A fall from grace can be a quick and somewhat startling affair, often consigning yesterday’s heroes to today’s scrapheap.
Take Milli Vanilli, the popular West German pop act, who suffered a spectacular fall from grace in 1990 when it was revealed that the band’s two ‘singers’, Robert Pilatus and Francis Morvan, actually had nothing to do with the records that had made them so famous in the first place. The pair had merely been recruited as frontmen, preferred to the ‘unmarketable’ vocalists who had recorded the album. Just days after a disastrous MTV performance lead to the revelation, the band had their Grammy stripped.
Sport has had its fair share of villains who have suffered equally irredeemable falls from grace. Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods are two modern examples who spring to mind. Like Milli Vanilli, both have failed to return to the top of their profession, professions that they once would have considered their own private fiefdom.
In August 2010, three Pakistani cricketers suffered their very own fall from grace, when they were found to have deliberately bowled no balls in exchange for dirty cash, during a test match against England– at Lord’s of all places. Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and an 18-year-old Mohammad Amir were the three shamed parties. All were banned for five years each, all received jail time.
Many of the cricket world will never forget that day at Lord’s, where the News of the World’s shocking expose collided with the end of a thrilling test match series (which England won 3-1). To this day, the story rightly serves as a warning to cricketers – and all three players were rightly harangued and shamed from all quarters.
Yet the story of the baby-faced Amir assumed an extra layer of tragedy, due to his fragile age and place in the Pakistani dressing-room hierarchy. Butt (then captain at the time) and Asif were both well-seasoned pro’s whose taciturn actions were not ambiguous, but with Amir it can be hard not to think he was badly manipulated, dragged through this regrettable ride through cricket’s Stygian underworld.
‘Please don’t let it be the kid,’ were the words of Sky’s Nasser Hussain on that day at Lord’s, reflecting the thoughts of cricket fans across the world. Amir had burst on to the international scene before he pulled the rug from out under his own feet. He had become the quickest bowler to reach 50 test match wickets (in 14 tests), and was ironically named man of the match at Lord’s for a brilliant 6fer, hours after the wildfire of scandal had engulfed the home of cricket. That was the end of his cricketing career for the near future. That was then.
This is now, and Amir is back. Although not on a world scale, the youngster has been reintroduced to the professional game, playing a string of T20 games in his homeland, with a fair degree of success. It seems highly probable that he will return to the national side at some juncture. His international ban ends this month. He would even be free to play against England, although he has not made the squad for next month’s series.
But is the cricketing world- fans and players alike- ready to accept Amir? Fans, especially those in England, may well decide to boo. It is their choice, and in a way it is fair. It was he that brought the game into such callous disrepute at Lord’s, and to some that act will never be forgiven. Many more fans will simply feel conflicted.
The player issue is perhaps even more pressing. How will he be treated in the Pakistan dressing room? Will he be treated like an outsider, a man who irrevocably let his country down? Or he will be treated as a new person, a man who has ultimately learnt and paid for his past crimes? Much will come down to the leadership fulcrum of the Pakistan team. The role of elder statesmen such as Misbah-ul-Haq (test captain), Shahid Afridi (ODI captain) and coach Waqar Younis will be crucial in the coming months, as reintegration talk becomes more pointed.
One thing that is beyond doubt is that Amir has served his time. A 5-year ban and a prison sentence was what the respective authorities deemed to be fair punishment, and that period has now come and gone. A look at other sports and it seems that Amir should be allowed to return to the international stage. Athletes from many different corners have returned after drugs bans, and football teams have often returned to the top after being punished for match-fixing.
Sport moves on, and second chances are usually granted. Cricket’s authorities must strive to tackle the ugly side of its game, which undoubtedly still looms large, but not at the expense of justice.
Another uncertainty about Amir’s return is the level of performance he can attain. His performances in T20 cricket appear solid enough on the surface, and on the evidence of restricted video footage, his action perhaps unsurprisingly hasn’t changed too much. A prolonged hiatus through the tender years of adolescence may have even reduced the chances of debilitating muscular injuries.
But international cricket is concentrated on fine margins, and it remains to be seen whether that extra yard of pace and the ability to control the swing so acutely remains. If Amir does return at the same level, it will be hard to contain that frisson of excitement every time he bounds to the crease in his trademark fashion, before releasing a thunderbolt with that rapid and beguiling left-arm.
It is five years since Amir took leave of the cricketing world that he had left such a vehement mark on in such a short space of time. Many will be pontificating over his return. But ponder this: is his return to the fold a bigger threat to the integrity of the game than the powers that be at the current big three? It was Giles Clarke who famously gave Amir that scornful look at Lord’s, but in the intervening period it is he and his cronies who have begun to systematically destroy the game.