These are not the thoughts of the 18-year-old Mohammad Amir, who played his part in Pakistan’s World Twenty20 triumph last year. Those words came from Robin Uthappa, now 24, in an interview with Cricinfo. With Amir now suspended and likely to face a ban from all forms of cricket, we should focus on what Uthappa says. Make no mistake, Indian or Pakistani, every young player who comes into the bubble is vulnerable.
In Amir’s case, especially so. When Pepsi made a commercial in Pakistan earlier this year, he was one of those they signed on, along with Call, the music group, and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, the tennis player who partners India’s Rohan Bopanna. The ad was about striving hard to be successful, no matter what your background, and Amir, who comes from the nondescript village of Changa Bangyal in Punjab’s Gujjar Khan district, exemplified that.
His heroics in England last summer – he took the crucial wicket of Tillakaratne Dilshan in the final at Lord’s – prompted spontaneous celebrations back home, with folk trekking from neighbouring villages to his family home. In the true traditions of Pakistani hospitality, they made sure that everyone got tea and rotis.
After his 11 wickets helped square the series against Australia, his proud brother-in-law spoke of how far Amir had come. “He grew up playing in these very fields,” he said. “He hasn’t reached the team through a parchi [lottery] system, the kid has talent. I would like to request the former cricketers to please not raise their voices or hoot against these kids. The poor things play under pressure.”
Those words carry extra resonance now. What kind of pressure was Amir under when he bowled those two blatantly obvious no-balls at Lord’s? Was there just financial incentive, or had the gangsters and scamsters who once kidnapped Wasim Akram’s father got to him as well? How well-placed are we to judge a boy who didn’t even become eligible to vote till a few months ago?
The International Cricket Council says that Amir, like every other player, was briefed about corruption and told what to do in the event of an approach. That’s fine in theory, but this is Pakistan cricket you’re talking about. The patron-in-chief, the president, isn’t referred to as Mr 10 Percent for nothing. Ijaz Butt, who heads the board, is the brother-in-law of the defence minister. There are at least three players who owe their place in the side to connections they have with board officials or politicians. When Malcolm Speed, the former ICC chief executive, called Butt a “buffoon” and labelled Pakistan cricket a “basket case”, it ruffled feathers, but he was merely vocalising what a great number, within and outside Pakistan, feel.
Anti-apartheid acitvists pressed for a sporting boycott of South Africa on the grounds that there could be no normal sport in an abnormal society. And while a ban on Pakistan cricket is no solution, it’s imperative that we don’t view Amir’s case through a normal lens.
Teenagers make mistakes, big and small. They’re easily led astray, especially by those they look up to. In a culture where even the team’s seniors are only ever looking out for themselves, what kind of guidance would he have got? How insecure was he as a result of the stress fractures he suffered on an Under-19 tour of England? We will know the answers to these questions only if Amir comes clean about what happened.
If Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif are found guilty of spot-fixing, they should never be allowed to play the sport again, not even in the street. Asif is the most accomplished bowler in the world, but his skills have gone hand-in-hand with sheer stupidity that has made him a repeat offender. Amir too must be banned if found guilty. But it must not be a life sentence. A rehabilitated Amir would not only be the finest quick bowler we’ve seen in a generation – that is immaterial – he would also be a powerful voice against corruption in the game.
If we banish him now, the game loses a hugely promising talent and a young man loses his opportunity to redeem himself. Every human being, especially one who’s just 18, deserves that chance.
* THis article appeared in the Sunday Guardian on September 5.
** In Matthew Engel’s moving tribute to Colin Milburn, he writes: “Milburn might not have been the greatest cricketer of his generation, but he was, beyond question, the cricketer we could least afford to lose. And we lost him.” I keep thinking of those words when I see footage of Amir walking in and out of police stations.