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.