Monday, August 30, 2010

Pakistan Shocked, Outraged of Alleged Cricket Fraud

It was perhaps the last thing that Pakistan needed. After weeks of enduring the misery wrought by unprecedented floods, the country has been hit by allegations that its national cricket heroes deliberately performed poorly in exchange for money. In a country where passion for the sport arguably outstrips religious fervor, already depressed cricket fans have reacted with a mixture of shock and outrage, as fears build that global sympathy for its flood victims may now be hurt by yet another sour tale of corruption and intrigue.

For the first time in weeks, Pakistanis rose on Sunday to find television coverage of the floods displaced by arresting hidden-camera footage captured by a British tabloid. The slightly grainy images, filmed by an undercover reporter for the News of the World, purportedly revealed a supremely confident and embarrassingly indiscreet man boasting of his ability to manipulate a test match between Pakistan and England in exchange for large sums of money. (See pictures of Pakistan's floods.)

"Our heads have been bowed by shame," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told reporters on Aug. 29. "I am going to ask the Ministry of Sports to order a full inquiry." President Asif Ali Zardari also said that he had taken notice of the news reports and had solicited a full report. Few of his countrymen, however, share his patience. Many devout cricket fans have made up their minds, with some going as far as to urge the team to think twice before returning home.

In the video, in exchange for $230,000, the man, named as Mazhar Majeed, offered eerily accurate details of three occasions in the same test match when Pakistan's bowlers would bowl "no-balls." (A no-ball is a pitch that is delivered from outside the regulation pitching zone; it doesn't count and the batting side is awarded a run. There is no exact baseball equivalent, but it's similar to a pitcher, in the act of throwing the ball, stepping outside the pitching mound.) Of the options available to benefit betting syndicates, Majeed said that no-balls are the "easiest" and the "clearest" to fix. Not only did Majeed's predictions come true, the bowlers stepped outside the zone by remarkable distances. "Oh, it's a big no-ball," the television commentator observed after the first instance.

That was just a taste of what Majeed was willing to offer, according to the newspaper. "I've been doing it with them, the Pakistani team, for about two and a half years. And we've made masses and masses of money," the newspaper quoted him as saying. There were millions to be made, he added. A senior government official tells TIME that Majeed had been seen hanging around with the team during their recent tour of Australia, where lackluster performances first aroused suspicions of cheating. (Watch a video about cricket in India.)

That run of illicit wealth appeared to come to an end on Saturday after the newspaper furnished its evidence to the police. Scotland Yard said that it had arrested a 35-year-old man on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers after receiving information from the News of the World. The man has now been released on bail. Three Pakistani players have had their phones confiscated by the police.

The test-match series against England held especial appeal for many Pakistani fans. When British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Pakistan of "looking both ways" on the export of terrorism in the region while on a visit to India last month, the nationalist-minded among them hoped that revenge would be exacted on the cricket field. And when news channels could relay only the misery of those whose lives had been swept away by the floods, cricket became an attractive distraction.

It may be a long time before the national team can excite passions at home again. "This comes at the worst time," says Mohammad Malick, editor of the News, an influential English-language daily in Pakistan. "We've been suffering terrorism. We are suffering floods. And now they've just made us look like a nation of callous crooks." Desperate to lure much-needed foreign aid to ease the country's recovery from the floods, many Pakistanis are now worried that their long-suffering image abroad will be further ruined. "Everybody is not a cheater in Pakistan," says Aitzaz Ahsan, the country's leading lawyer and a politician. "The overwhelming majority are honest and hardworking, believe in the values of the civilized world, are resisting terrorism and are against corruption. It's a minuscule minority - often celebrities - that brings shame to honorable Pakistanis."

Many Pakistanis hasten to point out that former English, Indian and South African captains have fallen foul of cricket's decorous traditions before. But the Pakistani side's fortunes have been sliding in recent years, with controversy on-and-off the pitch. Mohammad Asif, one of the bowlers suspected of deliberately hurling a no-ball, has tested positive for the use of illegal substances twice. In 2008, he was arrested by Dubai police for possession of drugs, but was released on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A prominent Pakistani actress later accused Asif of not repaying the money he had supposedly borrowed from her, sparking a media frenzy.

While the cricketers are naturally responsible for their actions, the allegations have also intensified criticism of the national cricket board. "These days, many of our cricketers come from economically deprived backgrounds," says Malick, the newspaper editor. "These kids were nobodies, then they played a few matches and suddenly became celebrities. It goes to their heads and that makes them prey for crooked bookmakers. It's the board's job to get them used to their newfound wealth and fame." The senior government official tells TIME that he has repeatedly spoken to Zardari about replacing Ijaz Butt, the board's chairman. Each time, the official says, his pleas were rebuffed as he was reminded that Butt was the Defense Minister's brother-in-law and had to stay. In Pakistan, the president also serves as the patron-in-chief of the cricket board, a controversial tradition. "The country's elite have been found [lacking] in their adherence to the best values and have shown their corrupt ways," says Ahsan, the lawyer. If the elite are seen to constantly evade accountability, Ahsan continues, "the effect is that it corrupts the value systems down below."

The match-fixing controversy now threatens Pakistan's love affair with its cricket team. Since March 2009, when the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by armed terrorists in the heart of Lahore, no international fixtures can be played at home. Now, suspicions of match fixing hang over seven of Pakistan's best players. If the allegations prove true, this country's millions of devotees could be left with no team worth cheering for.