The Unforgiven

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Maria Sharapova’s admission of doping stunned the sports world. In another corner of the world, Mohammad Amir, an immensely talented 18 year old Pakistani bowler who was caught taking money for spot fixing had served a 5 year ban was allowed to return to cricket. His re-entry to the game has been fiercely debated. Why are sportspeople held to a higher moral standard than the rest of us?

In his heyday, Michael Holding made grown men cringe and shudder. Years later, another pacer with immense talent and a bright future ahead of him made Michael Holding cry.

On a hot and humid February night in the recently concluded Asia Cup, India took on Pakistan in a low scoring encounter. Pakistan managed all of 83 runs. It should have been a walk in the park. That was until an older and hopefully wiser Mohammad Amir came thundering down and shook the Indian batting line-up, leaving them reeling at 8-3. India regained their sanity and went on to win the match. In that surreal passage of play, he hopefully made Michael Holding cry again. Cry tears of joy.

When he took 3 wickets in a span of 12 deliveries in a beautiful exhibition of pace and swing bowling, Mohammad Amir made the ball dance to his tune and caused a lot of Indian fans to switch off their television sets. In India, there are two ways to know if the cricket team is losing. One is people switching off their television sets when a match is on. Another is when you see kids playing on the road on the day of an important match. Then you know that the team is really losing.

Mohammad Amir had come back from the depths of hell, back to cricket, his fans and a future where hope had replaced darkness.

His descent into ignominy began in a very unlikely place.

The Lord’s Cricket Ground is a place where players are presumably in awe. Labeled the Home of Cricket, I would assume that it elicits somewhat of a near religious feeling among players who set foot inside its hallowed premises, like a Catholic looking up at the Sistine Chapel, or a Muslim who visits Mecca, or a Hindu who takes a dip in the holy Ganga.

It was on that very ground in 2010 that a young, bright and upcoming Mohammad Amir bowled a no-ball that shook the cricketing world.

No-balls in cricket are passé. But Mohammad Amir’s foot was some two feet in front of the crease and the replays drew sharp criticism from the commentators. During the break, Michael Holding, David Lyold and Nasser Hussain sat down to discuss the tempestuous no ball and Michael Holding said “it is just so sad, an 18 year old with that sort of talent to be getting involved in this.” He then almost broke down causing the channel to take a break until he could gather himself.

Investigations revealed that 3 Pakistani players on that tour, Mohammad Amir being one of them, had accepted money to under-perform in specific passages of play and added the term spot-fixing into our cricketing vocabulary. All of 18, Mohammad Amir was seen as a naive youngster who was lured into the sordid mess by his more experienced team mates.

After serving a 5 year ban, Mohammad Amir’s return to the sport was a hotly debated one. He returned and took off from where he left 5 years back. On seeing him, everyone wondered the heights he could have reached had he not traded 5 years of his life for a few thousand rupees. He missed a limited overs World Cup, two t20 World Cups and a host of other marquee events. And Mohammad Amir is just 23.

In sporting terms, Mohammad Amir is like someone who was handed a death sentence, put on death row and was finally found not to have committed a crime so serious that it warranted a death penalty. Others haven’t been as fortunate.

The legendary Pete Rose is still outlawed by the baseball association for his involvement in betting and frittered away a hall of fame career.

What of Lance Armstrong, who took the entire world for a ride on his cycle with his tale of cancer and survivorship and finally resorted to confessing his sins on a talk time show? He was dismissed from cycling with the following words “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling.”

Olympian Marion Jones, who was found guilty of doping and cheque fraud and had her medals stripped is seeking to find redemption by speaking to youths about her fall from the podium to a jail cell.

Diego Maradona failed a doping test in the 1994 World Cup that ended his career.His heroics in the 1986 world cup where he scored the goal of the century and a few minutes later went onto score the infamous Hand of God against arch rivals England made him the folk hero Argentina was looking for. His feats on the field blindsided fans to his brushes with the law, drugs and turbulent personal life. That his digressions haven’t made him lose his iconic status makes one wonder if there really is a hand of god watching over him.

Whenever sport unearths a scandal, there is a fear that that it will open a Pandora’s Box.

Cricket’s shocking brush with match fixing came to light in 2000 when the Delhi police had tapped the phone lines of a known gangster and were stunned to hear the voice of the Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African team and one of the most respected men in cricket. His fall from grace was swift and the investigation unearthed other players involved in the racket, many of whom weren’t prosecuted and got away. Another player involved in the mess was Mohammmad Azharuddin, India’s captain and one of the game’s most stylish batsmen. He was handed a life ban and went from national icon to national shame. He spent the next few years in isolation, ignored by former team mates and the cricket board. His come back to public life was through politics where got elected as a Member of Parliament in 2009.

