16 June 2018

THE NEW AMBASSADORS: PART 3

Ball-tamperers. Liars. Cheats backed up by corrupt umpires. The accusations had become hackneyed phrases in their own right after a couple of decades doing the rounds of Fleet Street or Bow Street, or indeed both. The Darrell Hair humiliation had, at least, resulted in no more that a Pyrrhic victory for the white-coated antagonist himself. What followed, four years later, sank even the hardiest of Pakistani hearts.

Their own worst enemy

On Wednesday 25 August 2010, undercover reporters from the News of the World met a sports agent named Mazhar Majeed, who claimed to have unrivalled access to – and influence over – the Pakistan team currently touring England. For the right price, he could arrange for certain things to happen during matches. Or so he said. For a payment of £150,000 he said he could arrange for Mohammad Amir to bowl the third over of England’s innings, and for the first ball of the over to be a no ball. He also promised that Mohammad Asif would bowl the tenth over and that its final delivery would be a no ball. To cap it all, the final guarantee was that the in first over Amir bowled around the wicket to a right-handed batsman, the sixth ball would be a no ball. To make this happen, he needed the team captain, Salman Butt, in his pocket.

‘No balls are the easiest and they’re the most clearest. There’s no risk, there’s no signal’ he told the reporters. ‘These three are definitely happening. They’ve all been organised, okay?’ The newspapermen had it all on camera. The Lord’s test began the following day, Amir and Asif duly serving up the no balls as promised. That was on camera too.

Spot fixing is an ingenious way to make money. The trouble with match fixing – bribing a team to lose, and then betting on the other team – is that the players have to go to extensive and obvious efforts to throw the game away. The innings of Dubai Stars in January 2018 was one such example; indeed, it would have been funny were it not so pathetically sad. Live sports betting, on the other hand, presents plenty of in-game opportunities for ‘microbets’ such as how many runs will be scored off the next over, how the next wicket will fall, and whether the next delivery will be a no ball. In the case of the latter, the odds against a no ball are very short, and the bowling of a no ball is such a trivial moment in a test match that it presents an ideal candidate for fixing. Nobody loses the game, nobody gets out, nobody notices and nobody really loses anything (except the bookmakers).

The News of the World published their splash on the final day of the test match. The day’s cricket was, not altogether surprisingly, somewhat surreal. While the two teams played the game to a conclusion, spectators sat in the stands reading the full story in the tabloids. So did the Pakistan team’s manager, Yawar Saeed, who was obviously completely non-plussed. None of the players or officials knew what to think or where to look. In a strained atmosphere, the formalities of the series were carried out and Amir ironically received a cheque for £4000 as named man of the series. Giles Clarke’s face, when handing it over, was a study in barely-suppressed fury.

Butt, Amir and Asif all pleaded innocent at an ICC hearing and were suspended pending an inquiry, which took place in January the following year. When it took place, its verdict was a foregone conclusion, but the punishments were without precedent in their severity: five-year bans for all three players, with additional probationary periods for Butt and Asif. This was by no means the worst of it for the disgraced trio. In the UK, a criminal case was being prepared. Though Asif pleaded not guilty, and Amir argued mitigation, all of the miscreants served time. The jail terms were 32 months for Mazhar, 30 months for Butt, 12 months for Asif and six months for Amir.

The corroded chalice of captaincy

The honour of leading the Pakistani cricket team has turned out something of a poisoned chalice, and not just for Salman Butt. Throughout the 1980s, the role alternated between Javed Miandad and Imran Khan; though polar opposites in personality, they suffered from the same inferiority complex when responding to the overbearing and pious assertions of the English. Javed had little self-restraint and ceaselessly got up the noses of opponents and umpires alike. He simply would not be told what to do by anyone, and he would – if he felt provoked, which was often – argue with anyone about anything. Few cricketers of that era were more widely disliked than Javed. His personal furies made his team behave furiously.

Imran was completely different. A cool, contemplative, attractive personality made him a totemic figure and a highly popular leader, never more so than when leading Pakistan to the world cup of 1992. Vanquishing England, of all teams, in the final was the icing on the cake. When confronted by the arrogance and outrage of Botham and Lamb, his instinctive response was to fight like with like. You sue me, I sue you. Javed would never have cheated because that would have given his opponents a reason to start an argument – and Javed’s fights were always his. Imran cheated deliberately and consciously – he just didn’t regard it as cheating, because his was a just cause. When tackling the colonial oppressors, the rules could be overlooked. The end justified the means. Imran had a higher purpose, ergo he was allowed to make up his own standards.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were the best things to happen to Pakistani cricket in the 1990s, and not just on account of their astonishing talent for manipulating the movement of a cricket ball. Between them, they captained Pakistan in 42 test matches – first Wasim, and then Waqar – and it is no coincidence that their team was comparatively free of controversy during their tenures. By all accounts this disciplined environment was created by Wasim’s intimidatory powers; indeed, it is said that he ruled the team with a rod of iron. You didn’t muck about with him. He attempted to recreate Imran’s authoritarian rule, without possessing the necessary personality or charm. All autocrats, benign or otherwise, ultimately face revolt and in Wasim’s case it was open rebellion from Ata-ur-Rehman and Rashid Latif that was his undoing. Despite a lack of obvious chicanery on the field of play, his tenure was considered suspect enough for an internal inquiry led by Judge Malik Mohammad Qayyum, whose report concluded: ‘it is recommended that Wasim Akram be removed from captaincy of the national team. The captain of the national team should have a spotless character and be above suspicion. Wasim Akram seems to be too sullied to hold that office.’ Nevertheless, the Pakistan largely acquitted itself with distinction and dignity when he was at the helm. As Hassan Cheema put it in an ESPN article: ‘When a Pakistani of a certain age gets nostalgic about the team of the 1990s, it’s the one with Akram as captain.’

