The fall of Butt: How money became king for the prince of Pakistan game
He was seen as the perfect man to rescue his struggling team but within months greed had taken over
Wednesday 02 November 2011
It was approaching midnight at the end of a damp August day when Mazhar Majeed left the London Copthorne Tara, a large hotel in one of the more exclusive corners of the capital. It was the evening before the final Test of the 2010 series between England and Pakistan and in his possession was £140,000 in cash. Majeed dialled a number, the call lasted half a minute and Mohammad Asif, one of the world's best fast bowlers, knew the deal to arrange a betting coup at cricket's most venerable venue was on.
Majeed dialled another number but this time Salman Butt, the captain of Pakistan and another of the agent's clients, did not answer. Majeed, a 36-year-old from south London, had already spoken to Mohammad Amir, the most exciting rising star in the sport, and the 18-year-old had his instructions, and Butt too knew what he had to oversee. Amir and Asif, coordinated by Butt, were to deliberately bowl three no-balls during the next day's play, the first of a Test Pakistan had to win to share the summer's honours, at pre-arranged moments allowing those they believed in the know to earn huge sums of money betting in the illegal gambling markets that have targeted cricket for more than a decade now.
What Majeed did not know was that the stack of £50 notes he carried in his bag, bundles of which were later found in the possession of Butt and Amir, had come from an undercover reporter from the News of the World, Mazher Mahmood, and not, as Majeed thought from an Indian businessman called Moisin Khan, who claimed links to Far Eastern betting syndicates – so carefully avoiding any clashes with the Middle Eastern and sub-continent 'mafia' networks Majeed was said to have dealings with.
Three days later the police, accompanied by Major Javed Khawaja Najam, Pakistan's security officer whom the players ridiculed with the nickname Major 007, knocked at room 714 of the Marriott Hotel in Regent's Park. Butt answered the door. He suggested they must have the wrong room. They did not and Salman Butt's descent from captain of one of the world's top teams to being convicted of a criminal offence and facing prison had begun.
Court 4 of Southwark Crown Court is a windowless room in an ugly concrete building on the south bank of the Thames. It is where Butt's cricket career – and that of Asif and possibly Amir – was yesterday crushingly ended. Crushingly for the player, his convicted team-mates, those who played alongside them – and there are questions hanging over some of them – and anyone who cares for the sport that Butt had claimed during the month-long trial to have loved and cherished the sport.
"It speaks of a man's character," Butt said in the course of his 13 and a half hours in the witness stand when asked what he thought of someone who would consider fixing any part of a cricket match.
By the time the damning events at Lord's – the bowling of two no-balls by Amir and one by Asif under Butt's orchestration – were being played out during the Test's opening two days, Pakistan's frequently beleaguered cricket authorities and their passionate fans – buoyed by victory at The Oval – had come to believe that in Butt they had found the perfect character to pull their side together.
Lord's was Butt's 33rd Test and fifth as captain. In his first, at Headingley earlier in the English summer of 2010, he had steered his side to a historic victory over Australia. Here it seemed was a man suited to follow in the footsteps of Imran Khan, as the strong leader that Pakistan required. Butt sometimes sought cricketing advice from Imran – he phoned the great all-rounder from outside a restaurant on Edgware Road in the course of that fateful first meeting with the undercover Mahmood.
Butt's ability to separate the two sides of his character was remarkable. While he adroitly performed the duties of a Test captain, picking the brains of his country's former skipper, he oversaw attempts to spot-fix, actions potentially ruinous to a sport he had played since the age of 12.
Butt, with stubbornness befitting an opening batsman, maintained his innocence to the end. During his long stay in the witness box, Aftab Jafferjee, QC for the prosecution, repeatedly asserted in his clipped tones: "You're well at it Mr Butt aren't you?" Butt repeatedly replied: "That's what you think."
It is what the jury thought too. They saw a man who had his head turned by greed, as if having fought so hard to reach the top he was determined to get everything out of it once there. There may now be speculation about Butt's acquiescence in what went on last summer, and possibly before that, raising questions about whether Amir was the only one approached to deliver what was ordered by shadowy figures back home or in the Middle East and India.
Butt's parents separated when he was 16 and the young man took on the responsibility of providing for his mother and two sisters. He paid for one sister to train as a dentist and for the other's education. He regularly led his country in the age group ranks and made his first-class debut aged 17 against the thoruing England side. In 2003 Butt made his Test debut – "the aim of my whole life," he said in court – but it was not until 2007 that he became sure of his place.