So much for probity in public life.

Lance Armstrong’s suspension didn’t end with him alone. The Union Cycliste International (UCI) declared all results of the Tour De France from 1999-2005 null and void as they couldn’t segregate the dopers from the non-dopers. His sins are harder to forgive as he sugar coated them with his crusade against cancer. A revoking of his life ban is a distant dream at best.

Remember Ben Johnson, whose crash landing back to earth seemed even faster than this short-lived world record in the 1988 Seoul Olympics? The odds of his redemption are very slim with him testing for banned substances twice after 1988.

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Maria Sharapova is the latest in the bandwagon of superstars to confess to doping. Doubts are being cast over how many of her victories were boosted by doping. Jennifer Capriati has already called her out as a cheat. A ban looms large and the tennis world that was struck by a fixing scandal a few months back is again going into a huddle and wade out of this mess.

The Board of Cricket Control of India which currently holds a monopoly in how world cricket is played and run had asked the International Cricket Council to shun the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and opt for its own doping control program. The reason for doing so is quite strange. Cricketers in India are treated like royalty and their argument against out-of-competition testing is that it is an invasion on their privacy. Cricket isn’t a game that is played by too many countries and cricketers realise that while maybe gods in one country, they are just another face in the crowd when they go to another country. On the other side of the coin are the Rafael Nadals and the Christiano Ronaldos of the world who are superstars wherever they go but are fine with being subject to out-of-competition testing.

Doping agencies are like investigative agencies that need to constantly be one step ahead of the criminals and just like many investigative agencies, they are shaken from their stupor when the crime has already been committed.

The Indian Premier League opened a can of worms in 2013 when 3 players were caught for spot fixing and banned for life. It is rumoured that a list of players accused of fixing are lying in a sealed envelope in front of a Supreme Court judge. At the end of the mess, the Rajasthan Royals and the Chennai Super Kings were suspended for 2 years.

We are taught from a very young age that sport is something that holds itself to a higher moral standard. A politician who is caught in a sex scandal or for sending a nation to war without adequate proof isn’t censured. Bankers who caused pensioners to lose their savings and sent the financial world into a tailspin with their complicated algorithms walked away free with fat bonuses.

But the sportsperson who cheats sport seldom finds refuge.

Hansie Cronje leaving the courthouse sobbing where he was being questioned as a part of the King’s commission set up to investigate match fixing is one of the most enduring images of cheating in sport. He would die in 2002 in a plane crash. He was the face of South African cricket when they came out of cricketing exile after the apartheid years. No one imagined he would be the face of cricket’s darkest hour at the turn of the century.

The sad thing about sport is how everything that follows a scandal is viewed with scepticism. Any match that India lost after the match fixing scandal was dismissed as being fixed.

We cannot watch the next few tennis tournaments wondering to ourselves which player must be doping.

Why sport still remains something we still hold to a different standard is possibly because so many of our other institutions have failed us. Politics and religion have ceased to be the bastions of truth and hope that they once were. In a beautiful piece titled ‘The last flowering of amateurism’ sports writer Paul Hayward writes of how he wishes for a time when sport was devoid of its mass commercialisation and tales of steroid use. Referring to Roger Bannister’s 4 minute mile, he writes

“For my generation, who came to a life in sport when business had already completed its conquest, there is the nagging wish to have seen athletics, boxing, cricket or football before the mass commercialisation of games.

The wish is to stand not in a vast Olympic stadium wondering who is and who is not on drugs, but at Iffley Road with a pipe and a duffel coat. Just once.”

The biggest fear for me when playing cricket as a kid wasn’t losing. It was breaking the glass in someone’s window pane and being censured for it. Breaking the glass of someone’s house meant that play would be stalled indefinitely, sometimes for weeks.

It wasn’t even about winning or losing.

It was about just playing.

When tempers died down, we could resume playing.

Eventually we knew all would be forgiven. It was just a piece of glass that was broken.

It’s when trust gets broken that forgiveness is hard to come by.

 

 

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The lost legend of Mohammad Azharuddin

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Selling your soul makes for good storytelling only in rock ‘n’ roll folklore. In the real world, it makes for a cautionary tale. One that bears timely repetition.

When Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir received their sentences, the long walk to the pavilion would have seemed tolerable, enjoyable even, when compared to the onerous walk to the jail cell, where feet suddenly become saddled with lead weight. It wouldn’t have hurt to sit them down and narrate a story. Of a legend lost to time, of a king who abdicated his own throne and is yet to return from his exile.

Imagine a chill Lahore night. Kebabs are skewering and a hookah is being passed. A fire burns bright, dispelling the darkness and the chill. Seated are 3 young cricketers, their ears perked up, attention unwavering. A forlorn figure seated in the middle takes centre stage, much like he did years back, before he threw it all away in exchange for a life of anonymity, unfinished business and disgrace. To tell his side of the story.

Back in the day, the game didn’t pay much he said. Most cricketers played for the sheer love of it. He was a junior bank clerk, half resigned to leading an average existence, a far cry from the life he would ultimately be thrown into. But he possessed a gift few cricketers have. His wrists, much like another understated legend from his state, were that of a magician. Many cricketer’s wait years, decades even, to score their first century. He strode in, nonchalantly, and scored one on debut. If that weren’t miraculous enough, he went on score 3 more in his first three test matches. And he then leaned forward and said that in hindsight, it was his first big lesson – all fairy tale beginnings don’t necessarily have fairy tale endings.

Suddenly, he was the talk of the town. Suddenly, his middle class upbringing was at odds with the life he was thrown into. Suddenly, he was considered good enough to inherit one of cricket’s most thankless jobs in a country where cricketers were placed on the same pedestal as gods. He led the team in 3 world cup campaigns and he grew in stature. He then found himself in the news for all the wrong reasons – who were they to comment on his personal life he thundered. And suddenly, the night got a little chillier.

The hookah is now being passed and the kebabs are being dug into. He pauses between bites to take a sip of sulaimani chai. And resumes his tale as a gust of cold wind blows on their faces.

At around the same time, another cricketer was making his mark. He would go on to ultimately (and arguably) become the greatest batsman ever. Their relationship would never be a bed of roses and a lot is still unresolved. By now, he had attained a status a few players are accorded with. Young boys wanted to be like him when they grew up and his athleticism was a refreshing change in a team not known for fielding prowess.

And then came a twist so cruel that it turned a success story into a cautionary tale.

Another well respected, adored and glorified cricketer who went by the name Hansie Cronje was caught in a scandal that threatened the very foundation of the game. Erroneously, his name found its way into the mess. Though he vociferously protested his innocence, there was enough proof to hand him a life ban. One of the game’s most celebrated captains, relegated to a life of anonymity.

And then he breaks down.

If there ever were a seismic shift in a person’s life, this was it. There were no standing ovations for his 100th Test match which he would never play, no felicitations by people in high places. He would never be hoisted by his teammates after playing his last test match on his favourite ground. No tears would be shed after he announced his retirement, no reams of paper dedicated to his genius. Here was someone who fiercely guarded his privacy and thought to be aloof, forced to go in search of anyone ready to hear his side of the story. Someone people couldn’t get enough of was someone people didn’t want to have anything to do with. The messiah turned a pariah.

The fire is slowly ebbing and the young player, whose silky hair keeps falling over his forehead stifles a yawn.

He inches in closer. Never, ever, put anything above the game he says. Dedicate yourself to the game and the money will come. When the money comes, a lot of unsavoury people come along with it. Be guarded and never take your eyes off the 22 yards. Fame is a two sided coin. Never take your cap for granted or even think of putting a price on it. It is priceless. Never sell your soul for mammon. For it is one of the few things you can never get back.

The darkest hour comes before dawn. And when that moment came, the three young cricketers arose, much wiser than they were when they sat down, each having resolved in his own way to put the game first.

Of course, none of the above occurred. If it had, we would not have witnessed the sad scenes that have been thrust upon us, of Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Aamir and Salman Butt being sent to jail, each leaving behind unfulfilled potential and careers that will never play themselves out on the cricketing field. What will happen of Mohammad Aamir when he returns, if he ever should? Will he be given a second chance or will his every move be monitored like that of an ex-con? For this is a lesson every young cricketer must study the moment he gets his cap. It entails finding out who your real friends and discovering that the road to success, glory and fame lie within the playing arena, not out of it.

And hopefully, we’ll witness more fairy tale endings and not just fairy tale beginnings.

P.S. This piece was written after the spot fixing scandal broke out. Mohammad Azharuddin has since joined politics and has had his life ban revoked by the High Court and has also expressed a desire to work for Indian cricket. Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt are appealing their bans.