Big questions for cricket
AS THE cell door slammed behind 19-year-old Mohammad Amir there was a most confusing background noise. It was the sound of cricket celebrating a moral triumph.
You could join the cheering if you liked. On the other hand, you could believe that it wasn't only the kid, misguided, ruined and, no doubt, guilty as charged, from a hand-to-mouth Punjabi village who was faced with a certain need for rehabilitation.
You could say the same of the game that instead of saluting its deliverance from life-threatening corruption should really have been asking itself one basic, shaming question.
This would have concerned its own contribution to the events that led to the jailing of Amir, former Pakistan captain Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif after they were found guilty of the spot-fixing scandal that unfolded at Lord's the summer before last.
The answer was not the least stomach-turning aspect of the day they locked away the most brilliant young cricketer to emerge in more than a decade. The answer was nothing, zilch, a king duck. The News of the World nailed the corruption which would have sailed on without the interest of the newspaper in a sports sensation and the skill of their chief investigative reporter.
Maybe the business is still vibrant but under new colours.
Maybe there are new fixers stepping into the shoes of the convicted convenor of the Lord's caper, the agent who saw the Pakistani team hotel as his personal hunting ground, who could stroll around hatching his plans, calling young Amir's room late at night and greeting him with that phrase for which there is no apology for re-quoting because it says so much: "Hey fucker.'' Or, perhaps we can offer some variants, like, hi kid, it's Mr Big here, the man who calls the shots, runs the show, who defies Pakistani cricket authority with impunity, despite the fact that he never had in his whole body a fraction of the talent that resides in the little finger of your bowling hand.
Let's be brutally honest, let's get behind the sudden piety of a game which has been laden with dark suspicions for several decades, and why wouldn't it be when you consider the weight of the illegal betting markets on the sub-continent and the fact that an offer of (pounds sterling) 150,000 for three no-balls was not so outrageous it alerted the suspicions of the fixers.
No, they just counted out the money and got on with the business.
And what money there is in cricket now, especially in its financial heartbeat in India, which has the bonanza of the IPL, the game which auctions off players as if in some fantastic slave mart.
We are asked to celebrate a new dawning of pure cricket, now that Amir and Butt and Asif and their fixer have been banged up, and there is much talk of new levels of vigilance. But what on earth did the Southwark proceedings have to do with cricket vigilance or propriety?
Giles Clarke, chairman of the English Cricket Board, may have been pained to be in the presence of Amir on that day of breaking scandal, when he had to present the boy with the trophy for Pakistan's player of the series but his body language of aversion scarcely wiped out of the memory his effusive embrace of Sir Allen Stanford when he arrived by helicopter at Lord's in the company of a Perspex container filled with cash.
No one ever accused Stanford of throwing a match, or organising a no-ball, but he was given a rapturous welcome to the old game on the strength of cricket's most prized commodity - oodles of hard cash. One voice of reason could be heard on the sub-continent this week. It sounded on the editorial pages of The Calcutta Telegraph and pointed out that if Pakistan had become the pariah of the game because three of their players had been caught, cricket in India, the powerhouse of the world game now, had to recognise its own vulnerability beneath the tide of new wealth.
The paper pointed out that a former captain of India, Mohammad Azharuddin, had been banned from the game after being found guilty of corrupt practices, but not at the cost of his ambition to become a member of parliament.
This week the Pakistani cricket board announced stringent new policies designed to underpin the breakthrough achievement of the Southwark court. One of them is to set up training courses aimed at young cricketers who might not be aware of the dangers of corruption, at least right up to the moment they pick up their mobile phone and hear the words: ``Hey fucker.'' Former England captain Michael Vaughan remains at the head of those unimpressed by the decision of the ICC to ban Amir for a mere five years. Vaughan says there should be no quarter, that Amir has forfeited the right to play the game for which he was so superbly endowed. He speaks, persuasively enough, of the need for a deterrent.
Yet the value of a deterrent has always been in direct proportion to the means of enforcement and how does that sit with the feeble record of the International Cricket Council's anti-corruption unit in the Pakistan affair?
Does cricket governance, obsessed for so long with the rush to make the big money, to turn the game into a vast treadmill on which the brightest talent can so easily become jaded, have a new priority? Is it really intent on cleansing itself? It is a little soon to say. However, for some there is one obvious way cricket might atone for some of the worst of its negligence.
It could attempt to rescue the life - and the superb potential - of Mohammad Amir. It could have someone meet him at the gates of the young offenders' institution in West London in a few months' time. Someone, that is, who knows cricket and the world and who could tell him that he was still young enough to make something of his wonderful gifts. Someone, also, who would treat him with the respect and the care he has been - at least from this perspective - denied so conspicuously.