A brilliant bowling partnership they may have been, but Wasim hated Waqar, and resented it hugely when Waqar was eventually appointed as his permanent replacement. ‘We hated each other so much that we were not even on talking terms both on and off the field, but the fact is that Pakistan benefited from our rivalry,’ Wasim told Gulf News. ‘Every time Waqar took wickets, I would get charged up to do the same.’ Waqar took a demoralised but successful side – invariably pressured into performing by his new-ball partner – and inspired them. Initially a caretaker captain, he seized his chance. ‘There is not an iota of doubt that he has made the most of this opportunity,’ wrote Agha Akbar for ESPN. ‘Leading from the front, he has had a big hand in transforming the fortunes of a side whose morale was so low when he took over. No longer do you see a defeated look about this Pakistan.’ A team that looks defeated when it is winning is a pathetic sight, but Waqar changed the complexion that victory wore.

When Inzamam succeeded Waqar, he set about making an enormous positive difference to the players under his charge by encouraging them to look to Islam, and by association their country’s pride, heritage and culture, in search of their inspiration of thought and deed. He adopted a patriarchal role, and his players certainly looked up to him; Mohammad Yousuf even converted from Christianity. His initial influence on the team was exactly as he had wished. Yes, he was in charge at Faisalabad when Afridi deliberately damaged the pitch, but this was clearly a moment of individual recklessness entirely ungoverned by the will or rule of the captain. Islamic guidance on cheating and deception are very clear, and there was surely a link between the dearth of accusation during Inzamam’s tenure and the moral code that prevailed in his team.

It came as an enormous shock – and an even greater affront – to Inzamam when Darrell Hair publicly accused, condemned and punished his team for cheating. There was no hearing; the laws of cricket bestow unquestionable authority on the umpires. There is no due process in the little light blue book. And, let’s be honest, coming from a white non-Muslim at a time when Islam was subject to all manner of criticism from others, this unsympathetic arbitration hurt all the more. Inzamam’s image was tarnished by events at the Oval, and it never really recovered. His demoralised team were bundled out of the 2007 world cup at an early stage and then, of course, Bob Woolmer died. A desolate Inzamam stepped down, and watched from a distance as first a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team put an end to international cricket in Pakistan, and then the spot-fixing scandal engulfed the team, his teachings of integrity and honour relegated to footnotes under the usual anti-Pakistan headlines.

Honour regained

The team inherited by Misbah-ul-Haq was broken, seemingly beyond repair. Shattered, dropped, kicked around, picked up, glued back together and shattered again; the cycle had repeated interminably. Slowly, delicately, Misbah pieced his squad back together once more and brought them something they had not experienced for a generation: peace of mind. Cricket had been taken seriously by many in Pakistan, but joyously by precious few. His record as captain was the most successful in Pakistani history, but there was much more to his leadership than mere results. ‘He had exactly the right qualities to lead his team at its moment of supreme crisis,’ wrote The Spectator. He had studied management – he had learned about working with people – in an academic career that extended well into his twenties. He came to cricket late; he was effectively an elder statesman from the moment he made his national debut and when he ascended to the captaincy aged 34, he was the de facto father of the team. He brought emotional wellbeing to the squad, and his positive influence proved infectious.

When Pakistan beat England at Lord’s in 2016, the enduring memory was of Misbah doing push-ups on the outfield immediately after reaching his century. The whole team reprised this iconic celebration once they had completed their victory. It was one of the most life-affirming moments of cricketing jubilation and brought a rheumy eye to even the most hard-hearted dinosaurs of the Long Room. With two years of hindsight, it is no exaggeration to say that it was at this precise moment that the Pakistan team’s spirit and image changed. Past misdemeanours were at once forgiven, old enmities set aside.

Misbah could not have lead the team until he was 50 years old – well, he probably could have, but although the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak, push-ups notwithstanding. The team that Sarfaraz Ahmed inherited was a positive, optimistic and an effective unit. The new batsmen may have faltered, and the imposing figure of Inzamam – now playing the role of godfather, for better or worse – may loom over the team again, but the team’s various components have been integrated and harnessed. They work as one. Watching Pakistan play in Ireland and England this spring, just as in 2016, has been an undeniable joy. No more is the arrival of the Pakistan team cause for trepidation and the wetting of muck-rakers’ pencils. Like New Zealand, they are the new ambassadors of the global game. They are living proof that any team can drag itself up, can be reborn, and can look to the light. The star of Pakistan is shining, and it illuminates a path of achievement and destiny, at last, fulfilled.

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