August 28, 2010. A sting operation carried out by the now defunct ‘News of the World’ rocked the cricket world with revelations of spot-fixing in the Lord’s Test. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the black day that possibly ended the careers of three young Pakistan cricketers, and landed them in jail.
Magic and misdemeanours
The match had got underway after a long delay, under gloomy dark clouds, perhaps harbingers of the storm that was to about hit cricket at the headquarters of the game. The score was six without loss. Mohammad Aamer, the young teenaged pacer with luscious talent dripping off him, ran in to bowl the first ball of the third over. Facing him was a sketchy, uncertain Alastair Cook. The delivery was probing, with slight away swing, and Cook negotiated it with care. But, Billy Bowden extended his arm. It had been an enormous no-ball, a good half-metre beyond the popping crease.
The ball moved about in the overcast conditions and the bat prodded tentatively. Edges were induced, one of them went straight into the hands of Umar Akmal and out again. Aamer placed his hands on the hips and fumed.
With the score on 25 without loss, another prodigiously talented fast bowler, Mohammad Asif, charged in to send down the last ball of the tenth over and overstepped.
Just before it became dark enough to call the players off, Asif swung one in and nipped it further back to clip the leg stump of Andrew Strauss. The players trudged off with the score on 39 for one after just 11.3 overs. The light remained murky, ominous again, and rain poured down. No further play was possible on that day.
When play resumed the next morning, Aamer pitched one in line with Cook’s off-stump and moved it away. The bat poked, managed a thick edge and the ball ended safely in the gloves of Kamran Akmal. It was 39 for two.
In his next over, at the same score, Aamer got Kevin Pietersen caught behind and Paul Collingwood leg before. It was 39 for four. And after Jonathan Trott had hit Asif for two fours through the off-side, Aamer ran in again and produced a peach of a late away swinger. Eoin Morgan could just snick the ball and Yasir Hameed held a smart low catch in the second slip. It was the third duck of the morning, and the score read 47 for five.
No start could have been more sensational. Unfortunately, something else could.
At 52 for five, Aamer spoke for long with captain Salman Butt and ran in to bowl the third ball of the 19th over. Again umpire Billy Bowden called ‘no ball’ and Matt Prior fended the short delivery to the leg side to pick up a single. And when the replay zoomed in on the young paceman’s delivery step, Michael Holding exclaimed in the commentary box: “How far was that?” Ian Botham replied, “It’s like net bowling.”
Of course, three no balls can take be bowled during an innings. There’s nothing particularly fishy about that, especially with fast bowlers in action, striving for the extra yard in helpful conditions. However, if someone predicts before the match that the first ball of the third over, the last ball of the tenth and the third ball of the nineteenth will be no balls, by the very bowlers who go on to bowl them in strict adherence to the script, it does become very odd. In fact, odds of such pin-pointed prediction occurring by chance was later calculated to be one in 1.5 million.
The sting that proved fatal
Yet, British sport agent and bookmaker Mazhar Majeed had done just that. That too with the secret cameras of News of the World zoomed on him. He had boasted about working with seven members of the Pakistan touring squad. On the video he had gone on to name Aamer, Asif, captain Butt and wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal as four of the seven renegades.
According to the report in the News of the World that hit the stands, Majeed accepted £150,000 to arrange a fix involving Aamer and Asif, and he asked both to bowl no-balls at specific moments of the match.
By the time the news was splashed across front pages to stricken gasps of the cricketing world, Pakistan had been blown off their position of strength in the Test match. On the second morning, Aamer had captured sixth wicket by dismissing Graeme Swann, leaving England tottering at 102 for seven. However, Stuart Broad had joined Trott and put the bowling to sword, slashing across the attack to leave it in tatters. They had remained together till the end of the second day, taking the score to 346 for seven. Both the batsmen had notched up their centuries, Broad the first one of his career.
And on August 28, as the shocking scandal screamed from the headlines, Trott took his score to 184, Broad to 169 and England ended just after lunch at 446. In response Pakistan folded in just 33 overs for 74. As followed on was enforced, they ended that blackest of days in cricket history at 41 for four in the second innings.
On that same day, Majeed was arrested on suspicion of controversy to defraud bookmakers. A couple of days later he was released on bail.
