Overstepping the Line

This is the 19th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on September 2.

If you’re a cricket lover, the last week hasn’t been a good one. You can scarcely say, though, that you had no inkling. We’ve been through a matchfixing scandal before; some of the culprits got off easy that time, especially in Pakistan; much shadiness has surrounded Pakistan cricket for quite a while now. The incentives have been all wrong, and human nature is human nature. And the cat had grown too big for the bag.

What is tragic about last week’s events, though, is that they involve a boy. Mohammad Amir is 18. He was marked out for future greatness at 15. He was playing international cricket at 17—remember what you were up to at that age, and how callow you were. Amir must have been in awe of his senior team-mates, and of this new dreamlike world he was catapulted into.

It has been argued that the authorities should treat him leniently because of this, and because of his sublime talent. Ramiz Raja has said, “He is 18, with an impressionable mind, and if he has been keeping bad company, it’s possible he could have been drawn [into wrongdoing].” Geoff Lawson, his former coach, has this to say, “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. That doesn’t happen in this country. […] 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.”

I share the sympathy for the boy—but his punishment, if indeed it is confirmed that he is guilty, should be based not on what is good for Amir, but on what is good for the game. Cricket has had enough of match-fixing, and to recover and maintain the sanctity of the sport, the ICC (and the PCB) must make sure that they set the right incentives. A past generation of cricketers got away easily with their wrongdoings. We can set it right now. A life ban for every player even peripherally involved with these happenings will send a message that even a 12-year-old won’t be able to ignore in future. It might then be clear that the risks of match-fixing outweigh the rewards. As Sambit Bal wrote on Cricinfo, “Mohammad Amir must either stand tall or never bowl a ball again. Nothing in between is acceptable.”

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While it easy to condemn Amir’s actions, it is harder to stand on judgement on the boy himself. Given his humble background, his impressionable age and his questionable team-mates, he was doomed as soon as he stepped out on the field in Pakistan colours. Cricket, some purists say, builds character—but in such circumstances, how could Amir have found nobility or rectitude? Amir’s talent is magical, but we do not live in a fairy-tale world, and the boy is human.

And really, which of us can afford to be self-righteous about this. There is not one adult person in this subcontinent who has not, at some time or another, partaken in an act of corruption. Perhaps we’ve bribed a traffic cop, or given chai-paani to our local electricity guy, or slipped a hundred buck note to a low-level mandarin while getting our first ration card in a new city. Some of us might have misused the privileges available to us at our workplace, convincing ourselves that the infraction was so trivial that it did not matter in the larger scheme of things—just as a couple of no-balls here and there might have seemed to Amir when he first started down this road.

I’m not justifying Amir’s actions—if it is confirmed he is guilty, that should be the end of his playing career. I’m just saying that some of the moralising and self-righteousness seems excessive to me. As a species, we are petty and prone to jealousy and resentment, and we love it when the mighty fall—witness the delighted collective schadenfreude around Tiger Woods’s recent misfortunes, much of it from men whose loins ache when they think of Woods’s adventures. I see shades of that in much of the moralising around me.

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And then, of course, there is the lament of the true cricket fan, robbed of his innocence yet again. (Like, what suckers we must be for that to happen again and again?) This is beautifully expressed by Prem Panicker, also Yahoo! India’s managing editor, in a post on his blog, ‘We know it’s so, Joe.’ Such it goes.

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Let me also direct you to ‘No Cure for Corruption’, Yahoo! columnist Mohit Satyanand’s superb take on governmental corruption in India. I agree with his bleak prognosis. Corruption in India is deep-rooted, and almost impossible to eradicate. The problem here isn’t with a few crooked individuals, but with the system itself. To put it simply, corruption in government is a consequence of two things: One, government has more power over the common man than it should, and we know that power corrupts; Two, there is not enough accountability in an opaque system of government.

If the government gets out of those areas of our lives which it has no business controlling, the scope for corruption is reduced. An example of this is the telecom sector—once it was impossible to get a telephone connection installed without bribing a low-level MTNL operative, but after the sector was opened up to competition, well, who needs MTNL? Sadly, like a tentacular Cthulhu-like entity, the government still controls too many areas of our lives, and duly takes hafta.

Besides reducing the role of government to what is essential—law and order and suchlike—we could also make it more accountable by making it more local. The more decentralised government becomes, the closer the common man gets to actually having some influence on those who are supposed to be his servants. More accountability, more transparency, less corruption.

But again, if smaller government and decentralised governance are keys to reducing corruption, who are the only people in a position to make it happen? The people within the existing system, that’s who. And which way are their incentives aligned?

It’s an endless over of no-balls, that’s what it is.