Michael Atherton and the rehabilitation of Mohammad Amir

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.

18 Responses to “Michael Atherton and the rehabilitation of Mohammad Amir”

  1. mike atherton says:

    thought that was a perfectly fair analysis, if one that i obviously don’t entirely agree with, and yes i did expect a mixed response to the interview. the aim of the interview was to draw out of him a powerful story that had not been heard before – at least 4 major things in there that had not been put in the public domain before- and then try and write a long piece setting the evidence, in so far as it exists, against/besides his story.

  2. legsidefilth says:

    Thanks, Mike – I appreciate you taking the time to respond. It’s hard to be dispassionate about all this, whatever one’s views are, and the interview certainly made for compelling viewing. Looking forward to your coverage of the Sri Lanka series – can imagine it will be a relief to get back to the actual cricket (albeit only 2 Tests, sadly)!

  3. mike atherton says:

    the difficulty i have found with the reactions to the interview (on twitter for example) is that complexity is difficult to handle. i spent long hours trying to work out Amir’s story (from september onwards) and, if his story is true (and the detail of the phone records suggests much of it is), it is not straightforward: not a simple guilty/ innocent tale. his contact with ali, for example, clearly paints him in a poor light. but, if true, there are mitigating circumstances to his eventually bowling the no balls. anyway, you had obviously read the long piece that i wrote in the Times and had clearly given the matter some thought, which i appreciated. that has not been the universal reaction! one final thought about my lack of engagement in the interview: i thought people would want to hear from him and not me- this was, after all, his story. keep blogging- some of the best cricket writing at the moment is on blogs such as yours.

  4. Sami Saayer says:

    well written piece this. by now amir would’ve played 31 tests & even without improving his current per test wkts would’ve taken 113 wickets. probably youngest to 100 and that too of an exceptional quality. doesn’t make it right though.
    i genuinely appreciate mikey’s earnestness and efforts in his work on this case. also i hope his conviction is right but the questions asked in this article are pretty valid. former Pakistan captain rashid latif has also written an article in a Pakistan newspaper. mikey, do read that if you get time. your response to that will be interesting.
    god bless you both.

  5. mike atherton says:

    i have read latif’s piece and in terms of the delay in showing the interview, this was because it was a very complex edit, given the language difficulties. the transcript alone took the best part of five days, and then editing, cutting, doing the pieces to camera, dubbing into urdu, making an english version and a pakistan version, meant that it took the best part of four weeks to have the programme ready. it was amir’s stipulation that the programme be shown first in pakistan (out of courtesy to his home audience) and that is why we attempted to get the programme details to the pakistan broadcasters.

  6. An excellent blog post that summarises what many of us feel; in fact, I agree with almost everything said in this article, and that is indeed a rarity! We all have both an emotional and a rational response to this situation, and often, the two have collided or been at odds; the above blog-post beautifully summarises these internal debates and arguments many of us are going through!

    In particular, I must reiterate the comments about Athers above. If there exists a Pulitzer in England, his journalistic work on this whole issue certainly merits it! In addition to the excellent, in-depth and proper journalism, must also commend Atherton’s compassion – the world would be a better place if more people shared that, and there were altogether fewer of us cynics around!

    I completely concur with Atherton that Amir’s story as presented by him is not the complete truth. Whilst I am probably personally and emotionally invested in Amir turning out to be a naive waif who was misled and used by others, the facts do not completely support that view and thus I support the view of the blog-post above; there is a third option, that all of those concerned may still be obfuscating.

    Latif’s article (referred to above), whilst mildly interesting, doesn’t add anything new to the debate AT ALL. It is an ill-disguised rant at Sky Sports and the PCB, masquerading as analysis. I really did expect better from someone of Latif’s pedigree, but we have sadly been let down.

    The “delay” issue in the interview has been more than adequately dealt with by Atherton above; The Cricketer’s Richard Edwards has added further useful clarifications on it, pointing out that “The delay, I believe, was partly a legal one – until the broadcast Amir was still serving out end of sentence on license”.

    The second great ‘plank’ of Latif’s arguments are the no-balls in Australia.

