Sport betrayed, a nation shamed

2011-11-05 00:00

NO ONE in their right mind takes any satisfaction from the sight of three prominent Test cricketers in a van on the way to jail.

The humiliation is complete, their careers are over, their reputations forever damaged.

It is not fitting to rejoice. Sadness is the overwhelming sentiment for a game that was let down and even for the perpetrators, who made two terrible mistakes, letting greed take over their souls and getting caught in the act.

Cricket has been betrayed many times by many players from many nations, and often by those it most trusted — not children of the back streets, but the sophisticates with their marble hallways. But then marble is expensive.

Although painful to behold, the sentences were palpably right. Feel for the game — not those spitting on it. The sentences sent out a message to cricketers and other sportsmen considering taking the forty pieces of silver offered nowadays to anyone willing to betray his sport. Severe punishments alone can stop the rot. Cricket followers are entitled to know that their game is worth the bother and that its champions are not men of straw.

Never forget that at the time of his criminal activities Salman Butt was captaining his country. Never forget that he stood at the top of a huge cricket community in a nation of 180 million people. Never forget that cricket is one of the few consolations available to the poor of that nation. Never forget that Pakistan is a troubled country with a fractured history and that cricket is its national game.

Never forget that Butt took money not for his team or his country, but to fill an already bulging back pocket. Never forget that he was a leader with young players under his wing, including the most promising fast bowler in the world.

Never forget that the same teenager was himself corrupted and is now behind bars. Mohammed Amir is responsible for his actions, but he was also led astray.

At least he pleaded guilty and took his punishment. Alone among the culprits he deserves some sympathy.

Never forget that Butt took late-night phone calls from a staggeringly indiscreet fixer. He danced to the tune not of his country’s needs but his own desires. Never forget that he was leading a team with a history of corruption and that time and time again he had been warned about the bookies and reminded of his responsibilities.

Never forget that he betrayed the honest players in his side and the honest people in his country, and did so in a Test match played on the game’s most dignified ground.

Never forget that Mohammed Asif was the senior bowler in the team, a wily operator respected by every opponent and relied on every colleague. He was a beautiful bowler to watch, one capable of keeping the ball on a string.

But he betrayed his calling and his team and his country for a few dollars more.

A team-mate observed that he had played more matches than Asif but was still paying for his house while the medium pacer owned four mansions.

How much money do people want? It is a question that can just as easily be put to dictators with their billions, bankrupt bankers awarding themselves fat bonuses, politicians rotting the system, squillionaires avoiding tax and the rest of them. Sportsmen do not exist in isolation and are not God’s special creations. They are corrupt because the world is corrupt.

But sport itself is sincere or it is nothing. Seeing and believing must be bedfellows. Cricket can no longer make any such claim.

Admittedly it is played not by stable Nordic nations, but by countries often at odds with themselves and each other. It never was a gentleman’s game, but it is supposed to retain its integrity and instead has been run by money for money.

Never forget that the corruption was exposed in a sting operation run by investigative journalists. It was a triumph for the fourth estate, a justification for its existence, now under constant bombardment, not least hereabouts. Of course the same forces have also exposed corrupt politicians, always a risky business.

A con has been turned into a crime. It is a vital step in the fight against corruption.

In that regard, this case has its advantages. Detection is difficult and deterrence has more chance of success. Events in Southwark Crown Court will help cricket to clean up its act.

Those contemplating taking the money might not be worried about suspensions, but might baulk at a stint behind bars.

Now the next step is crucial. Let every nation pass such a law. Let every police force take charge of investigating corruption in sport.

These tawdry and yet cleansing events are a beginning, not an end.

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