Watching Pakistan play South Africa in the second Test at Cape Town, I can’t help wishing we had a more potent pace attack. The South Africans, as we know, have three world-class fast bowlers plus Jacques Kallis, the finest – but oddly underrated – all-rounder in the game. Compared to their hostile pacers, ours look distinctly pedestrian. It’s only Saeed Ajmal who’s keeping us competitive.
And yet, had it not been for the News of the World sting that sidelined Mohammed Amir and Mohammed Asif in 2010, the two bowlers would have been making life hard for Smith & Company today. That scandal ended two brilliant careers, probably forever. I feel particularly sorry for young Amir who, at 19, was vulnerable to his skipper’s instructions to bowl pre-determined no-balls.
How many of us have not made mistakes when we were young? But Amir has to live in the shadow of his error of judgment for the rest of his life. Even though he has served his jail term and will have completed his five-year ban in a couple of years when he’s only 24, it is doubtful that he’ll ever represent Pakistan again. Not because our selectors are too squeamish about players using dubious means: witness Afridi’s long stint on the national team despite being caught on camera deliberately scraping the surface of the pitch in Faisalabad years ago, and more recently, biting the seam of the ball in Australia.
No, the reason is that if Asif does return, he will be taunted by the opposition around the world. Worse, every time he bowls a no-ball – and which bowler never bowls one? – there will be whispers of spot-fixing. Such a burden is more than Amir’s young shoulders should have to bear. But for such a prodigious talent to be lost to cricket is an awful waste.
Over the years, Pakistan has earned the unsavoury reputation of being cheats. Various cricketers have been involved in scandals, and in the old days before neutral umpires and the review system, teams visiting Pakistan would often complain about the quality of decisions. But of late, charges of match-fixing and performance-enhancing drugs have rocked the sporting world. It would seem that we are not the only ones accused of unfair means.
In Australia, a country that has long been identified with sporting excellence, a major drug-related scandal is unravelling. Scores of athletes and sportsmen are under investigation. There is much breast-beating as the media comes to grips with the extent of drug-use seemingly rampant in Australian sports.
In China, the authorities have cracked down on a major scheme to rig football matches. Teams would sell matches so a rival could collect the points, and the proceeds would be used to bet on the pre-determined results. In an unprecedented crackdown, hundreds of players, coaches, managers, sponsors and middlemen were arrested and questioned separately. Over 50 were convicted and jailed, some for as many as 10 years. This is probably the harshest penalty ever awarded for sports-relate crimes.
Currently, a Singapore-based betting ring is being investigated for fixing hundreds of matches in the Italian league. Although Italian soccer has long been associated with corruption, the current scandal is unprecedented in its extent.
But perhaps cycling is at the eye of the sporting scandals currently making headlines around the world. Lance Armstrong had long dominated the Tour de France, the world’s premier cycling event. The Tour is watched by millions as the cyclists fight for the lead over a fortnight of gruelling stages across plains and mountains. Armstrong won the highly prized trophy so many times that the French despaired of one of their countrymen ever claiming it.
Even after he was operated on for prostate cancer, he continued in the saddle, winning yet again, to the delight of his countrymen in the United States. In the process, he did more to popularise the sport in America than any other individual. Probably the most inspirational figure in any sport, he was worshipped by millions around the world.
So when he was caught up in a doping scandal, we were all stunned: how could this iconic figure use performance-enhancing techniques to win? After months of denial, Armstrong has come clean, and been stripped of his titles. This fall from grace shook the world of cycling, and showed that it is possible to cheat despite the stringent drug controls in place in all major sports.
Clearly — and sadly — cheating in sports is far more widespread than we had thought. Each time chemical tests become more sophisticated, cheaters find ways to circumvent them. In Armstrong’s case, rumours of doping had swirled around him for years, but law-suits for defamation silenced many critics. His teammates were pressured to keep quiet, but have now spoken up. Recently, Armstrong came clean before TV cameras on a special Oprah show watched by a huge audience.
Although he has confessed in public, there seems little admission of a moral lapse. To this day, he doesn’t seem to realise he has done something wrong: as far as he’s concerned, he only gained an edge on the competition. His mistake was to get caught.
The truth is that there’s now so much money in sports that it’s hard for young men with a limited playing life to refrain from cheating if they think they can get away with it. When the News of the World reporter Mazhar Mahmood (also known as the ‘Fake Sheikh’ for other sting operations) offered 150,000 pounds to the sleazy fixer Mazhar Majeed to organise a bit of spot-fixing, the three Pakistani cricketers saw nothing wrong with bowling a couple of no-balls.
The sporting world is full of young athletes and players who know their careers can be abruptly curtailed for a number of reasons, leaving them with little money and no qualifications to do much else. So when we pass judgment on them, we need to remember the pressures they are under. Hopefully, young Amir will find a place on the national cricket squad in a couple of years: after all, convicted criminals who have served their sentence are rehabilitated and allowed to live normal lives.