Outside of Bollywood potboilers, clearly neither divinity nor the criminal justice system is swayed by sentimentalism. Early Tuesday, Salman Butt’s wife gave birth to their child and by evening, he was being pronounced guilty of cheating and corruption in the spot-fixing case that has rocked cricket for more than a year. That life is full of bitter ironies may be hackneyed truism, but what explains the former Pakistan captain’s plight better?
The quotient of irony in human affairs finds another and intriguing dimension in the same case when you consider that News of the World, the tabloid which carried out the sting operation in which Butt, his colleagues Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir and fixer Mazhar Majeed were trapped, has since been shut down for sharp practices bordering on criminality.
Caught red-handed: Pakistani cricketer Salman Butt. Photographs by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
The taped evidence produced by News of the World left little scope for Butt and Co. to plead innocence: It is almost incontrovertible. Money is seen to clearly change hands for events to happen on the field; and they happen exactly as decided between the bookie and the captain. Moreover, marked currency was later found in Butt’s room.
The players have recourse to appeal in higher courts, but any relief from these quarters too seems a long shot. Every indication is that Butt could get as much as seven years imprisonment under Britain’s new Gambling Act (of 2005). Asif could get a lighter sentence since money was not found on his person and Amir perhaps even less for having pleaded guilty before the trial began.
But there is no diminishing the disappointment and trauma among cricket fans in realizing that cricket is still open to corruption—perhaps with even more diabolical expression. It would be foolish too to believe that only Pakistani cricketers are involved. While clearly there has been a preponderance of stories involving them, it is a no-brainer that such malpractice can be far more widespread simply because so much immunity is inbuilt in the playing of the sport.
Former Indian Premier League (IPL) commissioner and chairman Lalit Modi’s tweets saying people other than players (umpires and administrators) could be involved has triggered furious speculation. The problem of corruption in sport, of course, is not limited to cricket or the subcontinent, as is being touted. Threats exist to every sport across the world and from all stakeholders, as the following examples from Transparency International (a civil society organization fighting corruption) and other sources would suggest.
Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Asif.
Football: Referee Robert Hoyzer confessed to fixing four matches in 2003 and 2004 in the German National League, allegedly for €50,000 (around Rs 34 lakh) and a plasma TV. Hoyzer was found guilty of fraud by the state court and sentenced to 29 months imprisonment. Twenty-five people, including four referees and 14 players, were also investigated for possible fraud.
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Tennis: In August 2008, betting shop Betfair nullified $7 million (Rs 34 crore) in wagers that fourth-ranked Russian Nikolay Davydenko would lose to Martin Vassallo, ranked 84. Bets placed on Davydenko to lose increased even after he won the first set. Interestingly, Davydenko withdrew from the match citing a foot injury. He was suspended but came back after an inquiry. An independent panel in a report submitted in the same year wrote: “There is sufficient cause for concern about the integrity of some players and those outside tennis who seek to corrupt them.”
Snooker: In April last year, News of the World investigative reporter Mazher Mahmood, who did the sting operation on the Pakistan cricketers, trapped snooker World Champion John Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney on camera allegedly agreeing to lose four frames in four different tournament for €300,000. Higgins said he had merely strung along for fear of the Russian mafia. An independent tribunal found Higgins guilty of “giving the impression” that he would do it and fined him £75,000 (around Rs 59 lakh), apart from banning him for six months.
Just how does one counter spot-fixing? Let’s see it in the perspective of cricket. After seeing the News of the World tapes and what transpired on the field in the Lord’s Test between Pakistan and England last year, the nexus between intent and execution is clearly tell-tale. But no-balls, wides, mishits, dropped catches are an intrinsic part of the game. How does one put every such instance under the scanner without affecting the game’s tenor, texture—and most importantly, trust?
There has been widespread expression of relief—even happiness—that Butt and Co. have been tried and found guilty, and a belief that this would be a severe deterrent to future wrongdoers. I support this, but it should not lull us into believing that fixing will not happen in future. Ten years ago, some of the leading lights of the game were found guilty, but match fixing returned to cricket more insidiously and with greater threat to the fabric and prestige of the game.
The challenge ahead for cricket administration, which is really an oligopoly with most members ranged against each other, is to close ranks and crack down hard. But while greater vigilantism is necessary, mentoring at an early age when integrity, probity and national pride can be inculcated in youngsters is even more important; not to forget that a strong players’ association for peer pressure can be most effective. There has been no solution to greed, envy and corruption since the start of time. It is part of the human condition. But the fight against the bad cannot relent.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at email@example.com