    Richard Edwards has addressed this on his twitter, saying, inter alia: “The 13 no balls in Oz Test was also mentioned in court but no suspicion attached to it. Extraordinary allegation for Latif to be making”.

    The Australian Test he refers to was this one at the MCG:


    It was the first Test of that tour; a Boxing Day Test at the MCG, the biggest stage for that Pakistan team. Before the match, Cricinfo’s Osman Samiuddin wrote how the Pak young guns (e.g. M. Amir and Umar Akmal) were extremely excited about playing at that venue, on that day, in front of the world’s largest Test match crowd – both were duly pumped up. Amir bowled at speeds of upto 150kph in that Test, and probably over-committed himself.

    Furthermore, as pointed out by Edwards, “Aussies also bowled 14 no balls in that match (Melbourne, 2009). Including 8 from their spinner…”!

    And finally, many experts on this topic (including Edwards, Atherton and a few others) have repeatedly confirmed that it is simply not possible for illegal bets to be placed on no-balls by these illegal betting syndicates – hence MM’s well-documented surprise when this was first broached to him by the undercover reporters.

    Personally, I have absolutely no knowledge of how these illegal syndicates work, or what legal or illegal bets are possible; I suspect the same can be said for most of us, thankfully. Hence, its probably sensible to defer to to those who have spent many months researching this very issue!

  7. Tom Huelin says:

    Really great piece, well researched and well executed.

    Interesting you link News Corp with Sky, offering this a possible reason for Athertons compassion towards Amir, but I cannot believe a man of his integrity would let company politics cloud his work. Instead I think it’s clear that, like so many other people, Atherton instead wants to think the best of Amir, in the hope that maybe there were mitigating circumstances, that external pressures applied to Amir may have contributed to his decision to comply with this criminal act.

    I still recall the way Amir ripped through England back in 2010, I remember in particular Alistair Cook struggling. What is so sad is that Amirs potential was wasted for just a few quid. As you said in your blog, even if he does play again, will we ever truly trust him on a cricket pitch?

    Nevertheless, I do hope that one day we see him play again. Athertons interview certainly raised fresh questions, but in my mind, the guy still deserves a second chance.

  8. KASHIF says:

    hi Mike!
    nice to see you interviewing Amir.but the fact is that as latif was also mentioning in his article that amir was not a child at the time he commited this shit.I think you can go through the cultural prospectus of Pakistan.A person at the age of 15 is supposed to get passed his matriculation exam. and for passing that exam you need sense and good mind and by that age and that stage a normal pakistani child knows very very well about the consequences what he do.its just rubbish what he is saying that he is innocent.he destroyed the spirit of the cricket and m sure he will do it again with more systematical manner if he got chance.so please don´t present him as a innocent child we should get rid of these characters and never let them enter in the grounds again otherwise i am afraid that in future we will witness many more incidents and characters like amir.

  9. mike atherton says:

    one more comment re latif’s piece! re ‘Ali’ ( Ali’s contact with amir was discussed in court, albeit unnamed) Amir has said: 1/ he did not engage in fixing with him 2/ he broke off virtually all contact when he realised what Ali wanted 3/ he did not receive any money from him. i’m not sure what more he can say. at the moment there is no evidence to suggest otherwise; no doubt if that evidence exists it will be found.

  10. Uday says:

    Brilliant to hear directly from you Mike, and great article legsidefilth. I certainly don’t think Aamir was too young to know right from wrong – indeed, he never claims that he was. Where his age is a factor, I feel, is in how easily he would believe that this is the way the cricket world works – what is common, what is acceptable, who to believe, whom to follow, etc. There is no excuse for what he did, but I do believe that we need to appreciate his predicament of of being faced with the prospect of being the only morally upright one in a crooked world, with the possibility of his career being harmed, and perhaps even threats of violence (as the case of Haider suggested) against him. What we need to think about is whether he felt that he really had a true moral choice available to him, and whether he felt the PCB or the ICC would have been able to protect him if he had decided to take a stand against this.

