Leading article: Spinning out of control

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The great ball-tampering scandal that erupted over the weekend in the final Test match of the summer between England and Pakistan has been a disaster for the image of Test cricket. For the first time in the 129-year history of the game, a match was forfeited. And there are still no signs of consensus about who is in the right. The cricket world is tearing itself apart over the affair.

But there is also a wider context to all this that goes beyond cricket. The row comes at a very sensitive time in international relations. Muslims, particularly those of Pakistani heritage, are regarded with an unprecedented degree of suspicion in Britain.

We hear stories of Muslims being marched off planes to appease the paranoia of other passengers. Asians with rucksacks are still given a wide berth on public transport. There is talk, too, of airport security targeting Asians to speed up the progress of others through to departure lounges. The allegation that the Pakistani team were guilty of a conspiracy to commit wrongdoing has unfortunate echoes of attitudes to Muslims in everyday life.

A similar atmosphere of distrust exists in Pakistan and those parts of the UK with large Muslim populations. In such places Westerners are often regarded as oppressors. The idea of the Pakistan national team being framed by biased, possibly even racist, umpiring fits well with the propaganda that is prevalent in the Muslim world.

The great danger is that this affair could be elevated into a symbolic issue of contention between Islam and the West; another front in the so-called "clash of civilisations". Some parties seem either unaware of, or unconcerned about, this danger. The Pakistani cricket board chairman Shaharyar Khan has suggested that relations between Muslims and Christians could be damaged by the treatment of the Pakistani team. And the intervention of Pakistan's President in support of the stance of his national team has given this affair an unwelcome political dimension. We can only hope that no British minister decides to get involved.

The focus must return to the basic issues of the case. There should be a full investigation by the International Cricket Council, not solely of the Pakistani team but also the conduct of the umpires. If found guilty, Pakistan must accept the consequences with good grace. If they are cleared, the test match should be declared void and England's "victory" erased from the record. Meanwhile, all involved should avoid inflammatory language. The world has quite enough problems to deal with, without adding the rancour of sporting controversy to the mix.