Is “lower middle class” sufficient mitigation for crime? Justice Jeremy Cooke of London’s Southwark Crown Court was not being unkind when he took origin into consideration awarding 19-year-old Mohammad Amir a kinder sentence than his teammates Mohammad Asif, a regular of the Pakistan cricket team, whose career had been punctured but not quite flattened by controversy, and Salman Butt, senior enough to be named captain.
Justice Cooke, to be fair, was being more patron than patronising, although he might be a little surprised to learn that rural in Pakistan’s Punjab is not necessarily synonymous with poverty. One must admire Amir’s mother, Naseem Akhtar, who lives with the family in a village called Changa Bangyaal, who did not allow her love to mist clarity. She did not get either defensive or offensive, in the manner of the uppity Butts. Her sentiment and judgement were totally without artifice or greed. She forgave her son not because he was innocent, but because he was too young to know what he was doing. “Children,” she said, “make mistakes. Aamer became a big name in cricket, but he is still a child.” A mother does not always make the best judge, but Naseem Akhtar is a mother that mothers can be proud of.
Pakistan players and its administration, of course, are in a class of their own. Cricket lore includes the story of how the whole team managed to manufacture a defeat in a Test match against England in Karachi.
That pride, understandably, is not shared by Pakistanis. A generation that has grown up in the storm of violence, and experienced the depression of utter betrayal by every icon in public life, whether general or politician, looked up to cricketers as a burst of sunshine. The cricket team became a symbol not only of individual achievement, but also of how successful Pakistan might have become if it were not infected by the deceit, disunity and greed that had swamped those in charge of the nation. The fact that cricket moved away from the languid grip of an elite down to the city mohalla and village dust made the news better. It is now a genuine people’s game, not an afternoon encounter in exclusive clubs between members waiting for the bar to open. To be betrayed by one of your own always hurts that much more. A vendor in Naseem Akhtar’s village told the Times of India correspondent, with chilling cynicism, that he was glad — or, more accurately, relieved — that the scandal had broken out in England, because there would never have been a fair trial and conviction in Pakistan.
The people believe what an outspoken champion like Ian Botham says: that corruption is “all over the place, we know it is an epidemic”. What Botham did not add, perhaps because he had said enough, was that this epidemic has been around for a long time and the cricket establishment has participated in don’t-tell-don’t-know cover-ups except when too much evidence tumbled out. Since in countries like India and Pakistan, cricket and politics are glamour industries that seek to feed off each other, the political glass protects the guilty as far as possible and promotes them when it can.
Dropcap OnA former Indian captain, Azharuddin, was banned for life by BCCI, hardly the most aggressive institution when it comes to probity. He is now a Member of Parliament who hopes to become sports minister some day, protected by the thin fig leaf of a judicial appeal against the BCCI decision. Pictures are published of players consorting with, and travelling in the company of, bookies, and BCCI cannot see them. Admiral Nelson had, famously, one blind eye. BCCI has two. What signals did the Australians send out when they fined Shane Warne and Mark Waugh [brother of long-serving captain Steve] $10,000 each for passing on information to a certain “John the Bookmaker”? The money is a pittance compared to their earnings. Warne is now a hero of television broadcasting. England captain Andrew Strauss goes as far as a player can go when he accuses cricket administrations of “lack of resolve”. It is not lack of resolve but presence of venality. Pakistan players and its administration, of course, are in a class of their own. Cricket lore includes the story of how the whole team managed to manufacture a defeat in a Test match against England in Karachi. At least one member of this side, a fine bowler, widely suspected of being a major participant in that scam, is now the face of a sports channel. Mohammad Asif’s father Hasan Deen summed up his country’s cricket field in a pithy Punjabi sentence when he learnt of his son’s conviction. He described cricket as a game of criminals.
Obviously that is far from the whole truth, but there is enough crime for rage.
There are many reasons why Imran Khan has shot to the top of the political escalator in Pakistan, but cricket is one of them. Despite its lengthening list of villains, cricket still provides the one pool from which heroes can still emerge. Imran Khan’s scrupulous honesty throughout a glittering career makes him a symbol of all that can still go right when everything is going wrong.