Six years ago, Mohammad Amir was an immensely talented bowler who stunned the cricket world after being caught in a spot fixing scandal. After serving a five-year ban, he returned to the cricketing fold earlier this year and just competed in a test match at Lord’s, the same ground where the scandal came to light. Amir is unusual as a cheater who was allowed to return. Usually, when our athletes are revealed as gamblers or dopers, we are reluctant to grant them forgiveness. 

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The Lord’s Cricket Ground is a place where players are presumably in awe. Labelled the Home of Cricket, it elicits somewhat of a near-religious feeling among players who set foot inside its premises, like a Catholic looking up at the Sistine Chapel, or a Muslim who visits Mecca, or a Hindu who takes a dip in the holy Ganga.

It was on that very ground in August 2010 that a young Mohammad Amir bowled a no-ball that shook the cricketing world.

No-balls in cricket are not uncommon. But Mohammad Amir had overstepped the crease by some two feet, and the replays drew sharp criticism from the commentators. During the break, Michael Holding, David Lloyd and Nasser Hussain sat down to discuss the delivery. “It is just so sad,” Holding said, “an 18 year old with that sort of talent to be getting involved in this.” Then he almost broke down, causing the channel to take a break until he could gather himself.

Holding recognized right away that Amir’s no-ball was no accident. Investigations later revealed that three Pakistani players on that tour, Mohammad Amir being one of them, had accepted money to under-perform in specific passages of play.

While the other two players, one being the Pakistani test captain for the series, were handed life bans, Amir was given a five-year ban. The ICC took into consideration his background, age, and the immense talent that he possessed. All of 18, Amir was seen as a naive youngster who was lured into the sordid mess by his more experienced team mates. On seeing him after his comeback, we can only wonder the heights he could have reached had he not traded five years of his career for a few thousand rupees. During his exile, he missed a limited-overs World Cup, two t20 World Cups, and a host of other marquee events.

Six years have passed since the incident that transformed Mohammad Amir from an upstart to a pariah. He is now just 24 and again playing for Pakistan. This past February, he appeared against India in a low-scoring encounter in the Asia Cup. Pakistan had managed all of 83 runs. It should have been a walk in the park for India. But Amir shook the Indian batting line-up, taking three wickets in a span of twelve deliveries in a beautiful exhibition of pace and swing bowling. India regained their sanity and went on to win the match. In that surreal passage of play, though, Amir hopefully made Michael Holding cry again –tears of joy. He had come back from exile, back to a future where hope had replaced implacable darkness.

All eyes were on Amir this summer as he returned to Lord’s, the ground where he fell from grace. He is fortunate to count himself among the forgiven.

Sport is unforgiving when it comes to athletes who cross the sacred line of trust. The legendary Pete Rose is still outlawed by Major League Baseball for his involvement in betting. Lance Armstrong’s punishment didn’t end with his suspension alone. The Union Cycliste International (UCI) declared all results of the Tour De France from 1999-2005 null and void as they couldn’t segregate the dopers from the non-dopers. A revoking of his life ban is a distant dream at best. And remember Ben Johnson, whose crash landing seemed even faster than his short-lived world record in the 1988 Seoul Olympics? The odds of his redemption are slim after he tested for banned substances twice after 1988.

We are taught from a young age that sport is something that holds itself to a higher moral standard. A politician who is caught in a sex scandal or shown to have sent a nation to war without adequate proof isn’t censured. Bankers who caused pensioners to lose their savings and sent the financial world into a tailspin with their complicated algorithms walk away free with fat bonuses. But the sportsperson who cheats sport seldom finds refuge. Why?

Whenever a cheating scandal in unearthed in sport, there is a fear that that it will open a Pandora’s box, that it will reveal how compromised the principle of fair play really is. Cricket’s Pandora’s box was opened with the match fixing scandal that came to light in 2000. The Delhi police had tapped the phone lines of a known gangster and were stunned to hear the voice of Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African team and one of the most respected men in cricket. His fall from grace was swift and the investigation unearthed other players involved in the racket, many of whom weren’t prosecuted and got away. Another player involved in the mess was Mohammmad Azharuddin, India’s captain and one of the game’s most stylish batsmen. He was handed a life ban and went from national icon to national shame. He spent the next few years in isolation, ignored by former team mates and the cricket board. His come back to public life not through sport but politics, getting himself elected as to Parliament in 2009. So much for probity in public life.

The photo of Hansie Cronje sobbing as he left the courthouse where he was being questioned as a part of the King Commission investigating match fixing is one of the most enduring images of cheating in sport. Cronje would die in 2002 in a mysterious plane crash. He had been the face of South African cricket when they came out of cricketing exile after the apartheid years. No one imagined he would be the face of cricket’s darkest hour at the turn of the century.

The Indian Premier League opened another can of worms in 2013 when three players were caught for spot fixing. India still doesn’t have a law for match fixing, and the players were charged under a draconian law known as the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime (MCOCA) which is used to prosecute hardened criminals. While the players were found to be not guilty under the law, the cricket board wants nothing to do with them and handed them life bans.

Another reason for our strong response to cheating is that we, as fans, then tend to view events that follow a scandal with scepticism. Any match that India lost after the match fixing scandal was dismissed as being fixed. Our scepticism also extends back to events before the cheating came to light. We wonder now how many of Maria Sharapova’s victories were boosted by doping.

Perhaps we still hold sport to a different standard because so many of our other institutions have failed us. Politics and religion have ceased to be the bastions of truth and hope that they once were. In a beautiful piece titled “The Last Flowering of Amateurism,” sports writer Paul Hayward writes of how he wishes for a time when sport was devoid of its commercialisation and tales of doping. Referring to Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, he writes:

For my generation, who came to a life in sport when business had already completed its conquest, there is the nagging wish to have seen athletics, boxing, cricket or football before the mass commercialisation of games. The wish is to stand not in a vast Olympic stadium wondering who is and who is not on drugs, but at Iffley Road with a pipe and a duffel coat. Just once.

Our usual view of sport’s cheaters makes the return of Mohammad Amir to Lord’s all the more remarkable. English fans aren’t the kindest. Many a player has incurred the wrath of the Balmy Army without even being accused of heinous crimes. But when Amir returned to the same ground where he lost his innocence, the reactions were subdued. There were no untoward incidents or fans breaking into a song about his misdemeanours. There were a few boos and jeers that were quickly quelled when he faced his first delivery. When he came on to bowl, he must have used every nerve and sinew of his to ensure that he didn’t bowl a no-ball. While there were a few voices who opined that he shouldn’t have been given a second chance, they were just that – voices.

The redemption story concluded with Pakistan beating England for a historic victory. And who took the final wicket of the match? Mohammad Amir.

The biggest fear for me when playing cricket as a kid wasn’t losing. It was breaking the glass in someone’s window pane. Breaking the glass of someone’s house meant that play would be stalled indefinitely, sometimes for weeks. When tempers died down, we could resume playing. We knew that eventually we would be forgiven. It was just a piece of glass that was broken. But when trust gets broken forgiveness is hard to come by.

 

Pawan Mahalingam lives in Bangalore. He writes about cricket and other sports on his blog Pages of Sport, and he tweets at @coffeebytwo.