KARACHI, Sept 1 (Reuters) - The corruption scandal that exploded this week is the latest damaging blow to Pakistan cricket and former players fear it could be the one that finally crushes the credibility of the sport in the South Asian nation.
Over the last few years, ball-tampering accusations, doping scandals, security problems and dressing room intrigues have all contributed to a volatile cricket culture without severely denting the popularity of the game among Pakistanis.
However, the British police investigation into allegations that players Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif took bribes to fix incidents during the fourth test against England last week looks like stretching that loyalty to its limits.
“We have one of the worst cricket systems in place,” former test captain Aamir Sohail told Reuters.
“We work without any long term plans and yet we survive in international cricket only because of the everlasting support of our passionate fans.”
Sohail and his fellow former captain Javed Miandad fear this latest scandal might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Pakistan’s millions of cricket fans.
“I think even the people have had enough of this indiscipline in the team,” Miandad said. “I think this time the board has to show it means business.”
Political analyst Kamran Khan believes Pakistan is so regularly haunted by controversy largely because of political interference in the running of the game.
The country’s president is chief patron of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and has the authority to appoint its chairman.
“In no country does the president or prime minister appoint someone to head a sports body,” he said.
“In Pakistan merit is ignored when appointing people to run the board and they remain unaccountable and that is root cause of the problems we see in our team.”
In March, the board banned and fined seven players for indiscipline and misconduct on the Australian tour but political clout as well as public and government pressure saw five return to the national team after just three months.
Imran Khan, who led Pakistan to a World Cup triumph in 1992 and is now a politician, believes the problems of Pakistani society are reflected in the cricket set-up.
“When the players see corrupt politicians in governance, when they see people pardoned in financial scams, they think we can also get away with this,” he said.
“Unfortunately this scandal has come as a demoralising blow for many Pakistanis, wherever I go people ask me what is going on, it is a heartbreaking situation.”
Even though security issues have meant no home international cricket for the last 17 months, thousands of fans still pack the stadiums for the national Twenty20 tournament.
As further testament to the game’s importance, even reporting of the floods which have killed more than 1,600 people and made at least six million homeless has been sidelined by coverage of the cricket scandal over the last few days.
“Cricket is one thing that still binds together the Pakistani people, who have to cope regularly with major problems like terrorism, rising inflation, religious intolerance and now these devastating floods,” cricket analyst Saad Shafqat added.
The country also continues to produce a string of talented players, among them the trio at the centre of the allegations currently being investigated.
Butt is the country’s test captain while Amir and Asif make up a strike bowling partnership that produced remarkable spells in recent tests against Australia and England.
The scandal has drawn predictably angry reactions from Pakistani fans, ranging from attacks on donkeys named after the players to the burning of effigies and throwing rotten vegetables at the team bus.
Songs berating the players and officials and hot-tempered discussions have dominated the airwaves in Pakistan with one lawmaker demanding the players be brought home in handcuffs.
Pakistan cricket has always been a passionate affair, however, with victories sparking all-night celebrations and defeats prompting sometimes violent reactions.
Even if the allegations prove to be unfounded and the fans remained loyal, the scandal would do nothing to improve Pakistan cricket’s reputation outside the country, said another former captain.
“It is now a frequent thing to link our players with fixing scandals and it will become difficult to not only win the people’s confidence and also convince teams to resume playing in Pakistan,” Zaheer Abbas said. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney and John O’Brien; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)
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