Cricket row leaves Pak a nation sans
By M J Akbar
Pakistan's cricketers seem unaware of the special burden they bear: they are the last idols left for the young in a nation bereft of heroes. There have been only two politicians who inspired the popular imagination, Jinnah and Zulfiqar Bhutto. A child born in the year Bhutto was hanged is already 31 years old. Jinnah was the epitome of financial integrity; Zulfiqar’s heirs are smeared by a reputation for corruption. You can only be disillusioned if you have illusions, and cricket still inspires pride among Pakistani youth. But for how much longer?
Perhaps the most revealing fact of the latest scandal is that the brilliant Mohammad Aamer, often described as the best bowler of his age in history, was born in 1992, the year his country’s current President Asif Zardari bought a chateau in France. Zardari’s garrulous spokesperson revealed a few weeks ago that this chateau had been in the Zardari “family” for 18 years, almost as if the Zardari-Bhuttos were Bourbons with ancient claims on choice retreats in Europe. Zardari is a Bourbon only to the extent that, like them, he has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. There has never been any explanation as to where Zardari found the money for the purchase of real estate at unreal prices across the world. Zardari’s parents did not own France; they merely possessed a few cinema halls in Karachi, and Zardari is not famous for having set up the Pakistani version of Infosys. His wealth came from bribery, a collateral benefit of the fact that his wife Benazir became prime minister in the wake of her father’s judicial assassination.
Aamer is a child of an impoverished family from a remote village called Changa Bangyaal in Gujar Khan. He could not afford an education, nearly died of dengue at 15 and developed a back problem that nearly wrecked his prospects as a fast bowler. He has watched the most exalted political family of his time thrive on loot. He has lived in an economic milieu where landlords enslaved the peasant, controlled the power centres of Lahore and Islamabad and, this monsoon, diverted floodwaters towards populated villages and towns so that they could protect their crops. He entered a game reeking of inside deals. Ian Chappell recalled, after this scandal broke, the Sydney Test in which Pakistan led by 200 runs in the first innings. Australia were only 50 runs ahead with eight wickets down in the second innings when wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal dropped four catches, enabling Australia to get a decent score and then run through Pakistan’s second innings. (It is probably easier to give away your wicket than to drop a catch.) Akmal is still a star of this team. Aamer’s captain Salman Butt is, quite apparently, complicit. Mazhar Majeed, the man at the heart of the furore, told the British tabloid that trapped him, that up to seven of the current Pakistani team could be bought. That percentage might be equally valid for the Pakistani political elite.
If Aamer was trying to maximize the financial benefits of his personal tryst with destiny, why blame him? He learnt from the culture of his ruling class. Zardari’s lottery was marriage; Aamer’s is cricket. If Zardari is the father of the fast buck, then Aamer is a jockey of the also-ran.
A Pakistani cricketer’s avenues for licit income are miniscule compared to an Indian’s. Newcomers in India with a tenth of Aamer’s talent become overnight stars and multimillionaires, not just from the game but from sponsorships because India has a flourishing economy. When all else is lost, Yuvraj Singh can always make a packet by promising to improve the tensile strength of a certain part of your anatomy. Still, no member of any national cricket team can consider himself poor any longer; nor does poverty justify fraud. This is the appropriate moment to congratulate Bangladesh cricketers like Shakib al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal, who were approached by bookmakers ahead of the two-Test series against India in January and reported the matter. Honour may be in a wheelchair but it is not dead.
There is a stale odour around cricket in India. We were once shocked when captains like Hansie Cronje and Mohammed Azharuddin were implicated. The first has gone to meet the great umpire in the sky. The second has managed an adroit backward integration into politics. It says something about Indian politics that a person prevented from managing our cricket has been chosen to manage our nation. Shock has been diluted into surprise, and we are now surprised that someone has been luckless enough to get caught in a sport heavily insured by silence.
Pakistani cricketers thank God at every traffic light. It is possible that on the field they are actually bowing to their bookie rather than to their God.