Omar Waraich: 'Cricket is all Pakistan has - this has destroyed any hope'

By Omar Waraich
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:52

The shock is still being registered, and the outrage grows. Already weighed down by over a month's misery of unprecedented floods, the mood worsened further across Pakistan yesterday as match-fixing allegations involving the national cricket team led every news bulletin.

"Our heads have been bowed by shame," said the Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, echoing a widely voiced sentiment. "I am going to ask the Ministry of Sports to order a full inquiry." President Asif Ali Zardari said that he had taken notice of the allegations and ordered a full report.

In a country where cricket serves as a rare source of cohesion, the allegations are a major blow to national pride. The timing has also sparked local fears that global sympathy for the flood victims will be diluted by yet another sorry episode implicating some of Pakistan's most prominent names in corruption.

"It's very shameful and very disturbing," said Aitzaz Ahsan, the country's top lawyer and former interior minister. "It's not just affecting cricket, but is a blow to the very body politic of Pakistan."

While many Pakistanis may have resigned themselves to tales of a corrupt political elite, the allegations involving cricket heroes will be especially dispiriting. "We know that corruption exists on a huge scale," said Tariq Ali, the left-wing writer whose latest novel, The Night of the Golden Butterfly, focuses on Pakistan. "But cricket is so popular in Pakistan that when young gifted cricketers get caught up in corruption, it depresses people and they feel there's no hope. Cricket is the only thing that Pakistan has going for it."

It isn't the first time that international cricketers have been accused of corrupt practices. But Pakistani cricket has long attracted the most controversy. Sometimes those incidents have been deemed unfair, as in 2006 when the Fourth Test against England was interrupted after the team was suspected of ball tampering – charges that it was subsequently cleared of. But sometimes the charges have stuck. In 2000, the former captain Salim Malik and bowler Ata-ur-Rehman were found guilty of match-fixing.

The current, notably young, team has been dogged by scandal. But many feel that it would be unfair to cast blame entirely on them. "These boys are from the streets," says Ayesha Tammy Haq, a prominent talk-show host and columnist. "They are like kids let loose in a candy store. Where are the guys who are supposed to mentor and guide them?"

Much of the criticism is being focused on the Pakistan Cricket Board and its deeply unpopular chairman, Ijaz Butt, for failing to maintain team discipline. "I've asked the President four times to replace Butt," said a senior government official. Each time, the official was reminded that Mr Butt was the brother-in-law of the Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, a close ally of Mr Zardari's.

Since March 2009, Pakistanis have been deprived of watching their team play at home after a terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team put an end to international fixtures in the country. Now, they risk losing the team itself.

"If seven players are involved, your whole side is wiped out," said Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab. "How can you play without [them]? There will have to be a complete overhaul of the team. You can't have a team that's suspect."

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