Cricket has more than its share of existential crises. Will Test matches survive? What if willow trees succumb to disease? Or if India turns to soccer? The clearest problem facing the game, though, is the cancer of match-fixing and spot-fixing.
It therefore seems surprising, at least superficially, that one of the most infamous practitioners of these corrupt pursuits has been granted an early return to the game. During the summer of 2010 the Pakistani fast bowler Mohammad Amir deliberately bowled two no-balls in a Test at Lords. He - along with his captain, Salman Butt, and fellow bowler, Mohammad Asif - was caught out when a British tabloid taped a rogue agent bragging about Amir’s shenanigans before the match.
Amir was banned from the game for five years and sentenced to six months in a young offenders institution. Earlier this month the International Cricket Council sanctioned his return to domestic cricket nine months early, and he will soon begin playing for a second-tier grade team in Pakistan. In the announcement the ICC cited his admission of guilt, remorse, and cooperation with their Anti Corruption and Security Unit as reasons for a reduction in the punishment.
This narrative, though, paints an overly simplistic picture of Amir’s rehabilitation, forgetting his initial proclamations of innocence. Despite almost everyone - the Pakistan government, the national cricket board, and even his own lawyers - telling him to own up to his crimes, Amir kept to his flimsy story that it was all a mere coincidence. It was only when it came to the courts that Amir finally changed his tune, and in turn received a lighter sentence than Butt or Asif, who maintained their innocence throughout. Despite his confession, there remained a sense of evasion, such as his line that “some senior players put me under pressure.” Which was likely true but hardly amounts to an assumption of one’s responsibilities.
His defenders point to his age - he was only 19 at the time - and his rural, working-class background as mitigating factors. As Amir told Mike Atherton, shortly after he was released, “I was distressed; I was in a state of panic. And I was also scared inside, uncertain as to what was going to happen to me.”
Still aged only 22, Amir likely has the bulk of his bowling career ahead of him. This leads to the more selfish reasons many within Pakistan want him back. Spotted early, Amir was praised lavishly by pace icons Imran Khan and Wasim Akram and flourished at every age level. The transition to international cricket proved easy, with wickets in his opening Twenty20 and Test match overs. Although Pakistan have enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance since the dark days of 2010 there is little doubt that on ability alone Amir - at least the version of him that exited the game in 2010 - would waltz back into the national side.
The ICC’s decision was based on pure pragmatism. They changed their anti-corruption code last year to allow more flexibility; unless they offered some incentive it seemed that players were simply not co-operating or disclosing information. As the ICC chief executive, Dave Richardson, said “there’s an incentive to players that if you have messed up there’s a way back,
If some are delighted by the prospect of Amir wearing a Pakistani cap again then the prospect makes plenty more feel sullied. The former Pakistan player, Ramiz Raja, maintains that allowing Amir back early - if at all - will set a terrible example in a country with an ignoble history of turning a blind eye to corrupt practices in cricket. He also makes that the point that the current team, led so wonderfully well by Misbah ul-Haq, may not want him back. The decision - which appears more than a little arbitrary - also opens the door for Butt and Asif’s return. The model would appear to be lie until there are no further options and then revert to crawling to the ICC and hope that they believe you.
In his interview with Atherton, Amir said, “whenever there is any wrongdoing it has consequences.” If you threaten the very fabric of a sport it seems reasonable that one of those consequences should be to at least serve your time.