Having said that, a couple of no-balls in a test match between Pakistan and England at Lord’s in 2010 had a sinister hand behind them and far-reaching consequences. They unearthed a ‘spot-fixing’ scandal and had dire consequences for the culprits at the centre of it all.
This is an evil of the match-fixing kind. The biggest challenge for the most organized sport with a large following has always been to ensure that matches are not fixed ( where one of the team/players/officials do not get involved in acting in a manner it influences the outcome of the match as pre-determined/arranged by them). Football, Baseball, Boxing and many other sports have faced the bogey of fixing. When people bet huge sums of an amount on the outcome of a match, many a time, to safeguard their ‘investment’ they try and reach out to the players/ match officials to ‘throw’ the match in their favour, if they have the wherewithal to do so.
Cricket too has had to deal with this menace ad nauseam. All hell broke loose in 2000, in what is referred to the match-fixing scandal when players from countries like South Africa, India and Pakistan were found guilty of match-fixing. They were handed out punishment in the form of being banned from the game.
This harsh punishment to the players spawned a different variant of fixing called Spot Fixing. Cricket is anyway a betting friendly game. You need not just bet on the outcome of a match but can bet on what the score would be, how an individual would perform ( runs or wickets). How many runs would be scored during a particular period or how many wickets would fall ( power play/ slog over), how many fours and sixes would be scored, who will score a duck etc etc etc. As one can see, there is potential to bet on any aspect of the game. The options are virtually limitless.
If I was to bet who would bowl the first over in an innings and that player ends up bowling that over, then I win my bet. The sure shot way then, to win that bet, would be to somehow reach out to that player or team to ensure he/she bowls the over in question. This way I not only ensure my win 100% but I have also fixed that period (spot) of play, without actually fixing the outcome of the match. I have just indulged in Spot fixing.
This aspect of illegality came to light in a big way during Pakistan’s tour of England in 2010.
In the 4th test at Lord’s played between Aug 26- Aug 30 of the series on the second day morning, Mohammed Amir bowled a huge no-ball when he delivered the first delivery of the third over of the day. Nothing out of the ordinary there, except it, was what the on-air commentators described as a massive no ball. It indeed was, more than a foot over the crease. Amir had bowled one more no-ball of such nature earlier on day 1. Mohammed Asif too had bowled a no-ball while bowling the final delivery of the 10th over on day 1.
While Amir had had a history of struggles with no balls, Amir was known to ball no-balls. The margin with which he crossed over the crease was such that it even caused the umpires to take note and Steve Davis, who was the third umpire in the match, recalled that theon-fieldd umpires were even contemplating approaching Amir to see if he was trying to indulge in intimidatory tactics by going so much over the crease.
Any how, the 2nd day progressed along smoothly thereafter and Amir did quite well by picking up 6 wickets in the innings.
The Sting Operation Revealed
The whole world was rattled a few days later on August 29, when a UK tabloid (now defunct) ‘News of the world’ (NOTW) made a revelation that the no balls delivered by Amir and Asif were pre-planned, with their captain Salman Butt also in the loop and leading the way.
The news paper claimed its investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, was alerted by a source within the Pakistan cricket team management, that one agent of some of the players , A Mazher Majeed ( who was also the manager of the Pakistan Captain Salman Butt ) indulged in orchestrating fixing activities. This was in Jan 2018.
In August of that year, when the Pakistan team was touring England, Mahzer met with Majeed on the pretext of being chairman on a company looking to kick start a T20 tournament in Dubai.
They met a couple of days later when the talks veered towards fixing. Majeed claimed that he had many Pakistani players in his control and he could influence them to fix matches. Mazher then handed over 10k pounds to Majeed asking him to arrange for 2 no balls to be bowled during the third test of the series to be played at the Oval, but that did not happen. However, there was a pattern of calls between Amir, Butt and Majeed that plans were made for no balls to be bowled, but for some reason it did not materialize. It is believed that the balls were not bowled as before the match the Pakistan coach had asked his players and bowlers in particular to be careful of conceding extras.
Because the no balls could not be bowled, Majeed also called Butt asking him to bat out a maiden over which Butt refused to do.
It is unknown what transpired between that refusal from Butt to then him agreeing to go along and indulge in the spot fixing but before the Lord’s test match, Mazher again handed over money to Majeed ( 140k pounds this time) and it was arranged for 3 no balls to be delivered by Amir and Asif at pre-determined times in that test match. Butt, as captain, had to be involved in the ‘fix’ as it was he who controlled which bowler bowled when.
All hell breaks loose
The allegations caused quite a stir in the media and the cricketing circles. It even led to the UK Police to search the rooms of the players involved and lo-behold 2.5k pounds was found in Butt’s room and 1.5k from Amir, crucially, these were from the same lot of currency notes as marked by NOTW editor Mazher before he gave them to Mujeed. For them to find their way in Butt and Amir’s room was damning.
