October 22, 2016

Pakistan’s Amir in Bangladesh on redemption road

Chittagong Vikings cricketers Mohammad Amir delivers a ball during the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) Twenty20 cricket match between Chittagong Vikings and Rangpur Riders at the Sher-e-Bangla cricket stadium in Dhaka on November 22, 2015. Photo: AFP

Mohammad Amir’s last appearance on a cricket pitch outside his native Pakistan led to a six-month sentence in a British prison for corruption.

Five years on, the paceman was the headline act in the opening match as Bangladesh’s Twenty20 league staged its own comeback after a fixing scandal.

But as Amir and the Bangladesh Premier League look to turn over a new leaf, one of cricket’s most respected figures, Kumar Sangakkara, says the game could ‘die’ if spectators are not convinced matches are clean.

Amir, playing for the Chittagong Vikings against the Rangpur Riders, took four for 30 on Sunday, delighted to be competing once more against stars such as Pakistan’s Test skipper Misbah ul-Haq whom he bowled with a perfect yorker at Dhaka’s national stadium.

Amir, now 23, was jailed in 2011 after admitting bowling no balls the previous summer against England at Lord’s in exchange for cash.

His captain Salman Butt and fellow bowler Mohammad Asif were jailed for similar offences.

Their hopes of returning for Pakistan look bleak, given they are in the autumn of their careers.

But Amir, who has been playing Pakistan domestic cricket since earlier this year, told AFP recently he saw the BPL as ‘the first step towards reviving my international career’ as he eyes next year’s World T20 in India.

Although Amir has refused to talk to the media in Bangladesh, he said before his departure from Pakistan that he was ‘really thankful to the team for choosing me and I will try my best to give them my 100 percent.’

His comeback remains controversial, with Pakistan batsman Mohammad Hafeez refusing to sign for the Vikings with Amir in its ranks.

As Amir struggles to rebuild trust, the BPL faces a similar challenge after its 2013 edition was blighted by a scandal involving players and a team owner.

Former Bangladesh captain Mohammad Ashraful, New Zealander Lou Vincent and Sri Lankan Kaushal Lokuarachchi were handed lengthy bans.

And Shihab Jishan Chowdhury was also convicted of trying to fix the outcome of a match involving his Dhaka Gladiators team.

An embarrassed Bangladesh Cricket Board cancelled last year’s edition but now believes its house is in order.

Chief executive Nizamuddin Chowdhury said the BCB always had ‘zero tolerance’ of corruption but felt compelled to do more after 2013.

It now has its own anti-corruption unit and runs an extensive education programme for players which includes addresses by police.

‘A lot of things happened because of a lack of education, players not being aware of the consequences, not only for themselves but for the nation as a whole,’ Chowdury told AFP.

– ‘Soft targets’ –

Sayeed Uzzaman, the journalist who broke the scandal, said the BCB deserved praise for bringing crooks to justice but feared the game remained vulnerable.

‘The players are soft targets,’ said Uzzaman, of Dhaka’s Kaler Kantho daily.

‘The bookies offer them a thousand times more (than they are paid by their teams).’

While Amir is back playing in front of packed crowds, Ashraful keeps fit with nets in his backyard, still dreaming of an eventual international recall.

Neighbours are happy to bowl at the 31-year-old who set the record for the youngest player to hit a Test century but Ashraful is full of regrets.

‘I’ve lost almost everything I worked for … I hope young cricketers will look at me and learn a lesson,’ the one-time golden boy told AFP.

The local underworld was thought to have got its hooks into Ashraful long before he was caught and made a tearful confession.

Now he urges players against falling into the same trap.

‘My advice to any young cricketer would be say, very clearly, no.’

– ‘Just say no’ –

His view is echoed by Sangakkara, Sri Lanka’s former captain who recently retired from international cricket.

‘It’s very simple advice that I have for anyone, it’s basically just say no and once you’ve said no you report every single approach,’ he told AFP while training for his BPL team, the Dhaka Dynamites.

‘It’s the responsibility of players as well to ensure the game stays clean.

‘Cricket, or any sport for that matter, has to uphold the public trust because if the crowds don’t come to watch, if they feel cheated, cricket will die.’

Gambling is illegal in Bangladesh but, as in most of South Asia, bookmakers routinely operate from backstreets — often controlled by crime syndicates.

Every country has its tale of fallen heroes, including South Africa whose late captain Hansie Cronje was exposed as in the pay of bookies.

The cash-rich Indian Premier League was hit by a fixing scandal involving the son-in-law of the then head of the board in 2013.

While authorities say the punishments of players such as Amir and Ashraful have been a deterrent, few believe the corruption beast has been slain.

Only last week, Pakistan coach Waqar Younis had to insist a defeat against England in an ODI was not fixed after claims the match was under investigation by the International Cricket Council’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU).

In a recent in-house interview, the ACU’s head acknowledged fixing could never be wiped out.

‘I think the frank answer has to be never totally and absolutely eradicated,’ said Ronnie Flanagan.

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