Saturday, February 5, 2011

Guilty and Gone: Pakistani spot-fixers suspended

An ICC tribunal has announced that the three Pakistani cricketers accused of spot-fixing during their tour of England last year have been suspended for lengthy stretches. Then-captain Salman Butt received the heaviest ban, a 10-year suspension of which five years are suspended. 28-year old fast bowler Mohammed Asif was sanctioned for seven years including two suspended; the brightest young thing in world bowling circles, Mohammed Amir, received a five year ban.

Though spot-fixing is not as harmful to the game as match-fixing, it still remains an open lesion where players can earn money for sabotaging their own performances, which by extension detracts from their team's displays. The ICC needed to send a message that accepting bribes for any poor performance is unacceptable in the extreme and by removing those individuals from the game for what equates to five years, it has ensured that all three will feel financial and public pressure as a result of their misbehaviour.

Given the state of Pakistan cricket and that nation's variegated selection policy of past years, the bans probably aren't quite strong enough. Butt and Amir particularly will almost certainly return to represent their country at the highest level. By the time he returns, Amir - for whom there has been the most public sympathy and who has said that he will appeal the sentence - will only be twenty-three and entering his peak years as a bowler. His appeal will likely be based on his stance that he was just "following orders". Butt, whose heavier sentence confirms suspicions he was the ringleader, will be 31 in five years and liable still to be the best opener in Pakistan.

Though probably generous, five years seems close to the mark when Hansie Cronje and Salim Malik were dealt life bans for rigging the outcomes of matches. There is a strong body of opinion that any acceptance of bribes on-field should be an automatic expulsion from the game - that valuing financial reward more than the sport's virtue is enough to earn you the lifelong scorn of your peers and public. When I first heard about the "incidents" in August, that was my first reaction.

But what that doesn't take into account is a Western judicial tendency to allow second chances. Should Amir, Asif and Butt have been expelled from the game for life, others may have learnt from their idiocy but would the trio get a chance to reform? To rehabilitate? It's unlikely; they would be sent back to Pakistan to live the rest of their lives in admonishment. Punitive action must hurt the offenders no doubt; but any government should at least allow offenders the chance for remorse at a later date - if not, they risk becoming a dictatorship, something the ICC is loath to appear. When taking into account Amir's testimony, life-bans became increasingly more unlikely as small doubts grew as to whether the bowling pair were acting under captain's instruction. That suspended penalties have been assigned is the most ludicrous part of this sentence: the players knew their actions were illegal and ban-worthy: so having the threat of another ban around their necks is unlikely to stop them offending a second time. Perhaps a greater deterrent would have been to combine the years: Salman Butt could be reinstated at 35 and Asif at 35. That way each player has the slim chance of righting their wrongs at international level.

That only five years was meted out after the life bans were mooted may however be a decision which encourages burgeoning spot-fixers. If the remuneration is lucrative enough, a player may make the cost/benefit analysis that five years of their career is a price worth paying for millions of dollars. As a deterrent, a five-year ban only barely registers. The ICC has delved into the same muddy waters of the debate about capital punishment: is the deterrent effect worth the human cost?

Though guilty of Herschelle Gibbs-style dropping the ball on many occasion, the ICC has employed the right selection of tribunal panellists and the Pakistani trio have been found guilty after having evidence presented from all sides and the opportunity to defend themselves. Both the process and the verdict were arrived at fairly, and though sanctions took time to administer the process was (by ICC standards) transparent. The Pakistani Three's will have to live with their sanctions. The International Cricket Council will have to live with the precedent they've set.

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