Comment: Good faith is the blood of sport

Published: November 4, 2011

Die-hard fans will always support their teams through thick and thin. PHOTO: AFP

Die-hard fans will always support their teams through thick and thin. PHOTO: AFP Die-hard fans will always support their teams through thick and thin. PHOTO: AFP

They did not kill a man. They did not abuse a woman. They did not steal billions from the national exchequer and they did not cheat in their college entrance exams.

In short, they did not commit any of the crimes civilians in Pakistan must endure on an almost daily basis.

For this reason, many feel the sentences passed on Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir are disproportionately harsh. The three players have already been punished, the argument goes, with ICC bans for a minimum of five years. Why send them to jail, even if only for a matter of months?

This view misses the point of sport.

The very reason we play and watch organised sporting contests, and have done since the dawn of civilization, is to express our natural urges for aggression, skill, play and wonder – in the knowledge that everyone takes it seriously even though it’s just a game.

We do our utmost to ‘kill’ the opposition – but nobody dies.

Sport matters because ultimately it does not matter. Despite the immense monetary gains to be made by those at the pinnacle of their field today, the world still flocks to sport (more than any other entertainment) in a state of wide-eyed innocence. It represents our time to be kids again and marvel at the strength and frailty, the highs and lows, the unpredictable live drama of our species.

That unpredictability is what our former heroes killed at Lord’s in August last year. What our fallen trio did was shake our approach to sport at its very foundations.

For years Pakistani fans have chewed fingernails as a game reached its conclusion, eventually pulling their hair out as their side fell agonizingly short. The Sydney Test in 2010, last year’s World T20 against Australia and this year’s World Cup semi-final provide recent examples.

For fans, such losses are bearable (though often after a few hundred curses and a shattered teacup). “They tried their best,” we say. “Win some, lose some.” And that divine consolation: “There’s always next time.”

Knowing – for a fact – that the players did not actually try their best, that the loss had been pre-planned, or that next time they may have more sinister plans, renders the whole enterprise a sham. We are made mugs for getting up in the middle of the night, lunatics for investing deep emotional attachment, and fools for arguing with friends in deadly comic earnestness our take on a team’s strategies.

All those who follow Pakistan cricket have inevitably worked their minds over defeats in the past few years, including the three matches mentioned above. Indeed, a text message which emerged during the trial specifically addresses that World T20 in the West Indies.

A text from an Indian number to Mazhar Majeed, the agent who was also sentenced yesterday, during the tournament said this: “It starts from round of overs, say 35 or 40, whichever is first after they come in together. Next 7 overs, maximum 15 runs.” Another says: “This will only work if u score in first two overs and no wickets.” To whom these were meant, and when, we will probably never know.

Another argument says that the players were only guilty of spot-fixing, not match-fixing; thus their crime was marginal. To this I paraphrase Simon Barnes, Chief Sports Writers of The Times newspaper, who writes that sport is like a balloon: one pinprick, however small, is all it takes.

Sport lives and dies in the realm of truthful intentions. When you let your son bowl you out, it’s called being a nice guy. When your big brother tears in and you stretch every sinew to hit him for six, it’s called sport.

Some also dismiss the crime as a mere extension of the ubiquitous corruption which plagues Pakistan, saying that leadership at all levels in this country operates in a moral vacuum. (A neat twist on yesterday’s verdict was that it came four years to the day Pervaiz Musharraf imposed emergency rule.) This can be refuted simply, though admittedly idealistically, with elementary ethics: one wrong does not excuse another; we are all responsible for our actions; cheating is an abuse, first and foremost, on your own soul.

A further refutation comes to us via the exceptionalism of sport. The spine of sport is that in terms of honest commitment, we expect it to be better, to rise about the usual human mess. Behave however badly as you want in your private life; fans will always forgive those who run their heart out on the pitch.

How ironic that Shoaib Akhtar, the Queen of off-field scandal, will now forever be more fondly remembered than the sublime artist of lateral movement Mohammad Asif. For whatever Shoaib may have done, he never wavered from the essence of sport. Such a player may make us doubt our sanity for continuing to follow a game with such passion; such a player never makes us question our faith.

This is the exceptional sin of Butt, Asif and Amir. Aside from the fact that they broke the law of the land, they deserve imprisonment because that is what society doles out to those who criminally undermine the institutions and ethics we hold dear.

That sport is such a thing can surely not be questioned.

Despite this high moralism, however, one cannot help but feel human compassion for the three players, especially the 19-year-old Amir. More than this, one must frame their actions in the context of the contemporary game they played.

