LONDON - By the time you read this Mohammad Amir, aged 19, will have faced his third bleak dawn in a young offenders’ prison on the outskirts of West London.
Some believe this is a great triumph for justice and a major blow at the heart of corruption in professional sport.
Others, including former England cricket captain and Cambridge University history graduate Mike Atherton, take a somewhat different view. They are saddened by the fate of Amir, who grew up in a poor Punjabi village and for a little while last year looked like one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game, and believe that if Amir did wrong and was liable to some form of punishment, dumping his career on a funeral pyre was a somewhat extreme reaction.
Amir had already been banned for five years by the International Cricket Council before he was sentenced to six months imprisonment at the Southwark Crown Court for his part in a ‘spot-fixing’ scandal that was exposed by the News of the World the summer before last.
Spot-fixing is one of the devices of a vast illegal betting market on the Indian sub-continent. Corrupted bowlers deliver ‘no-balls’, or concede ‘brackets’ of runs, at pre-arranged moments for the benefit of betting coups.
Amir was found guilty of agreeing to deliver no-balls — by making deliveries beyond the legal bowling ‘crease’ — in a conspiracy that was conceived in a newspaper sting and also included his senior colleagues in the Pakistan team playing England, captain Salman Butt and fellow bowler Mohammad Asif.
Butt, whose wife delivered their second child almost at the moment of sentencing, and Asif had already had their careers wiped out by ICC suspensions before receiving jail time of, respectively, two years, six months and one year. This was a terrible denouement for two able cricketers but they were mature professionals for whom it was impossible to make any kind of argument that they had been excessively punished.
Amir, one of a large labouring family, thinly educated and plunged into an entirely different world, formed a quite different case. He was 18 and without any kind of visible support when he was absorbed into the conspiracy.
Back in Pakistan his family wept in their grief. They said their boy had been threatened and intimidated — and become quite lost in a world to which he brought just one clear asset, a quite beautiful talent.
The Atherton school of thought now argues that cricket has a duty not to exonerate Amir but to give him a second chance. It says that if the game was happy to celebrate his sublime gifts it should also have taken the trouble to recognize his fragile situation and provide a degree of significant protection.
What can cricket do? It can meet him at the gates of the jail in three months — when, with good behaviour, he will have served his time — and point to some kind of road to redemption, perhaps by turning the bulk of his suspension into a suspended sentence and placing him in the hands of a universally respected mentor like former Pakistan captain Imran Khan.
Such a position went unsupported by another former international captain, England’s Michael Vaughan, who insisted that the youngster should have been banned not for five years but for life. No matter that Amir had been given rare gifts, he had forfeited his right to play the game for which he was superbly endowed.
Cricket, said Vaughan, had to protect its integrity in the most basic way, it had to set in place a clear deterrent.
Vaughan made a strong case, of course, and many were quick to support it.
It did not, however, quite banish the poignancy of seeing the young, lost phenomenon trailing off to a prison cell. You remembered the thrill he provided with his beautiful bowling performance at Lord’s, the historic headquarters of the game in 2010 and you had to believe that no sport is so blessed with the power to re-invent the best of itself that it can abandon such a talent without any kind of fight.
Amir, no doubt, has some time to serve, some lessons to learn. But then is this really for the rest of his life? No, it seems too harsh, too wasteful.
- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.