To stroll along Wellington Road on a match day is one of life's enduring delights. Between St John's Wood Tube station and Lord's cricket ground, taking in the luxurious Embassy Court apartment block, Madame Marie Tussaud's old house and the Wellington Hospital, it is always half a mile of sheer pleasure. The sense of joy, of blissful anticipation, the prospect of watching a game at the greatest sports arena in the world never palls. There is invariably a spring in the step of fellow strollers all the way to the North Gate where sometimes an officious gateman can bring a temporary halt to the reverie.
On that painful August Sunday morning last year, it needed no Lord's gateman to do his worst. The mood all the way up the road was sombre, confused, bitter. Inside the ground itself it took a turn for the worse.
Spectators, some 29,000 of them, had turned up to see an England victory in the fourth and final Test of the summer against Pakistan. The match had already contained some imperishable moments, accomplished fast bowling, epic batting. England had staged a stirring revival and stood now on the threshold of victory.
With around 25 minutes to go before lunch, this was duly achieved. But the proceedings were conducted in virtual silence. It was as if people, whether playing or watching, were embarrassed to be there, willing but reluctant parties to something that was irredeemably tainted and sleazy. Cricket, not to put too fine a point on it, was in the dock. Again.
The spectre of match rigging, which had besmirched the game a decade earlier (and, if truth be known, for a decade before that until the horrible truth emerged), was intruding again. It was possible to believe that it was everywhere.
Sensational revelations had been published in the News of the World that morning, alleging that gross misdeeds had been committed earlier in the game. Two Pakistani fast bowlers, it said, with the collusion of their captain, had bowled no- balls to order in return for money.
This betrayal of trust reached one of its many unhappy conclusions at Southwark Crown Court yesterday when Salman Butt, the captain, and Mohammad Asif, one of the fast bowlers, were both found guilty of conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments.
Mohammad Amir, the teenage fast bowler who had illuminated the summer with his left-arm pace, had already admitted his part in the plot. A formal hearing for both him and the players' agent, Mazhar Majeed, will take place today. The players have already been banned by the International Cricket Council for five years.
It is difficult still to credit that this crime was committed in front of 29,000 people at the ground and millions who were watching on television around the world and that nobody noticed. But it demonstrates how damnably difficult it is to detect cheating at sport. Only when the newspaper came out did it emerge what had taken place: that at predetermined times in the game no-balls would be bowled.
The newspaper's undercover reporter, posing as a businessman willing to be involved in match rigging to make money from betting, had handed over £150,000 to the agent and the players with the intention of ensuring that the agreement reached would be upheld. It made for grim reading, it was a classic piece of entrapment of greedy people waiting to be entrapped and it was an unimaginably dark day for cricket.
On the visitors' dressing-room balcony, there was the bizarre sight of Pakistan's veteran manager, Yawar Saeed, reading the newspaper, and barely believing it. When the post-match presentations took place, they were conducted in the Long Room rather than out on the pitch. Amir, only 18, was named Pakistan's man of the series. When he stepped forward to receive his trophy, Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, could not bring himself to shake his hand or to look at him.
In the immediate aftermath of the exposé it was tempting to believe that corruption in cricket was endemic, that the two were lifelong partners. That this had been the case for at least 10 years until 2000, when several wrongdoers were brought down, was undoubtedly true. That the International Cricket Council had stood by in that period and done nothing was also true.
Following the previous scandal, which came finally to light when the former captain of South Africa, Hansie Cronje, was exposed by Indian police, the game's ruling body had established an anti-corruption unit and it operated around all international games. There was still an uncomfortable feeling that there were too many meaningless matches which might be targeted.
For a few days after the Lord's Test, all sorts of matches were suggested as having been rigged in some way, such as the deliberate bowling of wides or no-balls or in the number of runs scored at certain stages of a match.
The ICC took the NOTW exposures seriously and moved as quickly as it could, given that whatever the weight of the evidence, everybody is entitled to a fair hearing. Ronnie Flanagan, the former top cop who had become the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit's head, was persuasive and intelligent in his pronouncements.
Illegal bookmakers exist on the subcontinent because betting is illegal and people love to bet. But no trail to the bookmakers has been revealed. The ACSU will have a much clearer idea by now of where it leads. The money paid by the newspaper was, in effect, a foretaste of what might be possible later. Mazhar Majeed was trying to impress his new chum.
He wanted to show that he had influence over players and if a certain amount of money was paid they would agree, in effect, to cheat by bowling no-balls. But there is no direct evidence that as a result of this bets were struck, which was the ultimate intention of all concerned. Of course, if the Pakistani cricketers had got away with it, then who knows where it might have led? But there is no suggestion that they were up to anything earlier in the series before the News of the World got involved.
The paper sat on the story for months. It was first tipped off the previous January that elements in the Pakistan team were corruptible but did nothing about it until the tour of England was more than halfway through. Their results were rapid, spectacular and depressing.
It would be wrong to make the NOTW story something that it patently was not, an exposé of rampant and filthy misdeeds in the entire game. But that some Pakistani cricketers were up to their necks in it is difficult to rebuff.
Eyebrows had already been raised at some of the antics on their tour of Australia the preceding winter. The ICC was known to be concerned but, ultimately, its investigators leant towards incompetence, not malpractice. But when the chance was presented for wrongdoing how easily some players were persuaded, which demeaned a sport and its most exalted theatre.
'Terrible blow for the game': Reaction to the verdicts
Angus Fraser, former England bowler
"It shows young cricketers that there is a consequence to their behaviour. In the past, players have been banned and then they have come back. It's not just a question of them losing their cricket careers, they can end up serving time."
Aamer Sohail, former Pakistan captain
"It is shameful that today Pakistan cricket is facing such a day, but this is what happens when you don't react quickly enough to fight corruption."
Yawar Saeed, former Pakistan manager
"It is a very disappointing and sad day for us in one way, for the players and for Pakistan cricket to be caught up in criminal proceedings. But they did something wrong and they had to pay the price for it."
Khalid Mehmood, former PCB chairman
"We have to give credit to the English prosecution and the court proceedings. They were able to use all the evidence and all the technology they had to be able to complete this case and make it an example for cricket in the future."
Zaheer Abbas, former Pakistan captain
"I just feel sad for Pakistan cricket because cricketers are not supposed to be associated with crime and corruption. But I think in a way it is good for Pakistan and world cricket because it should serve as a deterrent to others."
Dickie Bird, former umpire
"I am stunned and shocked to see this happening to the greatest game on the planet. This has stunned the cricketing world and is a terrible blow for the game. I was always brought up being told it was a gentleman's game."
Mike Brearley, MCC World Cricket Committee chairman and former England captain
"Corruption is an ongoing problem that needs persistence and vigour in all responsible bodies and leaders in the game in trying to combat it."
Ehsan Mani, former ICC chairman
"This tells us that the Pakistani cricket establishment has failed somewhere. It's a very sad day for cricket around the world."
Nasser Hussain, former England captain
"It's not something I'd cheer about. It's probably a day cricket needed and it's a message to the ICC that we're going to be strong with match-fixers and cheaters, whether it's one no-ball, two no-balls or whatever, it just should not happen."
Michael Holding, former West Indian bowler
"It's sad for the worldwide game, but especially for the game in Pakistan. Pakistan has so many problems now, even outside of cricket, that they need something to lift them and they don't need to be cheating in the game."Reuse content