The most ill-starred tour of modern times turned uglier yesterday when two players were involved in a fight. Jonathan Trott of England and Wahab Riaz of Pakistan had to be separated as the teams practised before the fourth one-day international at Lord's.
On a day already imbued with high tension after England were outrageously dragged into the match-rigging scandal besmirching the game and that had the England captain, Andrew Strauss, contemplating legal action, it was exactly what was not wanted. The players approached each other on the Nursery Ground behind the main arena where the teams net.
After angry words were exchanged the pair were eventually pulled apart by the England batting coach, Graham Gooch. The match referee, Jeff Crowe, who witnessed some of the altercation spoke to both players but decided against taking further action. There was a mood among officials to play down the incident, given the incendiary nature of events earlier in the day.
Eyewitness Andrew Brinded said: "There was pushing and shoving by both players. I guess it's the sort of thing that rugby players would call 'handbags'. Graham Gooch came across to calm things down and gently removed the England player and put his arm round the Pakistan player. I didn't think it was cricket, it was very footballesque."
Pakistan went on to win yesterday's match by 38 runs after bowling out England for 227. Strauss, who looked drained afterwards, said: "It wasn't an ideal start to the day. It was an isolated incident and it has been dealt with. I'm pretty deflated. It's been a difficult 24 hours and at the back end to lose a game of cricket is very disappointing."
The tour had come within an ace of being cancelled following wild allegations of misdeeds by England's players in the third match of the NatWest Series at The Oval last Friday. Ijaz Butt, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, provoked unprecedented anger after his speculative remarks on television in which he said: "There is loud and clear talk in bookie circles that some English players have taken enormous amounts of money to lose the match [the third ODI]. No wonder there was such a collapse."
The idea was as nonsensical as it was uncorroborated and not surprisingly the team were furious. Although Butt appeared to backtrack in another interview on BBC Radio Five Live yesterday, when he said he had merely been relaying information he had from bookies, the damage had been done. For a few early-morning hours it seemed as if the England and Wales Cricket Board would do what many observers had been urging for a fortnight and cancel the last two matches.
But eventually the board settled for proceeding with games four and five, at Lord's yesterday and the Rose Bowl tomorrow, while making it perfectly clear that it was incandescent with anger. Strauss, their captain who is nothing if not measured, said: "We would like to express our surprise, dismay and outrage at the comments made by Mr Butt yesterday. We are deeply concerned and disappointed that our integrity as cricketers has been brought into question. We refute these allegations completely and will be working closely with the ECB to explore all legal options open to us.
"Under the circumstances, we have strong misgivings about continuing to play the last two games of the current series and urge the Pakistani team and management to distance themselves from the allegations. We do, however, recognise our responsibilities to the game of cricket, and in particular to the cricket-loving public in this country, and will therefore endeavour to fulfil these fixtures to the best of our ability."
Butt's misplaced comments followed the latest allegations made against Pakistan, which have also not been substantiated. The ICC announced an investigation after being handed information by The Sun newspaper, alleging that Pakistan batsmen had scored at a pre-ordained rate in the early overs of the third one-day international last Friday.
Pakistan won that match by 23 runs, and are undoubtedly feeling hard done by. Their attitude is that if they lose they are accused of wrongdoing and if they win they are still accused of wrongdoing. Hence Butt's intemperate comments.
Three Pakistan players have already been suspended in the wake of alleged events in the Fourth Test match at Lord's. Salman Butt, the captain, and the bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer face accusations of bowling no-balls deliberately and are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. Only when that is complete will the ICC pursue its own inquiry.
The latest twist with England being dragged into the affair was stunning – and that was before the scuffle. Only after emergency meetings involving the ECB and the players did they decide that the series could go ahead. In reaching its unanimous decision to continue, the ECB went against strong feeling elsewhere that it was simply time to call a halt, but also completely rejected Ijaz Butt's remarks, which it said were "wholly irresponsible and completely without foundation".
As if to demonstrate that it was at the end of its tether with the PCB, to whom it extended the hand of friendship earlier this summer by staging neutral matches between Pakistan and Australia, the board said darkly: "The ECB expresses its gratitude for the outstanding conduct of the England team this summer and will take all legal and disciplinary action which may result from Mr Butt's comments.
"The board and the team are of a view that it remains in the best interests of world cricket, the players and in particular of supporters that the tour should continue and it would set a dangerous precedent to call off a tour based on the misguided and inaccurate remarks of one individual." But the players were undoubtedly close to declining to play and the strain was embodied by Trott, who has been letting Pakistan know his feelings throughout the series.
In their own statement issued by the ECB the players said: "The team deplores and rejects unreservedly the suggestion that any England cricketer was involved in manipulating the outcome, or any individual element, of the third NatWest Series ODI."
It was a febrile atmosphere yesterday and the ECB felt the need to gather Government support for its decision to continue the series. Its press bulletin included a comment from the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, who said: "I welcome the decision by England to play the last two games of this tour. It is a pragmatic decision that is in the best interests of world cricket." That at the very least was arguable.
What Ijaz Butt said and how he changed his tune
What Ijaz Butt said on the Indian channel NDTV on Sunday:
"There is loud and clear talk in the bookie circles that some of the English players have been paid an enormous amount to lose the match [the third ODI on Friday]. No wonder there was a total collapse of the side. Later the list of people and persons involved will be made public. I will name people, persons and organisations."
How he backtracked yesterday:
"I have never said this. I have no proof. I said bookies are talking about money changing hands. I am not saying this."
What they have said about Butt:
n "I would find it very difficult to show up and play after Mr Butt's comments. Terrible for the game." Michael Vaughan
n "I would like to know how Ijaz Butt knows what the bookmakers are doing. Maybe he should tell us." Sir Ian Botham