With money and mafias inching ever closer to the centre of cricket, what the trio needed was support and guidance. That not a single official from the Pakistan Cricket Board has offered a sincere apology – let alone a resignation – following the scandal shows that, despite the players’ crime, the people who really don’t get the point of sport are the ones who control our unofficial national game, our undisputed national obsession, our everlasting faith.

(Read: An expected sentencing)

Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2011.

Reader Comments (12)

  • Nihilist
    Nov 4, 2011 - 7:40AM

    Well written article in the sense that you truly explained and showed how hurt you are, as a spectator, and probably as a supporter of Pakistani cricket team.

    You rightfully mentioned that these players are being punished severely because they targeted the values “we hold dear.”

    But that is the whole point.

    Nothing is sanctified in this world. Not even human emotions and feelings, except one’s own. We are gods to ourselves.

    I cannot help but feel proud at what the trio has done. They broke all the moral high grounds that somehow human societies impose on individuals. Stupid assumptions and idiotic expectations disguised as “being moral and being humane.”

    What the trio did was spectacular. Though you or the majority may call it cheating, what they did was cut right through the strand on whose two side’s humans have built their expectations of “aggressiveness, skill, play, and drama.” Humans love drama, right? It is right in front of your eyes, shattering the cathedrals of human morals for personal gains. Nothing is more sanctified than that!

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  • Pakistani Hindu
    Nov 4, 2011 - 8:09AM

    They’ve sold their faith, blood and the game itself. They’ve sold the whole nation for few thousand pounds. Would have been better had they murdered just one person instead of selling whole nation’s emotions.

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  • Nov 4, 2011 - 9:32AM

    Also none of the players have been punished by PCB. They have only accepted ICC punishment. Compare this with BCCI when it banned its top players when they were exposed.

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  • Human
    Nov 4, 2011 - 9:50AM

    Spot fixing and match fixing is a big business worldwide, and I am sure, only only three Pakistani players sentenced to Jail, were running the show, there is wider network and each and every cricket players “fixes” “deal” that is how the business goes on. Even if you replay the last world cup, the last three final matches were fixed. One team paid to win, other teams got to loose. I

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  • WAH
    Nov 4, 2011 - 9:52AM

    Sorry for Amir but rest of two deserved what they have got They must be prosecuted in Pak also for back stabbing die hard cricket fans and nation …………..another point is if Raymonds can walk free out of Pak jail after murdering two then why not they be freed for just betting however they should be banned for some time

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  • Nov 4, 2011 - 9:55AM

    They are the cheaters and they deserved much harsher judgement than this.

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  • Human
    Nov 4, 2011 - 9:56AM

    @Pakistani Hindu, No one is innocent in the game of cricket, almost every player, 99% have this business, All world class players also pay money to score a 100. Wake up open your eyes, don;t just watch cricket, watch that happen out of pitch and ground.

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  • JJ
    Nov 4, 2011 - 11:48AM

    I think they deserved this and Pakistan government should also take action because they have let the whole nation down.

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  • Iftikhar-ur-Rehman
    Nov 4, 2011 - 12:11PM

    Question is Why Only cricket player of Pakistan?? Why not from other countries?? Harbajan Singh and Chris Gayle have been named and Raina also???? Or the boards of these countries too strong for ICC to handle?

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  • PARDESI
    Nov 4, 2011 - 1:34PM

    Their is no argument that the players who cheated should be punished for what they have done. I would have thought that the best punishment to these cheats would have been to ban them from sports for the rest of their lives. This is not the first instance that cheating in sport has happened. Horse racing in UK is full of cheaters many of them have been caught but do not recall people being sent to jail. Many of the atheltics gold medal winner in the british teams have been found to boost their performance by drug taking classed as cheating, never heard that they have been prosecuted and sent to jail. British soldiers who were found involved in the killing of innocent Iraqis got a slap on the wrist with suspended sentences and kicked out of the army. British justice system should have treated these players exactly the same way as they treat their own cheaters and killers. Shame on the three for cheating and shame on the British justice system for discriminating.

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  • Cynical
    Nov 4, 2011 - 10:00PM

    @Nihilist
    Interesting take. Quite unique point of view, very forcefully made.

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  • Owen Williams
    Nov 5, 2011 - 3:24AM

    The laws, the trial process and the punishment were established before the offenses were committed. Once charges were laid, due process engaged and guilt established, the court had no choice but to impose punishment no matter how lenient. To simply ignore the result of the trial and set the convicts free would have made a mockery of the law. The law allowed for discretion in sentencing which the judge duly exercised.

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