Cricket scandal rocks beleaguered Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s image problem is just getting worse.

The South Asian nation was already facing dire poverty, rising religious fundamentalism, daily acts of terrorism and a bungled response to a major natural disaster. Now Pakistan has been dealt another blow, this time to the reputation of one of its most prized exports — the Pakistani cricket team.

In a scandal that appears to be expanding every day, two stars of Pakistan’s national team stand accused of accepting payoffs to modify their performance during a recent match against England. The International Cricket Council suspended the two players, along with their captain. All three could be banned for life from international play.

Cricket is no trivial matter in Pakistan. In a country that has struggled with strong ethnic and regional rivalries, Pakistan’s most popular sport has acted as a great unifier. National mood often follows the results of the national cricket team and scenes of boys and men playing cricket along highways or on riverbanks are ubiquitous all over the country.

And so it is no surprise that this latest controversy has become a matter of national importance. Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani said the bribery allegations had forced Pakistan to “bow its head in shame.” A Pakistani lawyer has filed a case against the players in the Lahore High Court accusing them of treason and angry fans have taken to the streets in protest.

“This reflects very badly on the nation,” said Fareed Qadir, an 18-year-old student from Islamabad. “We’ve been marked as a nation that cheats.”

Outside of cricket, Pakistan has had little success on the global sports stage. The country counts just 10 Olympic medals — eight of them in field hockey — despite having the world’s sixth largest population.

With cricket, the story is very different. The sport is widely viewed as the world’s second most popular after soccer — thanks in large part to its popularity in India — and Pakistan has long been very good at it. Thanks to a huge reservoir of raw talent, Pakistan ranks alongside perennial powerhouses like Australia, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and England. Pakistan’s national team won the 1992 Cricket World Cup and last year triumphed in the world championship of Twenty20, a more fast-paced style of cricket.

Illegal betting scandals, as in many sports, are nothing new to the cricket-playing world. In 2000, the captains of South Africa, India and Pakistan received life bans for their involvement in a corruption scandal. So when a British newspaper reported late last month that it had paid a middleman about $230,000 for Pakistani players to deliberately make mistakes at specified moments during Pakistan’s test match against England, the reaction of Pakistani fans was not one of surprise but anger.

Some called for death penalty sentences for the players involved while others threw tomatoes at donkeys labeled with the players’ names.

In Pakistan and abroad, many observers saw a direct correlation between the cricket scandal and the culture of endemic corruption that plagues the country’s bureaucracy. Pakistan is ranked 139 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari spent years in prison on corruption charges before taking office.

The country’s poverty might also have played role in the scandal. Geoff Lawson, an Australian who coached Pakistan’s cricket team in the past, wrote in a newspaper column that poverty within a player’s family or village would make money made from match-fixing hard to resist.

“We must also remember that we are judging these guys by the standards of our own country, when their situations are vastly different,” Lawson said. “I will never condone any form of fixing, but we should consider that a cricketer might not be thinking of personal gain but of getting money to buy a generator for his village because they don't have electricity.”

The scandal is only the latest cause for despair for Pakistani cricket fans. No overseas cricket team has visited Pakistan since March 2009 when masked gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan squad in Lahore, wounding seven of its players.

Just before the scandal erupted, teams across the cricket world offered to stage games to raise funds for the victims of the floods that have ravaged Pakistan in recent weeks. Zimbabwe and Afghanistan offered to tour Pakistan despite lingering security issues and Giles Clarke, chairman of the powerful England and Wales Cricket Board, called for a selection of the world’s best players to visit Pakistan.

Nadeem Sarwar, the spokesman for the Pakistan Cricket Board, said the country had been close to again hosting international cricket matches before the corruption allegations. But now he is unsure what will happen.

“Just before this tragic incident happened,” he said. “We could see international cricket on the horizon.”