ANOTHER chapter in Pakistan’s relationship with cricket’s dark arts was written in the High Court yesterday when a jury found Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif guilty of spot-fixing.
It was the latest blow to the morale of a sport which seems incapable of shrugging off the cloak of cheating and corruption, and a national cricket team with more than its fair share of form when it comes to bending and breaking rules.
But it is important not to write this off as a Pakistani problem, any more than kidding ourselves that it is simply a cricketing problem.
Sport is so great because of its unpredictability. If everyone knew Newcastle United would be one of only two unbeaten teams in the Premier League by the start of November, or that Manchester United would lose that status by crashing 6-1 at home to Manchester City weeks after beating Arsenal 8-2, what would be the point?
That England can hammer India out of sight for an entire summer then be whitewashed by them in the autumn is part of cricket’s fascination, just as people tuned in to rugby union’s World Cup final to find out if the best team on the planet for decades could finally lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Moments like Usain Bolt’s Athletics World Championships false start or Novak Djokovic’s sudden emergence to break tennis’ duopoly keep us coming back for more, season after season.
Lose the unpredictability, and you lose sport. Suspending belief can be as bad.
There are two ways at looking at Butt and Asif’s comeuppance. One is to wallow in the fact such a fantastic game has been dragged back into the gutter. The more instances of match-fixing and spot-fixing exposed, the more suspicious spectators will be.
Heaven forbid cricket reaches the stage some sports have where heroic feats are met instantly with nagging doubts about how they were achieved.
The positive view is to glory in the knowledge that a problem is being tackled, albeit through the courts after an investigation by a now-defunct newspaper. Far too late to save it, the News of the World has regained a smidgeon of credibility.
When Mr Justice Cooke draws a line under this sorry affair, probably tomorrow, it will be a good day for cricket.
But whenever wrong-doing is exposed, the emphasis must be on finding more. Butt and Asif’s punishments will hopefully serve as a massive deterrent to those prepared to take a few dodgy dollars. Yet if Hansie Cronje’s even higher-profile fall from grace did not end cricketing corruption, this case will not.
Cricket’s problem is that it, and the betting around it, is so multi-faceted as to make spot-fixing extremely easy and, in the eyes of some, victimless.
Increasingly, gambling opportunities are permeating down, making more games and players vulnerable.
Butt, Asif and Mohammad Amir’s crimes were nothing like as heinous as those of Cronje, the South African captain who successfully lost a Test against England with incentivised under-performances and an over-generous declaration.
The trio were found to have conspired to bowl three no-balls at set times. It simply made England three runs better off in a match they won comfortably – but for those who staked money on a 1.5million-1 chance, it was a lucrative exercise.
As with pitch and weather reports which have earned naïve or corrupt international cricketers tidy sums, the fear is that seemingly innocuous activities are the tip of a dangerous iceberg.
Even if not, it is a massive slap in the face for entertainment spectators pay good money to watch.
Given that cricket became established in this country as a vehicle for betting, we should not be surprised the English game is not immune.
Perhaps in the New Year we will discover it is uncomfortably close to home. In January Mervyn Westfield will appear at the Old Bailey, charged with agreeing to concede a certain number of runs while bowling for Essex against Durham in a televised 40-over match two years ago. Whether Westfield is guilty or not, it highlights how vulnerable even the quaint old world of county cricket is.
For those of us at the Riverside that night, nothing seemed unusual in Westfield’s performance. His name did not feature in match reports in the Sunday Sun, Journal or Evening Chronicle.
Italy, Germany, Turkey, Finland and South Korea are just some of the countries infected by football corruption in recent years, but it is old hat in the country which invented the game. Allegations that North East legends like Bob Stokoe and Brian Clough were approached to throw matches were never substantiated, but damaging scams were uncovered in 1915 and 1964.
Accrington Stanley and Bury players were found guilty in 2009, while Wayne Rooney’s family have been implicated in ongoing investigations north of the border. Rumours abound that even English junior games are targeted by Far East syndicates.
With gamblers more prepared to spread-bet on meaningless minutiae, even straight-forward sports like football are vulnerable to spot-fixers.
In 2009 former Southampton footballer Matt Le Tissier admitted to being involved in a £10,000 sting to fix the time of the first throw-in in a meaningless end-of-season game with Wimbledon.
The hope must be that this case persuades the authorities to step up their education programmes until no professional sportsman believes tampering with the course of a game, no matter how trivially, is in any way acceptable, and strengthens their resolve to uncover similar wrong-doings.
If so, Butt, Amir and Asif will have done sport a great service in the most disgraceful of ways.