Pakistan cricket has endured more than its due share of controversies, scandals, rebellions and intrigues since the national team first began playing the sport at the highest level. Cricketing greats from the country have had their lofty reputations sullied due to indiscretions of varying degrees but perhaps, nothing has embarrassed the cricket-mad nation more than the damning spot-fixing scandal that shook the game to the core five years ago. In 2010, Lord’s — the sacred home of cricket — witnessed its first spot-fixed Test, with Pakistan’s trio of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir caught red-handed and serving jail terms a year later.
The ICC handed out tough five-year bans, and the players were asked to meet all the requirements tabled by the tribunal led by Michael Beloff, QC for their rehabilitation. After vehemently denying their involvement in the fix for years, Butt and Asif eventually gave in. The duo made their confessions and in the last 18 months or so, have worked closely with the ICC to ensure that their ‘remedial work’ stayed on track. The players were given a clean chit and a subsequent green signal from the body last week, days before the fifth anniversary of the humiliating affair.
The day the news of the lifting of the ban broke, the Lahore cricket management announced that Butt and Asif are in line to make their comebacks in the National Twenty20 tournament next month, but their return has been put on hold for now. The PCB, which bore a lot of flak for the supposed ‘mishandling’ of the case five years ago, is willing to err on the side of caution for now. The board sought clarification from the ICC on the extent and effect of the ‘clean chit’ given to the players, while an official close to the matter confessed that Pakistani cricket administrators were “caught napping” and want to ensure that all boxes are checked before they allow the duo back.
A stringent rehabilitation programme has been handed over to the trio by the PCB which entails that Butt, Asif and even Amir shouldn’t harbour hopes of donning the Pakistani shirt before at least March 2016. While Amir seems to attract sympathy, Butt and Asif are perceived as ‘serial offenders’, have scant support, and even their lobbyists have kept their cards close to the chest.
Butt had a decent record as an opener at the highest level and an even more successful aggregate at the first class level. The Lahore-born did not give up on his ambitions in the cricket field even during the five-year impasse, and realises that he has to resurrect his shredded reputation. Once back in the fray (domestic cricket), Butt can slowly crawl back into contention with a string of big scores, but his deportation in the middle of his jail term in 2012 means he can’t return to English shores before 2022. The England stalemate and his being the ringmaster in the fix — made to the ICC in his confessional statement — make his case for return to top-flight cricket, weaker than the rest. He would be extremely lucky to wear the national colours again.
Conversely, Asif, we hear, is allowed to play cricket in the UAE despite his 2008 deportation (for carrying opium during travel). The PCB and the UAE authorities had entered into an agreement which allowed him to travel to the Emirates for cricket tours. The announcement was to be made shortly after the Lord’s Test, but was hushed up once the severity of his involvement in the fix was revealed. At his pomp, Asif was a scourge for top-order batsmen. The perfect seam position — delivered courtesy a copy-book wristy action — made him a nightmare for some of the most able batsmen in the world. In addition to his wizardry, the 33-year-old pompously wore the label of the rebel. He remained a freak who never shied away from hogging the headlines for the good, the bad or the ugly. Asif was a once-in-a-generation kind of a bowler, but the baggage he brought with him was also equally unique, and equally tough to shrug off. Can Pakistan afford to bring Asif back? His record in the Test format is a hugely impressive: 106 wickets in only 23 games. On his resume are Test wins against England, Australia, India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand registered both home and away. A few domestic games and that supple wrist in his right arm is likely to wreak havoc again. But how long would Asif exercise restraint before his next misdemeanour? Can he, at long last, shackle the monsters of his mind? It appears that there are no easy answers for now.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2015.
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