Dark knights: From Akram to Amir
I am a teenager shouting out at a middle-aged man selling drinks behind a counter.
“Chacha, chacha, chacha,” I call out to him without pausing.
There is a crowd around me, also desperately trying to get chacha’s attention. A man is trying to stick cash in chacha’s hand when the lady next to him loses her cool. “Can’t you see? I have been standing here forever,” she says.
We are in between overs, and everyone is trying to buy a drink and get back to their seats to watch Wasim Akram bowl.
I hold onto my plastic soda bottles (later used as drum sticks) and make my way to my enclosure as Akram takes the ball; king of swing, left arm god, Pakistan captain and my hero.
He is heir to Imran Khan’s dynasty; he is the wizard in a team of magicians. It is for his love I am wearing the green jersey and holding up the flag. I scream at the top of my voice “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long live Pakistan). I am in love with Pakistan cricket; I am in love with Pakistan. It is 1996.
Pakistan has already won the series against New Zealand and this is a dead rubber. Things have gone south for Pakistan as New Zealand is comfortably chasing an odd score of 234/4 in 50 overs on a flat deck at National Stadium, Karachi.
A gentleman next to me says, “Conform fixed! They have sold their country” with complete conviction. He rambles on how Wasim’s elder brother Nadeem Akram is a bookie in Lahore and how the entire team is involved in match-fixing.
Nothing I hadn’t heard before, or shrugged off.
My replies in those day were typical too. “Akram is the best Pakistani cricketer” (including that day); “winning and losing is a part of sport and not everything should be seen with suspicion.”
But as the years went by, many whistle blowers came to the fore with evidence more compelling each time. I also grew older, better informed and on some accounts, wiser too. It became almost impossible to refute the engagement in illicit activity of numerous Pakistani players.
While I conceded to the existence of rampant match-fixing in cricket, the love inside me was still alive; for cricket, for Pakistan and for my 'Akram 66' jersey.
I was not alone. Majority of my friends, family and Pakistanis shared my sentiment. Blinded by love, Akram was always to remain our national hero. We were forgiving realists, sympathisers and apologists.
However, there were also many persecutors, critics, skeptics and the forever-unforgiving Pakistani self-righteous populace. My own brother referred to him as “traitor” every time we spoke of Akram.
The Pakistani household was divided in opinion, thought and judgment. Millions in the country lost faith and belief in not just their heroes but also in the integrity of cricket.
“Why do you even watch this, it is all fixed” was a common taunt the ardent cricket fan faced from a dejected public, while many casual followers fell off the radar. What was once the pride and joy of the country became the subject of its ridicule and shame.
Almost 15 years after that game in Karachi, I arrived in London on the day of the final verdict of the Southwark Crown Court. Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir were all found guilty for spot- fixing and faced jail time.
The large Pakistani community on the Island faced backlash on the streets of the city. And it wasn’t the first time they had been labeled as cheats.
The ruling on the teenage kid from Gujjar Khan was particularly painful. Amir was the only one who had an unblemished past, was a juvenile and had come clean, pleading guilty.
Amir had sympathies from many quarters on more than one account, especially given his comparisons to Akram.
In his short career of 14 Tests, he was already (and perhaps prematurely) touted as the next 'left-arm god'; his rise the rebirth of Akram.
Imran Khan said, “I saw both Akram and Amir bowl at the same age and I feel Amir is ahead of Akram.”
“Amir is much cleverer than I was at 18,” Akram conceded.
He had also taken more wickets than Akram in the same number of games at the start of their careers.
As Pakistan’s heart broke in a million little pieces in 2010, the nation was once again split in their views on punishment and retribution.
One theory states that deterrence is the best remedy for crime. You set a precedent, persecute in public and it will work like an antidote for the observer. In short, if the Pakistani authorities had punished Akram and company severely enough, the likes of Amir would have never trotted this path.
No recourse to law and lack of convictions breed corruption, while glorifying and idolising those associated with malpractice encourages their successors to follow suit. When you socially ostracise them, the results are different.
Another argument suggests that these cricketers are from among us, and have not been imported into Pakistan. They are home grown sons of the soil just like our public municipalities, police, customs, courts, lawyers, judges, doctors and teachers. Corruption runs deep in the social fabric of the country and cricketers are not an exception.
Some factions lay the blame on the lack of financial benefits, education and exposure, while others view it as greed and lack of integrity.
The PCB had been aware of foul play for well over a decade and while the sting operation in England 2010 stunned many, the shock factor in the fraternity ran low.
Over sixty players, ex-cricketers, board officials, journalists, bookies and police officers were questioned in the Qayyum Commission report released in 2000. Almost all witnesses affirmed the wide spread presence of match-fixing in Pakistan cricket. Audio recordings, credit card bills, airline tickets and a whole lot of testimonies against teammates were thrown across the room.
