The Year in Review: Cricket

After the fall, what is the price of redemption?

How weirdly appropriate that judgment on Mohammad Aamer and his Pakistan team-mates Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif will be passed in Doha in January.

The agony of the teenager was, after all, played out last summer at Lord's, the old centre of the cricket world, but with never a stronger sense that so much of his game, among others, had become so detached from its moorings. Thus his trial goes on beyond the known boundaries of sport, give or take the virtual World Cup of football planned for 2022 in the Qatar capital and the surrounding desert.

Not a lot can be expected, on past evidence, from this ill-starred chamber of sports justice in the wake of a year when there were so many instances of moral breakdown, from the stunning decisions of Fifa to award World Cups to a Russia plagued by racism and corruption and a Qatar which could only have been less appropriate had it relocated to the other side of Mars, to rugby union's Pontius Pilate washing of hands over the Bloodgate scandal of Harlequins.

So wretched a year it was indeed, it was almost impossible to fix on the most gut-wrenching example of self-immolation by the games we play.

This was almost so, but not quite. The fall of the wonderfully gifted youth from the Punjab represented such a haunting failure of care, and onslaught of cynicism and hypocrisy, that for some the memory of it will never be shaken.

There might, it is true, be some redemption down the years, if Aamer can somehow be restored to something of what he represented on a thrilling morning just 48 hours before he was transformed from an heroic young champion of cricket to one of the game's ultimate pariahs.

But what chance can we give for such a possibility? It is a small one when you consider the background to the accusation that he and Butt and Asif conspired to prove their willingness to meet "spot-fixing" demands by illegal bookmakers operating in an unfettered Indian betting market.

One of Butt's lawyers, Aftab Gul, was less than reassuring on the approach of the Doha hearing. He declared: "Corruption is rife in world cricket. I have so much evidence. I will tell you names which will make your hair stand on end. The worst corruption involves 'spot-fixing'. It is so much easier than any other form."

Spot-fixing does not shape the outcome of matches. It drains away the concept of honest endeavour, open-hearted competition. It is a series of small conspiracies, bowl a no-ball now, land the odds, and then get on with the job of playing the game. It is an accumulation of rottenness, which starts with, relatively speaking, a misdemeanour and then consumes anything of value.

At Lord's last summer it put you in mind of the perhaps apocryphal cry of the Chicago street urchin when the fabled baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson went to answer charges that he had thrown the "Black Sox" World Series. "Say it ain't so, Joe," the boy was said to have implored. At Lord's there had to be the forlorn echo: "Say No, Mo."

The pain and despair at Lord's could only be exaggerated if you had followed even a little of Aamer's summer. You had heard of his reputation when you went along to Trent Bridge to see him against England, heard Wasim Akram's assessment that he was a smarter, more intuitive bowler than he had been at a similar age, but it was no adequate preparation for the beauty and the brilliance of the boy's game.

Gauche, poorly educated he may have been, but Aamer was stunning in his action and his instinct. You were compelled to watch his every delivery and as you did so, inevitably, you had the thrill that comes when you are sure, not out of any extraordinary knowledge or technical insight but the sheer invasion of reality that here is a perfectly formed talent.

You felt the same when you saw George Best and Sugar Ray Leonard and Roger Federer and Sachin Tendulkar for the first time.

At Lord's, even as the News of the World investigators were applying the finishing touches to their damning dossier, the promise of Aamer was delivered in an improbable, unforgettable rush. He was simply unplayable as one after another English batsman failed to cope with beautiful flight and movement.

Then we heard how he had been subverted by a betting ring, apparently, whose principal fixer felt empowered to call him in his hotel room with the greeting: "Hey, fucker."

No one was in a position to say that, for all his lack of schooling and example, he was without blame, but what was so apparent was that within a society shot through with corruption and a cricket association long assailed by charges that its teams had been penetrated and utterly compromised by match-fixers was a total lack of protection.

Then there was the picture that compounded the misery and gave a fine edge to the statement of the former Ashes-winning fast bowler Bob Willis that he had been moved near to tears by the news that the career of such a perfect young talent might be in ruins. It was of Giles Clarke, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, handing to Aamer the prize for being Pakistan's player of the series. Clarke wore an expression of such contempt that the wonder was that he had not borrowed a face mask and some plastic gloves for the pitilessly empty ceremony.

It was impossible not to remember the chairman's rather different mood when embracing Allen Stanford, the American patron of English cricket now awaiting Federal trial for massive fraud, when his helicopter landed at Lord's bearing millions of dollars in a large container. That, though, was a day of the most vulgar celebration of quick money from wherever it came. The new one at Lord's was to mark some unremitting moral judgment on a boy raised in the grinding poverty of a poor Punjabi village.

Denouement in Doha is unlikely to remove any of the rawness of the emotions provoked by the sight of Clarke's disdain for a once gilded youth who could only stare at the ground slipping beneath him. But then, who knows, someone might just have the nerve to draw a line in the sand. It may be too late to say, "No, Mo" but not, out of conscience, to hold out, finally, a helping hand.

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