ISLAMABAD – In a nation pummeled by stifling poverty, homegrown militancy and most recently, epic flooding, the game of cricket is supposed to serve as salve, a getaway from Pakistan’s daily diet of trauma and crisis.
Now, in the wake of allegations of match manipulation made against the national team, that salve is fast disappearing. And that has Pakistanis worried.
“In all this chaos that our country faces, there should be some source of romance,” said Chaudhry Ishtiaq Ahmed, a lawyer in the city of Lahore. “For Pakistan, that source of romance has always been cricket. Cricket was the one thing we could be proud of. And now that pride is gone.”
The allegations broadsided Pakistan at its most vulnerable moment, when floods have made millions of people homeless, obliterated roads, bridges, hospitals and schools, and submerged an area roughly the size of Italy.
At the core of the scandal are allegations that two cricketers colluded with a middleman to manipulate the course of a match against England last week in London.
Since then, Pakistani television channels daily have been airing video of the middleman, identified as London-based businessman Mazhar Majeed, flipping through wads of cash as he meets with British tabloid reporters posing as members of an Asian gambling cartel.
The tabloid, News of the World, said Majeed accepted $232,000 from the undercover reporters to ensure that Pakistani cricketers bowled “no balls,” the equivalent of an illegal pitch in baseball, at specified times during the match. The manipulation, known as spot-fixing, occurs because gamblers sometimes bet not only on the outcome of a match but on individual occurrences or actions during the contest.
Majeed was arrested Saturday on charges of conspiring to defraud bookmakers. British police are investigating what role Pakistani cricketers played in the scandal, and Pakistani law enforcement authorities have sent their own investigators to London.
The International Cricket Council is also conducting an inquiry into the extent of corruption in matches involving the Pakistani team.
The reaction from the Pakistani public has been visceral. Ahmed, the lawyer, was so incensed by the charges that he filed a motion in the Lahore High Court asking that the offending cricketers be charged with high treason. On Tuesday in the legislative chamber of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the northern province hardest-hit by this summer’s catastrophic floods, lawmakers shoved aside talk of relief and rebuilding and focused instead on the cricket scandal.
Iqbal Mohammed Ali, chairman of the national parliament’s sports committee, said lawmakers would conduct their own inquiry into the scandal.
“Cricket’s in our blood,” Ali said. “People here watch cricket matches and pray for cricketers. When cricketers do such things, it really hurts people. If these allegations are true, the guilty players should be banned for life.”
A byproduct of British colonial rule, cricket has long been the national pastime. It cuts across every strata of society, played on manicured cricket fields by middle class Pakistanis in white sweaters and crisp trousers, and in trash-littered lots by dirt-poor youths using stacks of bricks as wickets. Some of the country’s most venerated heroes are current or former cricketers; Imran Khan forged a place in Pakistani politics on the shoulders of a 21-year, Hall-of-Fame career on the cricket field.
Controversy has dogged Pakistani cricket for years. Two players were found guilty of match-fixing in 2000 and banned from the sport for life. Earlier this year, star Shahid Afridi was put on probation by the country’s cricket board for ball-tampering after he was caught on video biting into the ball during a match.
The latest scandal, however, has crossed a line for many Pakistanis. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declared, “Our heads have been bowed by shame.” Newspaper editorials called the scandal symptomatic of the corruption and lack of accountability that permeates government and society.
“Corruption has trickled down into the entrails of our society, and no area is clean,” stated an editorial in the English-language Daily Times. “We must not compromise any more, neither in cricket nor in any other field.”