On Monday evening, Sky Sports aired Michael Atherton’s hour-long interview with Mohammad Amir, the young Pakistan bowler sent to prison last year in the wake of the Lord’s spot-fixing scandal. Amir is currently serving a ban from all international cricket until 2015, and it is the first time he has told his story to the public since he pleaded guilty.
Mike Atherton is one of the finest and most perceptive commentators on the modern game. He wields an eloquent pen in fair and balanced fashion, wears his not-inconsiderable intelligence lightly, and while I may not always agree with everything he has to say, it’s a rare day indeed when I don’t admire the manner in which he’s expressed it.
So it’s fair to say I – along with many other cricket fans, judging by the buzz on Twitter – were looking forward to receiving (hopefully) honest answers to some tough questions.
But if it was a probing interrogation you were expecting, this wasn’t it. Playing Martin Bashir to Amir’s Diana, Atherton’s questioning of the young bowler constituted less a searching cross-examination than a series of gentle prompts to allow Amir to tell his story in what turned out to resemble a soft-soap PR exercise designed specifically to aid in the young bowler’s rehabilitation.
It’s hard not to be warmed by the first part of Amir’s story: his upbringing in the small village of Changa Bangyaal; his progression through the academy and the Under-19 setup; and the day he was told he would be playing for his national team, his description of being overwhelmed with pride at trying on his new Pakistan shirt for the first time, and of emotion at seeing his name and number on the back.
Talent like his comes along but seldom. It is every sports-fan’s favourite feel-good story: the penniless, gifted prodigy plucked from obscurity through a fortuitous combination of chance and a talent-spotter’s keen eye. Unfortunately, as we now know, with this story there was to be no fairytale ending.
I found myself watching Amir’s body language for signs of defensiveness and dissembling as the story proceeded into murkier waters: the approaches from captain Salman Butt; texts to and from “Ali”, the mysterious Dubai businessman unnamed until now; the hatching of the plot in Majeed’s car in the carpark of the Marriott Hotel the day before the Lord’s Test; the handing over of £1500 in cash.
And this is where my doubts started to creep in, when I really didn’t want them to.
Parts of Amir’s interview just don’t ring true for me. When first approached by Salman Butt about fixing, Amir says he responded with “bro this is forbidden… leave it, I am not going to do it”. However, the texts he sent to Ali before the Oval Test – including “for how much”, “but what needs to be done” and “so in the first 3 bowl whatever you like and in the last 2 do 8 runs” – are damning. That he could flip-flop between telling Salman Butt that fixing is wrong to exchanging incriminating texts with a dodgy Dubai businessman implies a willingness to succumb to temptation at best and an astonishing moral flexibility at worst. And despite the fact he knew, when he later accepted the £1500 from Majeed, that he had been asked to do something wrong, that “it was cheating cricket”, he still did not think to come clean at the ICC hearing in Doha.
If Amir was so certain then of the wrongness of what he was doing, then surely at some point the thought “I have to tell someone about this” would have presented itself. One would have had to have been delusional to think this continued collusion would never be found out, and surely at some point you’d think getting caught would have become a far more terrifying prospect.
I have sympathy for Amir’s youth, and am willing to allow for the fact he was naive and scared, but a cynic might also say that playing the naïveté card would most definitely be to Amir’s advantage in terms of rebuilding his career and reputation. In a follow-up article in The Times the day after the interview, Atherton conveys explicit belief in Amir’s story that he was blackmailed into going along with the fix, and that money was never a consideration.
And this is something else that bothers me.
Mike Atherton is a former England captain and a man who cares deeply about the sport. He is also a compassionate human being, who believes that Amir should be given a second chance: would there were more like him willing to extend forgiveness to those who are honestly repentant. But he is also a Sky Sports commentator and one generally expects one’s commentators to maintain a certain amount of impartiality.
Perhaps there is some sense of responsibility here, of redressing the fact that it was News Corporation, owner of the now-defunct News of the World as well as of a controlling stake in Sky, who were indirectly responsible for curtailing Amir’s career and landing him in prison with a six-month sentence and five-year ban. In his Times article Atherton writes that Amir’s downfall was the “unintended consequence” of an undercover reporter with a briefcase of cash putting pressure on a fixer to produce results and thus provide evidence of corruption. One of the ironies noted by many at the time was that it took a tabloid to achieve what law-enforcement could not do, given the various legal complications surrounding entrapment.