The strained smile on the victors
The following morning, Pakistan’s tales of woe did not improve on or off the field. Police scrutinised the currency notes handed by News of the World to Majeed, trying to figure out whether they matched those found in the hotel rooms of the implicated players. Whispers circulated loud and clear that Majeed was close to many players in the Pakistan team. The International Cricket Council revealed that both Majeed and several Pakistan players had been on their anti-corruption watch-list for some time. All the while, the Pakistan board insisted that the limited-overs leg of the tour would be played regardless of the controversy.
And on the field Pakistan lasted just 21 overs and a bit, slipping to a huge innings defeat. The visiting team did not have a net, even the not out batsmen did without a hit. Thanks to Graeme Swann’s five wickets, the unfortunate match was ended as quickly as possible.
The post-match presentation had an unreal feel to it. With the face of cricket shamed, the formalities were carried out away from public view in the Long Room. The winning captain Andrew Strauss was not really in throes of excitement as he noted, “Pretty tough day. We turned up knowing all we needed to do was to get the job done and finish things off but the atmosphere was very sombre out there. The game of cricket was in the news not just for the wrong reasons but the worst ones. At the moment the gloss is obviously taken off the win but in time we will remember the good things we’ve done.”
Only one Pakistan player attended the event and he was not really enjoying the moment of personal glory. When Aamer accepted the £4,000 check for the Man of the Series for his 19 wickets at 18.36, he was greeted by muted applause and a hesitant handshake.
Crime and Punishment
Four days after the Test match ended, the ICC suspended the trio of Butt, Asif and Aamer after charging them under various offences of the Council’s Anti-Corruption Code. At the same time, the Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom claimed that the players were victims of a “set-up”.
On the ominous September 11, the three disgraced cricketers flew back from England. They left surreptitiously through a back exit of the Lahore airport to avoid a huge crowd that waited for them.
In an ill-advised counter accusation, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Ijaz Butt alleged that the England players had fixed the third One Day International at The Oval. The statement resulted in furious response from the England players. Later Butt apologised and retracted the comment. It seemed none of the Pakistan cricketing establishment were thinking straight.
The case was first deliberated at the Southwark Crown Court. On October 9, the Sky Sports statistician Benedict Bermange made the claim: “According to my calculations, there is a one in a million chance (of three no-balls being bowled at pre-determined times). But for these two bowlers (Asif and Aamer) that becomes a one in a 1.5 million chance.”
Bermange also revealed that Pakistan bowled 23 percent more no-balls than other teams, but added that Asif’s 58 career no-balls at under two per Test was low in comparison to his contemporary fast bowlers. Yet, that number included 24 in one match against South Africa.
The statistician’s evidence was damning for the Pakistan cricketers.
An appeal against the suspensions was rejected by the ICC on October 31. Three days later, PCB suspended their central contracts.
On New Year’s Day of 2011, the ICC tribunal hearing date was set for January 6 to 11 at Doha, Qatar. Asif engaged Alexander Cameron, the brother of British Prime Minister David Cameron, as his defence lawyer. By the time the trial started, Butt, Aamer and Asif were at loggerheads with PCB. The players finally requested the Board officials not to attend the proceedings.
The decision was deferred till February 4. And on that epoch making day in the history of cricket, Butt, Aamer and Asif were charged with corruption offences by the Crown Prosecution Service. The next day ICC’s anti-corruption tribunal banned Butt for ten years (five suspended), Asif for seven (two suspended) and Aamer for five.
The Independent welcomed the news saying “the game was at last standing up to its responsibilities.” The Guardian claimed was somewhat reserved in its praise when it remarked: “the urgency to deliver a fierce deterrent to players everywhere has outweighed the need to make the punishment fit the crime.” In the cricketing circuits and the extended world of sports the decision met with a lot of approval.
On November 1, 2011, at the Southwark Crown Court, Majeed, Asif, Aamer and Butt were found guilty of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. Two days later, jail terms were handed down to the three players and the bookmaker – 30 months for Butt, one year for Asif, six months for Aamer and two years eight months for Majeed.
England 446 (Jonathan Trott 184, Stuart Broad 169; Mohammad Aamer 6 for 84) beat Pakistan 74 (Graeme Swann 4 for 12) and 147 (Umar Akmal 79*; Greame Swann 5 for 62) by an innings and 226 runs.
In pictures: The 2010 spot-fixing controversy
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)