Eventually, bans were only handed out to Salim Malik (who was at the end of his career) and Ata-ur-Rehman (who had lost contention for selection). Mild sanctions and pocket change fines were levied on Pakistan’s biggest names including Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam ul Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed and Saeed Anwar. Others like Ijaz Ahmed, Saqlain Mushtaq, Basit Ali and Zahid Fazal were acquitted due to lack of admissible evidence.
An Islamic wave in Pakistan cricket coincided with what had been happening in the courtroom. Saeed Anwar was the first to join the Tableeghi Jamaat as many others followed the path of righteousness, making God their witness. Basit Ali had earlier testified in court “that before all the matches we used to put our hands on the Holy Quran and take the oath that we will play to the best of our ability.”
Three years after the report, Aamir Sohail, a crucial witness against his accused teammates, was made chief selector. He took upon himself what the single bench ruling of Qayyum had failed to do. The cricket career of all those indicted was put to an end and whistle blower Rashid Latif was made captain.
Only Inzamam was able to make a successful return to international cricket, soon replacing Rashid as captain, this time in a religious garb. The field of play was not just used to battle against the opposition, but often as space for communal prayer.
The murmurs of match-fixing subsided over the years but never completely disappeared. Ex-cricketers and skeptics often cried wolf in post match analysis.
Spot-fixing/fancy is a lot easier to execute, and more importantly simpler for the offender to conceal. You do not need an aide in the team, have no confidants and leave no witnesses. You can fly solo on a fix and make the quick buck. It is what makes spot-fixing so hard to detect and even harder to charge.
The mysterious death of Bob Woolmer, the disappearance of a Pakistani wicketkeeper from Dubai and reports of the Indian underworld mafia running the betting syndicate continued to cast dark shadows on Pakistan cricket but they never truly came to light.
However, there were eminent signs of misdemeanor that caught the radar months before the English summer of 2010.
Serious allegations were put against Kamran Akmal in the Sydney Test in January that year. Pakistan team coach Aaqib Javed and manager Intikhab Alam accused Kamran in a PCB meeting held behind closed doors (a video of which was embarrassingly leaked through PCB corridors).
“I have reservations over the way he (Kamran) missed the run out. When I saw it I couldn't believe it… I know all about it because I was a victim of it. In 1998, I presented evidence against players but the judge who was hearing the inquiry ended the matter,” said a disgruntled Aaqib.
“I was flabbergasted when Kamran missed the run out. I have serious doubts about him. I have heard stories about match-fixing,” said Intikhab.
In the aftermath of the tour, amidst extreme infighting and power politics, many fines and toothless bans were handed out to Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Shoaib Malik, Rana Naveed, Shahid Afridi and the Akmal brothers. But bizarrely, yet typically, the accusers and the accused continued to share the Pakistani dressing room.
Six months later, in the video released by News of the World Mazhar Majeed the infamous match-fixer and player agent said, ''Let me tell you the last Test we did. It was the second Test against Australia in Sydney. The odds for Pakistan to lose that match (at one point) were, I think, 40-1.”
Mazhar also said that he had Kamran Akmal, Umar Akmal, Wahab Riaz and Imran Farhat in on his fixes.
In court, prosecution presented pictures of Wahab Riaz receiving a white jacket containing 10,000 pounds in cash paid by the News of the World as down payment for the fix.
However, substantial and impeachable evidence was only found against Butt, Asif and Amir.
Here, it is pertinent to introspect. Would the trio have been convicted and banned if the foreign press and law enforcement had not decided their fate?
Pakistan is a country where a man who had been in and out of jail for over a decade on a long list of corruption charges (without a single conviction) became the first civilian president to serve a full constitutional term in the country’s history.
It is a cricketing estate where so many coaches, players, captains and legends have buried skeletons that PCB would turn into a graveyard if each were to be dug out and given a tombstone.
Humans are a product of their environment and we raise our kids in country where we often do not form a line to buy a drink, but shout out loud and jump queue to quench thirst. Where breaking traffic lights and bribing the cop is a norm.
In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the saviours also seek salvation and the knights customarily have a dark side. Here, we all sin, just in a different way.
We are a nation with an extremely high level of tolerance for the ills that besiege us; individuals who have set an utterly low benchmark of the people we elect, support, and even love in certain cases.
Imran Khan recently said, “Criminals are running the country, so it is irrational that someone who has completed his sentence is opposed on his return.”
Is rampant corruption in other institutions a license to fraud, especially in sport?
Should we glorify those who have betrayed Pakistan? Continue to pelt stones at easy targets, convicted by a judicial system more efficient than our own and crucify those who have already served their sentence?
Should we celebrate those who escaped through an inept tribunal?
Would Amir's extraordinary talent have flourished, if there was no Akram to idolise?
These questions present a hypothesis that cannot be tested, but contain deep ramifications for the future of Pakistan.
When Amir runs into bowl wearing a Pakistani badge on his chest against New Zealand, I will be in the stands holding the crescent flag. And if he brings glory to his country or display half the magic of Akram, a lot of green jerseys will have ‘Amir’ written on their back.
After all, he is one of us.