Reading the reactions of the English players involved in the match, it was clear that they were all stunned and did not know what hit them. They also sensed that the Pakistan team was in a state of shock and had virtually switched off from the proceedings of the match.
Soon after the test match, on September 2, ICC suspended Butt, Amir and Asif and set the stage for a disciplinary hearing to begin soon.
The off the field reactions on the TV and news papers clearly started taking a toll on the players. Due to the actions of a few individuals, everything they stood for and all their actions were under the scanner again. There was a feeling of Déjà vu. It was only few years earlier that players like Salim Malik were handed life bans on being found guilty of being involved in match fixing, before that the likes of Basit Ali and Rashid Latif had spoken up against certain individuals and players in the Pakistan set up approaching them to indulge in fixing and now this, this spot fixing allegation. Thus it was no surprise that the call for the harshest of punishments to be given to the trio if found guilty came from Pakistan, from the likes of Aamer Sohail.
The ICC disciplinary hearings took place in February 2011 and as a result, all three players were banned. Butt was banned for 10 years, Asif for 7 years and Amir for 5 years. We will explore a little later why Amir got the minimum suspension.
The UK police, Scotland Yard, conducted criminal trials against the trio and Majeed. All the players were found guilty of conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments and were sentenced to jail. Butt for 2.5 years, Asif for 1 and Amir for 6 months. Mujeed was handed a sentence of 2 years and 8 months.
Amir, thanks to his council, had pleaded guilty to the crime, as the proceedings began, but Asif and Butt pleaded not guilty till the end.
Even after they were found guilty, Asif and Butt maintained their innocence for many years before sheepishly apologizing for their role.
Even after they served their bans, their reintroduction to international cricket seemed impossible.
The door did not seem closed for Amir though. From the very outset, even after his 5 year ban was announced, there were talks that he could still reintegrate in international cricket. This was because many felt that at the time of the incident, being just 18 years old, he was a young and impressionable player who could be pressurized to do wrong by his seniors in the team which is how it seemed that it played out.
During the criminal trial too it was felt that he was entrapped by the bookies and pressurized by his captain into delivering the no balls.
Later on, Amir too spoke of the pressure he came under from Butt, who was 8 years his senior. Amir spoke of how Butt was always nice to him and introduced him to a friend of his called Ali in Dubai. Amir too then met with Ali a few times. When he was in England in 2010, Ali asked him for his bank account. This was a request that’s Amir found strange but still complied with.
Then before the Lord’s test, Mujeed, who was introduced to him via Butt as well, accosted Amir in the presence of Butt and told him that the ICC officials had got details of his calls and text exchanges with Ali and also of the fact that he had given him his account details. Mujeed told Amir that he was in a mess and the only way out was if he did Mujeed a favour, which was to bowl two no balls in the Lord’s test at a time they agree on.
This is the version from Amir of his side of the turn of events which led him to bowl the no balls and it appears the version the ICC bought. He was made to be a part of anti- corruption educational videos released by ICC. Considering this version of events as told by him, his age in 2010 ( he was 18 years old), it was felt that he was indeed pressurized into bowling the no balls.
Amir did make a come back to the Pakistan team when his ban was up. There was a mini controversy of sorts on his reintroduction to the team with one of the players, Mohammed Hafeez initially refusing to share the dressing room with him because he dented the image of Pakistan cricket.
However, its been a few years since his return to the team and he now remains a vital cog of the Pakistan bowling group.
The divided opinions linger
The stigma though, will not go away.
When he was banned there were the likes of Rahul Dravid who felt it would be great if a young talent like Amir could be back in international cricket after serving out his ban. But there were others like Javed Miandad and Ian Chappell who felt that its best he stayed away from international cricket. Chappell even said that he could potentially be a soft target for the bookies and the betting mafia.
When Pakistan toured England in 2016, the then England captain warned Amir to be prepared for a ‘reaction’ from the crowd when the team would play at Lords.
The scandal brought out in the open the persistent and dubious link between the underworld betting mafia and cricketers, even after the match fixing scandal of 2000.
The spot/ match fixing issues keep resurfacing again and again. Most recently, during the IPL in 2013 and also in the England country cricket circuit.
The cricketer today is paid much better than his counterpart from a decade ago. Franchise T20 cricket has made millionaires even out of relatively unknown (non international) players and has ensured that domestic players too earn a decent sum. ICC hopes that when you add its stringent bans it imposes on those found guilty, it will deter players from indulging in illegal activities.
However, the Amir- Ali – Mujeed episode shows that the fixers lure the players in by some scope or the other.
No one is quite sure if any sort of fixing is still prevalent and how deep it runs in today’s game. Its all quiet for now, until the next sting operation reveals otherwise.
First Published: January 4, 2019, 9:42 PM IST