    What struck me most in his story was how Butt (whom he looked up to) told him that his contacts with Ali would get him into trouble (even though at this stage, he hadn’t, according to the evidence, done anything wrong), and in his fright he pretty much did what Butt asked. This betrays a lack of courage (for which he was not too young) and clear thinking (for which his age, and Butt’s influence could be counted as mitigating factors). But it also displays the fact that he had to face an extraordinary situation that was not simply one of whether to underperform in exchange for money. Its important to understand the ways in which a young cricketer can be pressurized to effectively counter them, and so thank you Mike, for the excellent interview and article.

  11. Anand says:

    Great article from you and class interview from Athers. What Amir did is wrong even considering his age. But only thing i feel for him is that his rural background made him more easier to trust others and poverty he has seen made him more greedy. This is not an excuse for his actions but having seen these sort of environs day in and day out i can feel for him.

  12. Mihir Ravani says:

    A very well written piece. It does put things into perspective. I also, like Mike Atherton, would want to believe Amir and his side of the story.
    But as rightly pointed out, the theory does have its flaws. All pieces do not fit in completely. The biggest disappointment for me out of this whole saga is that cricket lovers all around the world have lost the opportunity to look at probably the best young fast bowling talent in a generation. It was delightful to watch Amir bowl and the talent was far too much to ignore.
    Even if he does come back to cricket, I don’t know how he will fit in and how everyone around the world, players, commentators and fans included, would react to it. Its going to be a big challenge for Amir and the PCB as well because this incident will always stay in the minds and hearts of all cricket lovers around the world forever.
    A great interview nevertheless by Mike Atherton to bring out Amir’s side of the story and give him a chance at redemption and a great analysis of the interview by legsidefilth. Great job guys!!

  13. njr1330 says:

    I have read all this with great interest, and it is fantastic to have comments direct from MA. However, as a criminal lawyer, I am troubled by the fact that this is all said AFTER the guilty plea was entered; as my pupil-master used to say: ‘You can’t plead Slightly Guilty – you either are or you aren’t!’ This sounds like Amir pleading guilty to get the sentence discount; then saying afterwards: ‘Well, I wasn’t really guilty’. Leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

  14. Kishor Kumar says:

    I was a great fan of Amir and had great respect, when he was tormenting English batsmen in their own backyard. But minute after I read the story published in ‘News of the World’ I lost all my respect and trust on Amir. Being a Cricket lover, if I cannot trust what am watching on the ground is real, cricket is dead for me. Hence I can never ever trust players like Amir who killed the soul of cricket, again !

  15. Luke says:

    One can have sympathy for Amir due to his youth, the impact on his family, the impact on his conscience relating to his faith; but one cannot excuse his actions. He undoubtedly knew what he was agreeing to was wrong and that he had opportunity to consult others as to the right course of action. Yes he may have been intimidated by the fact his captain was a chief instigator but was there noone to talk to? I can’t believe that was the case.
    It’s sad we have lost one of the most exciting Pakistan bowlers since Wasim but as an adult one has to take responsibility for misguided decisions. If Amir had taken performance enhancing drugs would we feel sorry for him in expulsion?

  16. Roarster says:

    Enhancing one’s performance, legally or otherwise, at least suggests that every attempt has been made, legally or otherwise, to ensure that what is on display is the athlete’s very best (and if artificially supplemented better than his natural best). While there can never be any condoning of doping, the motivation behind it is, at least, the desire to win, rather than the desire to line one’s pocket. Both actions severely damage the integrity of any sport, but would sports fans rather see a transgression based on a compulsion to win at all cost or the self-serving lure of the green folding stuff?

    Of course, the answer we all would resoundingly cry is “NEITHER!” But I fear that our days of innocent, cynicism-free sports viewing are disappearing into the distance.

    Great original post from LSF and fantastic to see Athers fronting up (as ever) and giving us a valuable insight into his take on it all. Valid points all round.

  17. andrew schulz says:

    The Sydney Test was in 2010. By getting this wrong you are carelessly putting South Africa at question, who had nothing to do with the Test in question.

  18. legsidefilth says:

    Thanks – I’ve amended the article. I’m sure you worked out that I meant the Test from the Aus v Pak 2009/10 series – there was no mention of South Africa in the article.

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