With its hallowed turf, its members decked in red and yellow neckties, its beautiful pavilion built in 1890, and its futuristic all-aluminum media center that hovers like an alien spacecraft, Lord's cricket ground in London is the home of cricket.
This week at Lord's, England won an amazing come-from-behind victory over Pakistan. But the game now is likely to be overshadowed forever by one of the greatest scandals to ever hit international cricket.
The British newspaper News of the World alleged that in a sting operation, they paid Pakistani middleman Mazhar Majeed 150,000 pounds ($230,000) to collude with Pakistani players and deliberately fix the match, for the benefit of gambling syndicates. Majeed was arrested by police and released on bail pending further investigation. The police have also spoken to several Pakistani players. At this stage, the claims are unproven allegations. But the secretly taped video of Majeed looks, on the face of it, pretty damning.
Cricket, like baseball, has long been the target of gambling syndicates, who aim to rig the result and make a killing. A decade ago, cricket was hit by allegations of "match-fixing" where players collude to influence the result of a game. Tighter controls have made this kind of brazen cheating harder to get away with. The alleged fixer, Majeed, was quoted by the News of the World saying: "They've toned down match-fixing a lot, they've made it very, very difficult."
But the fixing virus didn't die. Instead, it evolved into a more resilient and insidious strain called "spot-fixing." Here, the cricketer doesn't throw the entire game. Instead, they throw an individual play. For gamblers, who can bet on almost any aspect of a sporting event, knowing the outcome of a single play can be just as profitable as knowing the final result. And by micro-fixing, the player can cash-in without losing the match.
For Americans, cricket is like an arcane Russian nesting doll: a riddle inside a mystery, inside an enigma. Even U.S. sports aficionados, who dissect the subtleties of baseball with a scalpel, throw up their hands with incomprehension at cricket. Yet the game is really not that complex, being beloved by five-year old street children in Mumbai--among hundreds of millions of others.
Reduced to its basics, in cricket, the "bowler" (pitcher) hurls the ball down, trying to knock over three "stumps" or sticks. Meanwhile, the batter tries to defend the stumps, and smash the ball to all corners of the park. The bowler must deliver the ball before crossing a white line, or else it's a foul or "no-ball."
According to the News of the World, the Pakistan players deliberately overstepped and bowled no-balls at predetermined moments. The video shows the Pakistani bowlers fouling at the exact times promised by Majeed.
Cricket is often seen as the most un-American of sports, with its breaks for tea, and its games ending in a draw. In truth, cricket is as American as apple pie, and was widely played in the United States until the Civil War. In the early 1700s, one Virginia plantation owner wrote in his diary: "About 10 o'clock Dr Blair, and Major and Captain Harrison came to see us. After I had given them a glass of sack we played cricket. I ate boiled beef for my dinner." In 1859, Abraham Lincoln watched Chicago play Milwaukee at cricket. Although the game faced hard times in America after the Civil War, it's making a comeback. In 2010, the first full international match took place in the United States, when New Zealand played Sri Lanka in Florida.
The type of cricket match played in Florida takes just a few hours. But the gold standard is "test match" cricket, or the five-day version--like the scandal-ridden game at Lord's. At its best, test match cricket is an epic duel, with a depth unmatched by any other sporting event. Imagine the Red Sox and the Yankees slugging away for fifty innings each, with the score tilting first one way and then the other, until the ultimate, dramatic conclusion.
If cricket is an epic contest, the Lord's scandal has the makings of a tragedy. Pakistan is a nation riven by terrorism and insurgency, and struck by devastating floods. If ever a country needed sporting heroes, it is Pakistan today. "Say it ain't so" must be ringing from the lips of schoolchildren from Karachi to Lahore. Pakistani fans chanted "thieves" as the Pakistan team left their hotel in London, and police confiscated several eggs, possibly intended for the team bus or the players. The anger is unsurprising. Pakistan's punishment could be national. Malcolm Speed, a former head of world cricket, has suggested that the country might be suspended from playing any international games.
Of the players named by the News of the World, potentially the most tragic case is Mohammad Amir. He is the great young hope of Pakistani cricket: their Slumdog Millionaire. Born in a poor rural area of Pakistan, at 18 years old, he is the youngest ever player to take 50 international "wickets," or outs. He bounds in with a joyous love of the game, launching a ball that dips and swerves through the air, leaving the batter clueless. Now he could be banned for life--a player left wondering what might have been.
Geoff Lawson, who used to coach the Pakistan team, urged a degree of understanding: "The first time I met Mohammad Amir was when he was 16, coming to an Under-19s camp. He comes from a small village near the Swat valley and was delayed by three hours because the Taliban had closed the highway."
Lawson suggested that Amir could have altruistic motivations: "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."
Cricket is a game that I love. As a kid, I used to hide under the blankets in the dead of night, and listen on the radio to England's tour in Australia. The commentary is legendary, even if the otherwise august announcers are sometimes reduced to fits of laughter.
In sport, we pay to watch people throw a ball around. But these rituals are imbued with profound meaning and emotion. What a tragedy, then -- for Amir, for Pakistan, and for cricket -- if at the heart of this beautiful game is a lie.