Karachi, Pakistan. When Pakistan’s leg-spinner Danish Kaneria was banned for life for fixing, many were baffled as to why Pakistanis were so talented at cricket yet so susceptible to the lure of corruption.
It was another jolt with the country still reeling from the devastating 2010 spot-fixing scandal at Lords, which ended in lengthy bans and jail terms for then Test captain Salman Butt, and pacemen Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer.
Corruption is rife in Pakistan. Businessmen consider it a necessary evil and last month the prime minister lost his job after being convicted of contempt for refusing to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
In a country with an ineffective government, disastrous power cuts, Taliban violence, Al-Qaeda strongholds and an economy at risk of defaulting, cricket is the most popular if not the only form of entertainment.
“Corruption cases against our politicians are common, but the corruption of 19-year-old Aamer was hard to swallow,” said Tauseef Khan, head of mass communication at the Federal Urdu University in Karachi. “It reflects the lack of role models and unabated corruption in our society.”
For those talented enough, cricket offers an escape from the hardship of low-income and poverty-stricken homes such as those where Aamer grew up just outside the capital Islamabad.
The commercialisation of the game in the late 1970s enabled cricketers to earn tens of thousands of dollars a year, but also gave rise to corruption.
“The majority of cricketers in Pakistan come from poor families and when they see so much money floating around, sadly temptation gets the better of them,” said former captain Mushtaq Mohammad.
Many also blame the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for being unable to stop the rot after life bans on Salim Malik and Ata-ur Rehman, and fines for Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam-ul Haq, Saeed Anwar and Mushtaq Ahmed in 2000.
Commentator and former captain Ramiz Raja, who played with all these stars, blamed the lack of structure.
“I don’t think the system moulds players into an ambassadorial role for the game,” Raja told AFP. “It’s a mix of so many factors: lack of education which could help to weigh good and bad options, social breakdown as we increasingly see villains ruling the roost, lack of sound upbringing and lack of role models, especially in cricket.”
Cricketers are lionized to such an extent that fans refuse to believe their idols are ever capable of crime and corruption, further emboldening offenders.
So there was little surprise when Butt was warmly welcomed home last month — in contrast to the apathy felt over former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s conviction for contempt last April.
“The power of denial is a safety rope that breaks a fall. There have been examples in which cricket crime has gone unpunished because of such an approach,” said Raja.
“Hard core evidence is difficult to get and the crooked know how to drown out the sane voices by playing on the emotions of the nation’s simplicity and giving it a conspiracy spin,” he added.
He even believes that the fiercely loyal family culture in Pakistan, where parents are ready to fight even for children at fault, is also to blame.
“Of course, parenting plays a key role in making kids into noble citizens of the society.”
The 2010 scandal put Pakistan cricket at a crossroads. There were even calls for Pakistan to be thrown out of the World Cup the following year.
Since then, the PCB has sought to implement strict measures to purge the game of fixers and malpractice.
But if the daily newspaper headlines about corruption in the corridors of power are anything to go by, it seems unlikely that the country’s future breed of cricketers will avert the pitfalls of temptation.