Nobody surprised by a cricket scandal except the punters

Everybody loses in the Pakistan cricket scandal, which nobody believes was an isolated incident.

Today the Pakistan cricket team competes in a hard-fought Test series against Sri Lanka in Sharjah. But for three of the team's former brightest stars, the regime will be very different. Instead of a swim in the hotel pool followed by gentle net practice and a team talk about tactics, they will be contemplating prison somewhere in the UK.

The guilty verdicts handed down to Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir (as well as their agent, Mazhar Majeed) for the spot-fixing scam will hopefully draw a line under one of the most shameful episodes in cricket, as well as issue a stark warning to those who are tempted to traduce the sport for their own grubby ends. I say hopefully, because few in the sport have any doubt that the scandal, far from being an isolated case, merely caught a few poor saps with their fingers in the till.

During the Pakistan tour to England in 2010 (when these crimes were committed), I was writing a book about the "summer game", and so I was watching a lot of the series alongside various ex-players and seasoned journos. When the now-closed News of the World exposed the scam on the Sunday of the Lord's Test, the news was received in the press box not with horrified outrage so much as cynical amusement. Low-level corruption, it appeared, was an open secret to everyone in the game apart from the poor punter.

The judgements handed down by the trial judge have been widely praised for their sense of proportion, in particular the six-month sentence given to Mohammad Amir, who will serve it at a young offenders institution. Aged only 19, he had been elevated to fame and wealth beyond his dreams and misled by those he had been taught to respect. For him, a wonderful career is now dreadfully tainted.

But for his captain and the apparent mastermind of the scam, Salman Butt, no disdain is too severe. Groomed for leadership since the age of 17, and entrusted with leading the national side of a cricket-mad country, Butt had a privileged background in which he had never needed to struggle other than out in the middle. I, for one, will weep no tears at his fall. For if it is not sincere, cricket, or any other sporting endeavour, is nothing.

Yet if match-fixing is endemic at the highest levels, perhaps it's no surprise: for the sport itself has increasingly become a media tool, used for soaking up the long hours of TV broadcasting in between advert breaks. My 1979 edition of Wisden, the Cricketers' Almanac, ran to 1,159 pages. Thirty years on and the publication is a third heavier, bloated by the necessary chronicling of endless footling international fixtures.

The result is that Test cricket is no longer the pinnacle of the professional game, but a handy revenue stream. The commentators and pundits may wax long and lyrical about the importance of each wicket and run, but whom are they fooling? No sooner is a match completed than the same weary, footsore players will already be checking out of their hotels and decamping to the next venue. And as the adage goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

The one person who has been forgotten in this whole affair is the long-suffering spectator, who continues to turn out in a naive and entirely mistaken belief that they're witnessing a fair contest. But for how much longer? Whenever something out of the ordinary occurs at an international match, the first instinct will be: "Was that a fix?" That is surely the most damaging legacy of the whole shoddy business.

Of course there are those who will question whether locking cricketers up in jail merely for bowling the odd no-ball to order is too severe a punishment. After all, nobody was hurt. And sport is surely only a branch of the entertainment industry.

Well, to them I offer a thought. There was a period early in my acting career when, playing the lead in a glittering West End musical, I began complaining about the drudgery of performing the same show for weeks on end. An elderly actor overheard me and asked me to follow him to the box office where punters were already purchasing tickets.

"See those £10 notes they're handing over?" he said to me. "Those people have worked long and hard, often in dispiriting jobs, to come here. Each time you don't try your best onstage, you're taking their money under false pretences".

It's a lesson I never forgot. Sadly, it's one that Salman Butt and his like never bothered to ever learn.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

Published: November 6, 2011 04:00 AM

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