With this interview and his impassioned article, it would seem Mike Atherton has firmly nailed his colours to the mast as the vanguard of a campaign for clemency for the disgraced bowler. Any pretensions to playing devil’s advocate are removed when he writes:
“It seems to me that there are only two interpretations that follow on from Amir’s version of events. Either you believe him, which doesn’t in any way exonerate him from the guilt of the no-balls at Lord’s, but does provide some context and understanding of the hole he found himself in and the pressure he was under – context that suggests that much of the basis upon which he was imprisoned and banned from the game was false. Or you don’t believe him.
“Instead, you believe Majeed, who said in his conversations with the journalist that Amir was corrupt. And you believe Butt, who used the opportunity granted by Amir’s guilty plea and silence at court, to round on him and describe him as far removed from the innocent naïf that others have painted him as.”
In other words, you believe the unquestioned villains of the piece, the men for whom sympathy is rightly in very short supply, over the word of a naive young man led astray by those he trusted and too frightened to do anything other than to go along with them, and shame on you for doing so.
Forgive me if I don’t believe it’s that clear-cut. What if you don’t believe any of them?
Of course, Amir cannot change his story from when he pleaded guilty, but some of his answers seemed glib and rehearsed, tripping off the tongue with a familiarity gained through having said them many times before. Clearly he and his legal team have left nothing to chance. This in itself, of course, is no indication of guilt, but when you choose to defend yourself through the media, image is everything, and there were many who, rightly or wrongly – including myself – doubted his sincerity at various points in the interview.
It hardly needs pointing out, of course, that whether or not you believe him – and whether or not you want to do so – will be down as much to your emotional response as to the cold hard facts of the case.
The very essence of sport lies in the emotions it provokes in those who follow it. It is nothing without honesty of effort and sincere striving for victory on the part of those who take part in it. We should not hold sportsmen to be less flawed and less venal than we are, but we do. Athletes can be ruthless, unpleasant bastards who make the lives of those around them hell, but as long as they are accomplishing superhuman feats in their chosen sport through their own honest effort and ability we look up to them as gods. To throw a game or influence the outcome of it through dishonest means, especially where money is involved, in whatever context, is to the sports fan the ultimate betrayal.
Mohammad Amir bowled two no-balls. No one died. But in the context of sport, for many what he did is unforgivable.
I want to believe this young man. I want to believe he has a future. But if or when he ever steps onto a cricket field again, will we be able to trust him? Will we all be whipping out our mental tape-measures to compare the extent to which he overstepped at Lord’s to any no-balls he might bowl in the future? Is it ever possible he will play again without suspicion, no matter how much goodwill we may extend towards him? Pakistan’s cricket board and fans may very well feel the same way. It is easy to mourn the loss of Amir’s talent to the sport, but without him Pakistan cricket has moved on, with the recent series win over England a symbolic turning of the page.
Another thing the interview and article have failed to do is reassure me as to the extent of corruption in the sport.
In November of last year Atherton reported in The Times that the day after Amir pleaded guilty, a member of his family was approached in a mosque in Lahore and threatened. “And they wondered in the ICC hearing in January in Doha, Qatar, why Amir did not come forward and reveal all to save himself from a more serious sentence,” he wrote. During Amir’s sentencing, Justice Cooke said: “The reality of those threats and the strength of the underworld influences who control unlawful betting abroad is shown by the supporting evidence in the bundle of documents, including materials from the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit of the ICC”.
And yet in Tuesday’s article Atherton concludes instead: “The notion of an overarching syndicate or mafia-like organisation is clearly false. Fixes that happened were clearly based on friendships and loyalties within the team and would have been known only to those involved”. Given this all serves as an unpleasant reminder of the recent case of Mervyn Westfield and, before that, the highly suspect Sydney Test of 2010 and the allegations of absconding wicket-keeper Zulqarnain Haider, which is it? How far does the corruption spread?
None of this has given me any reassurance about the scale of corruption in cricket, or of Mohammad Amir’s part in it. If this was the intended purpose of the interview then, despite Atherton’s admirable willingness to see the best in his interviewee – one may question his judgement, but certainly not his compassion – for me, at least, it has created only more questions.