Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why is it always Pakistan?

After the body blows dealt to International Cricket by the gambler and fixer who has implicated several Pakistani players as having “thrown” Test matches for betting purposes, several sources are now looking at potential punishments for any players found guilty of match-fixing. Given that most match-fixing probes (and gamblers themselves) have pointed their long, bony fingers-of-death directly towards Pakistan, it's been suggested that banning Pakistan from international cricket until it “cleans up it's act” is an appropriate form of punishment.

Blatantly not true. Hansie Cronje aside, the most famous cricket match-fixing claims in recent memory were those aimed at former Pakistan captain Salim Malik, who was banned for life from all cricket in 199x. Should any player currently accused for throwing the alleged matches in England and Australia be found guilty, then they too should be banned for life. Given the precarious nature of world cricket at this time, there can be no cricketing punishment too harsh for those found guilty of placing money over the sanctity and future viability of a sport played only in a dozen countries.

Banning Pakistan altogether would be counterproductive. What's been overlooked is that as India drags itself from the developing world up to become a major player in world business and politics, Pakistan has yet to make the same strides. A military coup in 1999, followed by a series of devastating natural disasters combined with some well-aimed US airstrikes have made Pakistan and India – practical economic equals in the early 1990s – about as far apart in the economics of World Cricket as possible.

Where India has an extremely high number of educated youth, the same can't be said of their northern neighbours. That education drags up the economy from subsistence and survival to production and service, bringing with it television and subsequently the incredible financial clout that India brings to the ICC. In Pakistan, all they've had to hold onto is their incredible reserves of playing talent, but even that seems to be drying up: the number of absolute World Class players who've arrived on the Pakistan scene since 1995, includes Mohammed Yousuf and Inzamam Ul-Haq at best.

For Pakistani cricketers in an impoverished society, the match payments that come with playing for their country must be an absolute boon. The money that abounds now in Test Cricket is greater than ever, meaning the sums won and lost gambling are in turn increased. As a world culture we have more disposable income than ever and corporations rather than governments rule world fiscal policy – as evidenced by the wealth on offer in the IPL and ICL. Is it any coincidence that Pakistan has a boatload of players chasing the cash in those competitions – especially the ICC-unsanctioned ICL? Is it any wonder that their freshly-minted Test captain Shahid Afridi retired after one test saying he wasn't suited to the game and preferred to play Twenty20? The money is better for these players as free agents and if I had to live in Pakistan I'd want the most money I could get my hands on.

So it's completely understandable – but still unforgivable – as to how a player could have his head turned by the money on offer and see it as a lifeline rather than selling out their country's sporting pride. By leading a military coup against a democratically elected government, President Pervez Musharraf has perhaps sold out his country in the most entire way possible and his dominion is simply following suit in – and let's be honest – a much smaller issue. For the longest time, the PCB has been a political volleyball, shunted across several different chairmen each with their own political and cricketing ideas and ambitions, resulting in nearly as many coaches as players in the past twenty years. The nature of Pakistan as an enitity is now under question moreso than at any other time since it's independence in 1947 and the state of their cricket reflects this.

Perhaps it is time for the ICC to bring in a FIFA-type watchdog, which punishes any governmental interference in a country's Football Association? With an ICC watchdog, should a country refuse to fall into line, they are punished with loss of their home test series – it's played on foreign soil with only telecasts allowed being from the visiting nation. Should they then continue to fail to comply, they could be limited to a certain amount of matches per year. As a final step, they are banned for one, two or three year periods.

Other countries have attracted the ire of the ICC in recent years, particularly Zimbabwe and Kenya. But the world cricketing community has basically said “That's a shame” and moved on because they are very much small fry. Pakistan's reputation as cricket heavyweights and World Cup winners coupled with their cricket-mad population make this a horrible time for the nation. This furore matters because Pakistan matters to world cricket in a way that Zimbabwe and Kenya can only dream of.

Banning Pakistan straight-up for this won't work – the gamblers will pick other targets. The West Indies as a group of islands are in a similar economic situation to Pakistan. So is Bangladesh, while the less said about the economic and cricketing mess in Zimbabwe the better. The best young talent in the world grows up on the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad – has any country produced such wonderful, youthful talent so regularly as Pakistan over the last forty years? Most of their top-notchers played for their country before they turned 20 and some of those – Imran Khan, Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram – will go down amongst the very best ever. To ban Pakistan srraight-up would punish the entire country for it's failure to thrive economically and politically as a nation and that is patently unfair. If a player is found guilty of taking bribes, the punishment must be doled out to them alone and it must hurt.

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