No innuendo. No name calling.
Rohit Brijnath’s piece on the spot-fixing saga in this morning’s Straits Times.
A boy has Sachin Tendulkar embossed on his underwear. A salesman peers over a crowd for a glimpse of cricket on a TV in a shop window. An entrepreneur sends his chauffeur to a darkened stadium to pick up discarded ticket stubs of a great match. Walk a lane in Pakistan, a street in India, an alley in Sri Lanka, and if cricket is on, you can see it. Faith.
Faith is the thread that stitches admirer to athlete. Faith, wrote my friend Sambit Bal in Cricinfo is “the most important aspect of this relationship”.
The fan can be imperfect himself, his adulation can be ugly, his manner parochial, but he believes deeply in his team. He dislikes losing, he cribs, but he comes back, he has hope in better days. Because faith is a handshake, it is a deal, it is cricketer saying “come cheer”, it is fan saying “of course, just give your best”.
In the subcontinent, this handshake is like a lifeline, for the game transcends entertainment, it translates into escape, into hope, into a distraction from the hard lives. The game on is a life turned off. To cheat then, which some Pakistani players have been accused of, does something cruel, it tears at the fabric of this faith.
Cheating isn’t new because humankind isn’t. Tour de France cyclists were once rumoured to leap on trains en route and boxers soaked their hands in plaster of Paris.
There is no moral grading with cheating either. The football diver, the spying manager, they all corrupt their sport and lower its credibility. Some of it is so pervasive that we even let it go with a lazy shrug: Such is life! Everyone does it! As fans, perhaps we have become too forgiving.
But when an athlete sells himself and thus his team, he doesn’t just undermine the idea of contest, he reveals himself as the worst thing: hero as fake. Talent may not work on a particular day, but it can’t be up for the highest bidder.
The fan can’t reconcile himself to it, for as a former state cricketer from India says: “There is something of me in my team.” Maybe there is no more disbelief, not like the kid fan plaintively asking baseballer Joe Jackson, who was banned after the 1919 World Series fix: “Say it ain’t so, Joe?” Maybe there is only despair now.
The problem with faith disappearing is that it is replaced with cynicism and we know this from the apathy that followed cycling for a while. Now the Pakistani fan must wonder, cricket again wonders: Which other acts and matches were counterfeit?
Cricket’s spot-fixing can be so minor – pre-deciding which ball to bowl a no-ball on – and may not even affect the result, yet it taints the game. Because we might look at ever easy catch dropped, every absurd run-out – all natural occurrences of everyday sport – and shadow them with suspicion. It is like wondering if an awry Steven Gerrard backpass was fixed. It’s why an Indian cricketer tells me he is “sickened” for trust has eroded.
Other sports can absorb a level of chicanery by virtue of their breadth. If a lesser tennis player fixes, we are reassured by the chivalry of the many great ones. If a second-division Bundesliga player fixes, we are comforted that Manchester United and their elite peers are cleaner.
But cricket is a relatively miniscule game, not in fans, but in teams, for only nine nations play test cricket. To ban one team is to amputate a sizeable part of the game, to have one corrupt team causes seismic activity across the entire sport.
Restoring faith requires the help of players, captains but mainly cricket’s clumsy administration. Cricket has a fresh fascination with money, the game – in some nations – is rich and it has wonderfully given young men strong livelihoods. But it is also fraught with dangers.
Money can turn into obsession, for those who have it and for those – like Pakistani cricketers who were left out the lucrative Indian Premier League – who don’t. Money can bring a charmless crew of hangers-on, shady agents, greedy coteries, all grasping at the vulnerable young player.
This seductive universe requires wise navigation but there remains an appalling failure of guidance. Mohammad Amir, the Pakistani allegedly involved in the current fix, arrives from a small town of Gujjar Khan. You wonder: did anyone tell this 18-year-old of fixers, agents, information seekers? Has he been taught to invest his earnings? Has he a cricket counsellor for inevitable hard times?
Cricket’s true beauty in the subcontinent is that it is more democratic – anyone can play for Pakistan or India – not just city boys. But opportunity is not enough without direction.
We owe that to these young men, to the game, to the fans. Else an ineffably sad mail will arrive, as this one did from the fine Pakistani cricket writer Osman Samiuddin yesterday. As he wrote to me: “I was telling someone the other day that my reaction has been like that of someone who has seen someone pass away.”
For him, alas, faith has long gone.