Dominic Lawson: Cricket has never been just cricket

Fans are intensely idealistic about the game they love; but many players see what they do as simply the grind of earning a crust for themselves and their families
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The Independent Online

Full disclosure: a decade ago I authorised the payment of £1,000 in cash in return for a favour from the captain of the Pakistan cricket team, the great Wasim Akram. Then a newspaper editor, I had wanted to send a feature writer to face some deliveries from the first fast bowler ever to be recorded breaking the 100mph speed barrier, Shoaib Akhtar. All the negotiations had to take place via his captain, including the fee. Yet when our reporter turned up at the Pakistan team's training ground – where the massively muscled Akhtar was pawing the ground – and presented the cheque to Akram, he seemed most put out. The skipper wanted cash – and seemed faintly incredulous that we would not have realised.

After much scurrying around the local cash-points, the bank notes were duly accumulated – although I wondered at the time how much of the money would reach the young fast bowler who was actually doing the work.

There was, of course, nothing illegal or even contrary to the laws of cricket in what Akram – one of the most talented cricketers ever to have played the game – had done; yet I can't help recalling that episode in the wake of the News of the World's compelling allegations of how Pakistan's latest fast bowling prodigy, 18-year-old Mohammed Aamer, had delivered no balls to order as part of a betting scam during the fourth Test match against England last week.

Much of the obloquy has been heaped on Aamer's young shoulders: the front page of yesterday's Daily Mail shows the chairman of the England Cricket Board, Giles Clarke, handing over the man of the match cheque to Aamer in an openly disdainful fashion, accompanied by the headline "The look that says: You've shamed cricket". I was in the MCC's Committee room that day, and my sympathy was entirely with the crestfallen-looking teenager; it was obvious to me from the text of the News of the World's taped telephone calls with the betting "fixer" that whatever Aamer had done on the field would have been under instruction from his captain, Salman Butt.

In international cricket teams the captain has a particular power – he is usually part of the selection process, and can make or break the careers of his players; in Pakistan, as in many Muslim countries, there is the added social factor of the deference the young are expected to show their elders. If the fix was in, and it was to involve Aamer, there was no way such a youth – in his first season in the national side – would defy the orders of his captain.

So I don't share the view of Andrew Strauss, the England cricket captain, that if Aamer is found guilty of having taken part in a betting conspiracy he should be banned for life. One can understand Strauss's fury: his team had just completed a brilliant performance in crushing the Pakistanis, and now it seemed that would be devalued by the suspicion that their opponents were not on the level.

Yet perhaps Strauss should consult the England team's own spin-bowling coach – one Mushtaq Ahmed. Mushtaq, known to one and all as "Mushy", was one of Pakistan's leading players at a time when the side had become a byword for match-fixing. When their activities were finally investigated by the Qayyum Commission, "Mushy" did not come out of it well. The retired High Court judge Malik Qayyum declared in 2000 that there were "sufficient grounds to cast strong doubt on Mushtaq Ahmed... He has brought the name of the Pakistan team into disrepute with, inter alia, associating with gamblers."

Qayyum recommended that Mushtaq "be censured, kept under close watch and not be given any office of responsibility in the team."

If I were a Pakistani cricket fan I might think that a call for draconian measures against my team from the English cricketing establishment would be more acceptable if it had not itself chosen to give a position of responsibility to someone so comprehensively denounced by the Qayyum Commission.

I don't believe for an instant that any member of the current England side is tainted by links to betting syndicates; but it would be equally preposterous to assert that while the Pakistanis are motivated by filthy lucre our lads are in it only for the love of the game and country. While professional cricket in this country long ago broke with its corrupt gambling past – in the 18th and 19th century it was run entirely as a conduit for (frequently fixed) betting – the idea that it is about glory alone is strictly for the birds.

The former England cricket captain Michael Atherton recalled earlier this month that when he got his first international cap one of the senior players told him: "You play your first for love; the rest for money." Atherton described this comment as "dispiriting", which it certainly must have been. Yet it also brings home the point that while cricket fans are intensely idealistic about the game they love, many of the players they idealise will see what they do as simply the grind of earning a crust for themselves and their families. Doubtless they will have started out with an intense passion; but towards the autumn of their careers many of them will have become more cynical than ever emerges in their public pronouncements about the game.

Nor do I think that those playing for the national side are motivated more by patriotism than professionalism. Some, like Kevin Pietersen or Jonathan Trott, are only English by convenience, having rejected their homeland of South Africa, which seemed less likely to give them the international sporting exposure they craved. Yet even those who have been born and bred in England are spurred – and this is not at all ignoble – entirely by the desire to compete at the highest level. One month it will be as an England player; the next it might be as a member of a team in the Indian Premier League, where they will display an equal passion in the cause of victory.

No matter: those of us who love cricket are prepared to pay handsomely just to witness the sheer thrill of the game played at the extremes of the physically possible – which is why we would be so sad to see the expulsion of a fast-bowling prodigy who fell among thieves.