A year earlier he had first met Majeed, whose brother, Azhar, was agent to a number of players. In 2007 the two started to work together. Majeed brought in a deal with Adidas – at £800 per game plus add-ons for 100s and 50s; it was not stellar amounts, but it still made Butt the first Pakistan cricketer to be backed by the sportswear giant. By last summer Butt was earning around £200,000 a year, enviable but still only a fifth of what his England counterpart collected. He began to spend. There were expensive watches, he had bought $12,000 in cash to England with the intention of buying another and a $3,000 Tag-Heuer phone. He admitted in court he had come to enjoy the "luxuries of life".
There was another side to life that he had become aware of. It was after Pakistan's disastrous tour of Australia in 2009, in which they were whitewashed amid a swirl of allegations, that Majeed first raised the issue of fixing with his client, and now close friend. Butt says he treated the texts as "jokes". Majeed then turned up in the Caribbean where Pakistan were playing in the World Twenty20 Cup. There were more suggestive texts – recovered thanks to software developed by the Canadian Mounted Police. Then Majeed and Butt, accompanied by Kamran Akmal, another of Majeed's clients, met in Sri Lanka where Pakistan were playing in the Asian Cup. The circumstances contravened team rules, and aroused the suspicions of Major Najam.
Those rules, to which the players signed up, were to be broken again during the subsequent trip to England. On one occasion Azhar Majeed was discovered with Butt and Akmal in Wahab Riaz's room after midnight – no guests are allowed after 10pm. Majeed was to claim later to Mahmood during a taped meeting at the agent's house in Pilgrim's Well near Croydon, which was played in court, that he was grooming players. "I've got the best boys," he bragged, naming Riaz and Imran Farhat, both in the current Pakistan squad, as well as the three guilty men who will return to Southwark Crown Court tomorrow for sentencing.
Majeed's head boy was Butt, the man who described becoming captain of Pakistan as the "greatest honour of his career." Majeed saw it as the greatest opportunity of his somewhat less accomplished career and used it, with the complicity of the captain of Pakistan, to ruin them both.
Supporting cast: Key players in the spot-fixing scandal
Mohammad Asif may not have had the cricket world at his feet like his young new-ball partner, but he had never bowled better during his career than last summer in England, first against Australia and then the hosts.
The Lord's Test was his 23rd and will surely be his last, as the 28-year-old is currently serving a seven-year ICC ban (two suspended) for the events of last summer. It is the final and blackest of marks on a career that has also included two positive tests for steroids.
On the first day of the Lord's Test, as had become usual, Asif took the second over of the innings after Mohammad Amir had torn in to deliver the first. On the last ball of the 10th over, Asif overstepped the popping crease by inches. A no-ball was called and Asif was to eventually claim that he had no-balled as a result of persistent haranguing by his captain, Salman Butt. Butt had positioned himself at silly mid-off and, according to Asif, told his bowler to "run faster, fucker." Asif, he said, did as he was urged and crossed the line. But, crucially, when he was first interviewed under caution by officers of the Metropolitan police last September, he made no mention of the defence he was later to rely on in court.
When his room in the Regent's Park Marriott Hotel, was searched by police, no News of the World money was discovered, unlike his two team-mates, but that did not prevent him from being convicted.
It was during the most devastating spell of his brief but brilliant career that Mohammad Amir delivered the second of two pre-arranged no-balls. "How far was that ... wow," said commentator Michael Holding as he watched the replay of the third ball of Amir's third over of the second day of the fourth Test.
The spell produced four key wickets for no runs, but in his next over Amir overstepped; after a brief chat with Salman Butt at the top of his run-up. Lord's was his 14th Test and the 6 for 84 he finished with were his best figures.
On the night that he took the News of the World's money, Majeed rang Amir in the presence of Mazher Mahmood, the journalist. "Are you asleep fucker?" said Majeed as a drowsy Amir answered.
Amir was, said the prosecution, the "sacrificial goat". He pleaded guilty before the trial and will be sentenced after today's hearing.
Given the Walter Mitty tendencies displayed by Mazhar Majeed (below), it may give him some satisfaction that the £150,000 he received from Mazher Mahmood was the largest such "sting" payment offered by the News of the World journalist in his career at the now defunct newspaper.
When he took possession of the bundles of marked £50 notes, Majeed, despite outward signs of wealth, such as his Aston Martin, clearly felt he needed futher funds.
The 36-year-old from Croydon claimed he represented six players in the Pakistan team and was particularly close to Butt and Kamran Akmal, Butt's vice-captain. He also owned Croydon Athletic FC and was involved in a chain of ice cream parlours. Majeed had taken on the management of some players from his brother, Azhar, another who was a presence around the Pakistan team last summer.
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