Salman Butt cut a good figure as captain of Pakistan's cricket team. He was 25, wiry, spoke well and was confident without being cocky. By close of play on the third day of the England v Pakistan Test at The Oval in mid-August, when Pakistan were in a strong position, Butt was clearly proud of his young team, particularly of his fast bowlers, Mohammad Asif and the 18-year-old Mohammad Amir. "I have never seen such talent at that age," said Butt. He had taken over earlier in the summer, the third cricketer to captain Pakistan in nine months.
Butt was captain for precisely seven weeks before the News of the World accused him, Asif and Amir of match-fixing. In return for £150,000, their agent had said that the two bowlers would bowl three no-balls on the second day of the Lord's Test on August 27, and so they did. Butt's next formal interview was with officers from Scotland Yard. The three were suspended and, if found guilty by the International Cricket Council, they will be banned from playing the game, perhaps for life. The sentence would be draconian but not unjust.
And what of Pakistan? To the causes of the acute discomfort the nation inspires, we must add to its possession of nuclear weapons, its terrorists, its religious intolerance, its devastating floods and its political corruption, the game of cricket — one of the few things that actually unites the nation. The most dramatic way of eradicating the cancer of match-fixing would be to stop playing against them, though that would only add to their sense of paranoia and vulnerability. It would also duck the fact that Pakistanis are not the only cricketers who fix matches. Those who do fix matches are corrupting cricket principally to boost the profits of illegal Indian bookmakers.
As the evidence spilled out on to the pages of the NoW, only people with scant knowledge of international cricket were surprised. Inside the game, the news was truly shocking because cricket depends on spectators believing that what they see is played strictly according to the rules. Otherwise there is no point. The code of conduct of the ICC emphasises this: "If that confidence is undermined, then the very essence of cricket will be shaken to the core." And, as speculation multiplies, the clearer it becomes that the fish rots from the head.
A beginner's guide to fixing cricket matches would start: "First, corrupt the captain." The key to corruption is the skipper, a player in the same position as Butt, or earlier convicts, all very good cricketers such as Mohammad Azharuddin of India, Salim Malik of Pakistan and Hansie Cronje of South Africa. Doubts were expressed about one of the finest players of all, Wasim Akram, who is Amir's hero. On the field, the captain can give the signal for a no-ball, or bowl players who are likely to leak runs, or set fields that make it easy to score runs. Some young players find it difficult to deny an authoritarian captain. Cronje's crime was aggravated by his choice of young, coloured South Africans to do his dirty work.