story a week earlier and provoked the suspension of three Pakistan players. Yet, at the end of it all, it remains unclear whether attempts to fix games, all of them or merely parts, are rampant.

The coverage, astonishing and apparently thorough though it was, barely took the issue further. To add spice to a saga that was hardly bland, the newspaper itself came in for sharp criticism and was virtually accused of bully-boy tactics last night.

A fourth player is reported to be under investigation, though the ICC refused to confirm that. Salman Butt, the team's Test captain, and bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer have been provisionally suspended by the ICC and charged with various breaches of the anti-corruption code. They have also been questioned under caution by the police and may face criminal charges.

Amid the claims and counter-claims being made, with matches from six years ago now said to have been fixed, the newspaper's methods have been questioned. An interview with the batsman Yasir Hameed was criticised for being misleading, putting words into his mouth and misinterpreting Urdu. The website, said the paper had decided to "doctor the translation".

Hameed, who played in two of the recent Tests against England and is now back home in Pakistan, was not aware he was speaking to a reporter. He is shown in a bar having a chat while drinking a glass of white wine. He issued an affidavit last night which shed a different light on the way in which the NOTW tried to take the story further. Hameed said he was approached while having dinner with a friend in the Holiday Inn hotel in Nottingham on 30 August.

The man, Hameed said, introduced himself as Abid Khan and offered to arrange a sponsorship with Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi. A conversation ensued in which Khan offered £50,000 for the deal. They discussed the involvement of other players in such a deal and Hameed gave him some names.

"Then Abid Khan started asking about the current match-fixing allegations and, as I saw him as a friend and a potential agent, I naively started to answer his questions," Hameed said. "He asked me about the match-fixing allegations against the current three Pakistani players and if I had any further knowledge. As far as I can recall, I only told him whatever I had already read in the newspapers about this matter.

"It seems that Abid had a hidden camera which I was totally unaware of. I then left the hotel with my friend and came back to where I was staying. Two days later, Abid then called me and offered me £25,000 to give a statement against the three current players under investigation, which I immediately refused and put the phone down. I neither called nor answered any calls from Abid after this conversation."

Then, according to Hameed, events took a vaguely sinister turn. He said he received a text Khan saying: "Pls call me. Incidentally you are in video drinking wine and saying all the quotes attributed to you. Denying it is just stupid as we will be releasing the video to tv. Better that you stand up and speak the truth!!!!."

Hameed said he found the text intimidating. But there is a further twist to this. He lists the number that the text purported to come from. When rung, it proved to be not a News of the World reporter but the Metropolitan Police Control Room. The Pakistan High Commission could not explain this.

The short video of the longer interview confirms some of the suspicion. Hameed is quoted by the newspaper, in what appears to be damning testimony, as saying: "They were doing it [fixing] in every match. God knows what they were up to. Scotland Yard has been after them for ages."

But Hameed seems to have been referring only to what he had read in the previous weekend's newspaper. The exchange that actually took place has the reporter saying to Hameed: "They've said it's been taking place in every match." To which Hameed says: "About that figure." When the reporter says: "Are you sure?", Hameed says: "Only God would know that" and then admits he's quoting the NOTW sting with the words "this is what reports are saying, that Scotland Yard has been after them for a long time."

These are semantic but crucial differences in a story of this magnitude, which has caused so much soul-searching. The repercussions have been so immense that the very fabric of the international game has been threatened.

He mentions in the conversation that he too has been approached in the past by illegal bookmakers on the subcontinent and offered up to £150,000. Though he turned it down, he seemingly did not report such an approach, as he should have done under the ICC code.

The website made one other telling point, apart from its correction of the newspaper's comprehension skills. "Back home in Pakistan many people will be angrier at Hameed [a Muslim] drinking alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan than about him not reporting an approach from a bookie," it said.

Hameed was last night criticised by Shahid Afridi, Pakistan's one-day captain. After his side had lost to England, Afridi said of Hameed: "I think he is 30, 31. But mentally he is 15, 16."

Asked whether Hameed can be unreliable, he added: "Yeah, the people know which type of character he is."

The ICC could only reiterate that wrongdoers would face severe punishments, taken to mean life bans. Yet even as its chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, again made his feelings clear, profound sympathy was being expressed for the 18-year-old wizard of swing, Aamer. He is alleged to have bowled two of the three no-balls to order in the fourth Test at Lord's – balls which are the main subject of police and ICC investigations. These were exposed in the original NOTW story after they paid a middleman, Mazhar Majeed, £150,000. Majeed has been questioned and bailed by police.

There are suggestions that Aamer may have had little choice but to do what he was told. But the ICC has made it plain that he would have been made aware of his responsibilities under the anti-corruption code, not just once but at least three or four times.

Two matches have come under renewed scrutiny: the now familiar second Test at Sydney last January, which Pakistan lost by 36 runs after leading by 206 on first innings and the 2004 Champions Trophy semi-final when Pakistan lost by seven wickets to the West Indies after being bowled out for 131. The events of neither quite square with the NOTW's account, however.

A sense of perspective, perhaps understandably, has been one of the casualties, but Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the new head of the ICC's anti-corruption and security unit, managed to keep one when he told a small group of reporters: "There will always be crooked people, always people seeking to make illegal profit, and we must always be vigilant against such people.

"We need to be continuously vigilant that players are not tempted and drawn into this sort of behaviour but it will happen from time to time. With the numbers of people involved in playing we would be naïve to think that nobody is ever involved in this but I don't think they are numerous and I don't think it's the major problem that people are purporting that it is."

The key players main men at the centre of the spot-fixing scandal

Yasir Hammed

Pakistan's opening batsman was yesterday caught up in the spot-fixing affair when he appeared unwittingly to condemn his team-mates in the News of the World. However, there are suspicions the words printed are misleading.

Salman Butt

The Pakistan captain has been suspended by the ICC. He is alleged to have been at the centre of the spot-fixing, apparently influencing his team-mates to bowl the no-balls.

Mohammad Aamer

One of the game's brightest young talents, the seamer was allegedly paid to bowl two no-balls during the fourth Test at Lord's. Has been suspended by the ICC.

Mohammad Asif

The 27-year-old seam bowler was allegedly paid to bowl a no-ball on the last ball of the 10th over on the first day of the fourth Test. Has previously been banned for drugs. Also currently suspended by the ICC.

Mazhar Majeed

The UK-based property developer and sports agent who has been accused of taking £150,000 in payment for arranging three no- balls at pre-determined times in the fourth Test.

Yawar Saeed

Pakistan team manager confirmed the bowlers and Butt would play no further part in the Tour of England. He denied that his squad were involved in spot-fixing in "almost every match".

Haroon Lorgat

Chief executive of the ICC, which charged Butt, Asif and Aamer with multiple breaches of the anti-corruption code and provisionally suspended them from all forms of the game. Lorgat claims corruption is not rife in the game.

Wajid Shamsul Hasan

Pakistan High Commissioner believes the accused are not guilty, but said that if the allegations are proved, the culprits should be banished from the game for life.

Ijaz Butt

Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board says that none of the players can be considered guilty until the police are able to prove the allegations.

Giles Lucas