A cricket scandal, a youth's dream and a nation betrayed

As if the floods were not enough. By 10pm on Saturday, things had already become a whole lot worse.

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As if the floods were not enough. When their president Asif Ali Zardari visited Britain earlier this month, Pakistanis were outraged by a rumour that he splurged tens of millions of pounds on a plush London house during a time of crisis. To add to the misery, it seemed certain that the national cricket team would lose its test match against England, a prediction that proved true yesterday.

But by 10pm on Saturday, things had already become a whole lot worse. The evening television news previewed a story in yesterday's News of the World, a sensational weekly tabloid, which reported that members of the Pakistani team had been involved in a gambling racket. The newspaper claimed that an associate of the team, a British Pakistani named Mazher Majeed, had agreed to give £150,000 to seven players who would purposely bowl no-balls at specific times to rig gambling margins. At least two Pakistani bowlers did appear to pitch blatant no-balls during the match.

One of those two was Mohammed Aamer, an 18-year-old bowler whom I had interviewed in Dubai for The National in November. The floppy haired teenager, tall and slim, had just helped the team avoid an embarrassing loss against New Zealand with an impressive display of batsmanship during a one day international game in Abu Dhabi. He was quiet and polite, and spoke only a little English. He said he spent his spare time praying and with his family.

His story was something of a fairy tale. He was born in a rural village in the Punjab, grew up in poverty and practised cricket so much and so hard he used to injure himself. Cricket, he said, had been part of his life for as long he could remember. It was his way to give his family a new life. In a short time, since gaining fame for his cricketing skills, he had outgrown his teenage demeanour. Earlier this year, he told The New York Times that he was planning to study accounting because sport is not a lifetime career. Amir Rashid wrote a positive profile of Aamer for The Independent, which also ran yesterday presumably based on research conducted before the scandal emerged. "Nobody has illuminated the cricketing summer more," he wrote.

Aamer's apparent downfall is surely the most depressing part of this weekend's bleak events. He signified hope for the country and was achingly close to becoming a national hero. Indeed, had he not been accused in the fixing, the episode would not have been so heartbreaking. Within minutes of the story's release, social networks were filled with outrage and hate directed against the team, peppered with a slight sense of sympathy and disappointment in regards to Aamer.

A friend in Karachi texted me to say he was ashamed to be Pakistani. Another said he wanted to believe there was a conspiracy theory behind the story. In November, Aamer, the then 17-year-old cricketer had told me: "Ever since I was a young boy, all I wanted to do was to be a cricketer. I knew that it would bring dignity, I knew my standard of living would improve and I wanted to support my family and be famous."

If the fixing story is true, his poor judgement is most of all a tragedy for his own career, but the consequences of his actions will be felt far and wide. He will have destroyed the hopes of young Pakistani boys everywhere. As a role model, he will have failed. Details will emerge about whether he was coaxed into participating, or older players took advantage of his naivete, but ultimately he will be responsible for his conduct.

He has thrown away his dreams, so long worked for, in a flash. Beset by disaster, Pakistan is reeling from blow after blow. Just when things seem like they cannot get any worse, the country is thrown back into the spotlight. This time it is the national pastime and there is little room for denial. Despite my friend's hope for a conspiracy, the usual suspects of America or anti-Islamic sentiment cannot be blamed. A Briton of Pakistani descent and the Pakistani players themselves are at the centre of the scandal.

The players, unlike the country's politicians, had enjoyed sympathy - they are nomads who cannot play home games since the attack against Sri Lanka's team in Lahore last year. Cricket, especially now, was the only emotional release for most Pakistanis amid a flood of depression. Now, the team, probably with a few different faces in the lineup, will face embarrassment and suspicion at their next games.

The only redeeming feature of the whole story is that the cricket players themselves are human. Just last week, players donated half of their bonuses to flood relief after beating England at the Oval Test. Since the floods, many Pakistanis have come to expect the worst of politicians - the low opinion of Mr Zardari being a case in point. Sport was supposed to be above the fray, but the team's donation during a time of need will quickly be forgotten.

This is not the first time we have witnessed the downfall of Pakistani sportsmen. The cricket team has been hit by charges of fixing since the 1990s. In 1992, the bowler Wasim Akram was accused of ball tampering. "Wasim Akram is my favourite, he's my idol," Aamer, also a left arm fast bowler, told me in November. "When I used to watch him on TV, I would try to see what exactly he was doing with the ball. Then I would go outside and imitate his actions and bowling. He is a legend."

As one prominent Pakistani blogger, Five Rupees, put it: "Looks like Mohammed Aamer may have had more in common with Wasim Akram than we'd like." Anealla Safdar is a former reporter for The National