CRICKET: CRICKET IN A FIX, AGAIN

10 May 2020

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Saleem Malik
Saleem Malik

It really doesn’t take much, does it? An article on ESPNCricinfo about Saleem Malik — trying to fight the battle for content in the age of Covid-19 — has begun to peel the layers off what Pakistan cricket would prefer to keep buried. Questions that have no easy or acceptable answers have begun popping up. And, once again, Pakistan cricket has to reckon with a virus that has plagued it for decades, with still no vaccine in sight.

First off, Saleem Malik is truly underrated today. There are a variety of reasons for it: he was a liability through most of the late 1990s (thus for many in our generation, we remember him by his past-prime self), and then became the sacrificial lamb of an era of corruption, as his feats were forgotten. By unloading all the sins on to his shoulders, a generation of fans and players could wipe away the question marks that surrounded all that came before.

In the first 21 years of ODI cricket (i.e. prior to the 1992 World Cup) only two batsmen scored over a thousand runs at an average in excess of 30 and a strike rate north of 85: Viv Richards and Saleem Malik. Malik’s expertise was in chasing, where he struck at a strike rate of 90 in an era when 220 was a good ODI score. And for a country which has always had trouble in chasing targets, he was an extreme exception: between the 1987 and 1992 World Cups, his ODI record while chasing was an average of 45.6 and a strike rate of 95; numbers that Pakistan would gladly take in 2020, let alone when Vital Signs was the biggest band in the country.

And yet he was also someone good enough to score a double hundred against peak Shane Warne on an Asian pitch, and still the visiting player with the most 50-plus scores at Headingley in the ’80s and ’90s (when that ground was renowned for its lateral movement). Until Azhar Ali passed him by, he was still in the top five for Pakistan in terms of Test runs and centuries. Simply put, it makes sense that players that played with him, or under him, would call for his return — in their eyes, he was a great player who served the country more than most, and why he was forgotten is for a sin they realise he wasn’t alone in committing.

Of course, the irony in all this is that those who are asking for his return were themselves named and shamed, if not reprimanded severely enough, in the Qayyum Report. You would think that they would avoid ever touching that topic again, for fear of reprisals. But such is the state of Pakistan cricket and society, that suspected fixers can call for the return of confirmed fixers, knowing full well that they are safe.

Banned cricketer Saleem Malik’s attempts to be rehabilitated and return as coach have opened up a Pandora’s box. Should a great cricketer’s contributions be uplifted and his corruption downplayed in the greater interest of the game? Is this even in the greater interest of the game?

Three decades of drip-drip news and apocryphal stories have built up a culture where fixing is almost taken as a given, as if it is no different from chucking or tampering — just something that a lot of people do, but no one wants to talk openly about; never mind that the difference between cheating to win for your team and country, and deliberately losing to defraud millions of your countrymen should never be considered equal.

But this is where we are, an era when past cricketers can launch YouTube channels and vent about the fans of today not having the passion or true regard for cricketers today, as they did when growing up; without ever realising that the decline from the nation’s heroes to whatever Pakistani cricketers are now, has a lot to do with the same guys with the YouTube channels treating the national team like ‘Fantine’ in her last days in Les Misérables. First they destroyed the trust between the team and the fans by selling them short, now they wonder why fans don’t love the team like they used to 30 years ago. But I guess self-reflection or honest assessment has never been a Pakistani forte.

This is a topic I feel rather passionately about, far more so than I once did. Five years ago, as the bans of the spot-fixing trio were coming to an end, their rehabilitation was the subject du jour in Pakistan cricket. I believed, and wrote copiously then, that there ought to be limits to their return to the national team, but was otherwise nonplussed about their involvement in cricket.

It was during this period that I was on a TV show with Bazid Khan during the 2015 World Cup when this topic came up. Sitting next to a great from the ’90s, Bazid’s viewpoint was pretty clear: he believed that match-fixing was a form of treason and, as far as he knew, the outcome of treason ought to be capital punishment. That seemed purely Bazid — his father had spent most of the ’90s as a lone crusader against this scourge. Bazid had himself fought that as well as he could during his playing career, but in such matters it appeared as if he were more extremist than necessary.

Less than two years later, I agreed wholeheartedly with him. Sitting in a hotel room in Dubai, trying to explain to the Islamabad United owners and players that two of their players had been involved in such an activity is the sort of thing that changes your perspective. In hindsight, of course, it’s not that big a deal — Rehan ul Haq and I (the managers of Islamabad United) were able to re-load the team and, 12 months later, we had another PSL trophy in our hands. So it was just a blip in our lives.

But the feelings of those sordid days will always live with me. That sense of betrayal, of disloyalty from someone that we had invested more in than any other IU player at the time, of a dressing room where everyone looks over their shoulder every moment of the day, a group that has less trust between them than Pakistan and India have at a diplomatic conference, a locker room that feels poisonous, is everything that a fixing scandal leads to.

It breaks your belief in humanity, in sport as being the best of our species, in the idea of what it means to be a teammate. At that moment you demand retribution, you demand something to soothe the pain, you demand justice (whatever that may entail). In the days following that event, as every Pakistani I met tried to downplay what the duo had done, only what a former all-time-great batsman said seemed to hit home: his assessment (that the only solution was to chop the heads off all fixers) made me question my belief in progressive politics and capital punishment. After all, if that’s what it takes so that no one after us had to go through what we just did, would that be worth it?

Three years later, we had a chance again to pick up Sharjeel Khan, one of the duo involved, in the draft. His selection wasn’t something we ever even considered — far better to lose with a team you trusted, than win with one you didn’t. Eventually he ended up knocking us out of PSL 5. And yet we’ve not regretted that decision even once. But I digress. This has nothing to do with Saleem Malik, surely?

And yet it certainly does. The question of Sharjeel, of Salman Butt, of Saleem Malik and of everyone else is the same: how long should Judas suffer for his sins?

Some might argue that those who’ve served their time deserve to be rehabilitated. I am reminded of Jeffrey Esptein, a notorious sex offender and paedophile who was jailed in Florida for over a year in 2008. The question that you have to ask yourself is, would you let your children stay with Epstein after his sentence was over? After all, he had served his time and been rehabilitated surely?

Some might question trying to equate fixing with paedophilia, which only shows how accepting our society has become of this menace. We welcome back players from bans as if they are prodigal sons returning home, we accept fixing as commonplace to the point that we begin to project: for instance, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Pakistan’s most famous cricket host declared that Germany’s win over Brazil was because that match had been fixed. It was an utterance that would seem preposterous to every football fan, but it’s also something that you would hear from someone who has been completely poisoned by Pakistan cricket.

And that really is the question that we have to answer with the Saleem Malik case — just in the month since this discussion has been ongoing, yet another Pakistani player has been banned (Umar Akmal in this case). At what point do we as a society and a fan-base say ‘enough is enough!’, that short-term goals — the odd win here or there — is just not worth the larger loss in innocence; that it’s just not worth a fan-base that can never love its heroes again, that we can no longer trust our own eyes on something as simple as sport; that we can never have institutional progress because all failures are swept away with questions of malice rather than incompetence?

At what point do we realise that, until we rid Pakistan cricket of this scourge, Pakistan cricket will never maximise what it has? At what point do we think that a culture of paranoia and schizophrenia isn’t ideal for building great players, teams or human beings?

The question shouldn’t be whether Saleem Malik should return, but rather which of his former teammates should join him in exile; but that’s a debate that we are never going to have.

The writer is Strategy Manager for the PSL franchise Islamabad United. He tweets @mediaga

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 10th, 2020