WASIM Akram is back in Pakistan and lobbying. And if precedents are anything to go by and one keeps in mind the rather malleable Pakistani political structure, he might just make another of those inexplicable comebacks, suspension by the Pakistani Cricket Board (PCB) notwithstanding. There is a saying in the Pakistan cricket teamWasim ka dasa paani nahin mangta (anybody who has been bitten by Wasim doesnt ask for water). It has to do with his ruthlessness when hes on top and his long memory. One of the biggest regrets, for instance, that two former captains of Pakistan, Aamir Sohail and Rashid Latif, have is that they summoned Akram midway into the Pakistani cricket teams 98 South African tour. Akram had been kept out of the team by Majid Khan on match-fixing charges. Majid relied on Latif, who was captain on the tour, and Sohail to set the team straight. But Akrams arrival again split the team into pro- and anti-Akram factions and provided him the space and time to stage a comeback. Says a Pakistani player: "If it hadnt been for Akrams status and involvement, the Pakistani establishment would have made mincemeat of (Salim) Malik and Ijaz (Ahmed) by now."
This time around, however, staging a coup might not be all that easy for Akram. And the reason is an audio tape submitted to the Qayyum Commissionwhich is probing the charges of match fixingby Latif. Latif, who along with Basit Ali formally complained (way back in 94) about the match-fixing activities of Malik and company, has been single-handedly responsible for keeping the issue alive in Pakistan in an effort to see that the guilty players arent able to go scot-free. Among the evidence still in his arsenal, a tape-recording of conversations between Pakistani players that indicts just about everyone, two more than others. The conversations throw light on fixed matches over three years, from 94 to 96. Says Latif: "In Pakistan, you never know whats going to happen. That tape and a few other things I have kept back from the media as a kind of Haft missile. Finally, everything depends upon what report Qayyum comes up with."
At the moment, though, Mujeebur Rehmanthe interim chief of the PCBis upbeat about exposing the guilty. But so was Majid Khan and he was sidelined in a power coup. But Rehman told Outlook: "These threeAkram, Malik and Ijazare finished. Thats for sure. The rest of the players I am going to make cheetahs out of. The tune-ups I have already done with my individual talks with them."
A little surreal, but thats the way they talk. Rehman is also deputy managing director of the Pakistani Rs 900-million Redco group which has interests in construction and textiles besides being the agents for BMW in Pakistan. He is also the brother of the head of the Ehtesab Bureau or Accountability Commission, which had dug its teeth into Benazir Bhutto.
Moving in to take over the reins of the PCB in a government-backed coup a little over a week ago, his first decision was to suspend Akram, Malik and Ijaz Ahmed from the team and debar them from selection till the Qayyum report on match-fixing settled the issue one way or another. He also put five other players in the dockInzamam ul Haq, Moin Khan, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmedbut was content with warning them of grave action if future misconduct came to light. Waqar and Inzamam, interestingly, play for Rehmans own Redco cricket team and this possibly explains his soft actions against them.
But, says Sohail, also a former Pakistani captain: "What they should have done a year back they are doing now. Better late than never." Adds fast bowler Aaquib Javed: "If the players had gone scot-free after so much damaging testimony, what kind of signal would that have sent out? That you are free to do what you want? Also, there are people like bookie Salem Pervez who are saying that they personally offered money. Its not like a they heard or someone said type of testimony. I think the board didnt have much choice."
A choice, of course, which under the previous chairman Khalid Mahmood they consciously decided not to exercise. Says Rehman: "The action we have taken is only on the basis of the probe committee report. Majid Khan took the action but Khalid Mahmood did not let it go on."
The media had come to know about the probe committee report at the time of the Commonwealth Games, last year. Penned by a respected judge from Quetta, Ijaz Yousuf, it had recommended a complete banpending further investigationson Akram, Malik and Ijaz. Says Latif: "Mahmood took the decision that the players could play till Qayyum finished his investigations and then kept postponing his report from coming out. I am satisfied with the decision of the new board as I was one of the principal movers of evidence against the accused players."
What has been amusing, however, is the manner in which Malik kept making a comeback in the Pakistani squad in spite of being dropped three times for reasons other than cricketing form. Says a Pakistani player: "Thats a mystery that very few of the 15 crore people in Pakistan know about. At one point, when they were thinking of making him the chief villain, he came back threatening that if he alone went then everybody would."
Of course, despite the action taken by the PCB, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) doesnt seem to be in the mood for taking things beyond the eyewash of the Justice Chandrachud report. And it intends to keep the relevant portions of even that report under wraps. Comments C. Nagaraj, a former secretary of the board: "The BCCI should have made public the findings of the Chandrachud report. It should also take stringent steps to curb betting inside the stadium because match fixing is a natural corollary of that." Adds former spinner E.A.S. Prasanna: "The BCCI should have come out with the Chandrachud report as soon as the sitting ended. Now the report has been put away in the archives."
Significantly, Indian bookies seem to be rampant and at the hub of affairs everywhere. From the one who is said to have offered money to Mark Waugh and Shane Warne to the one who, allegedly, follows Akram around. Also, in the Indian context, except for a few cricketers and officials, the rest didnt want to comment on the match-fixing controversy on record. The thinking perhaps was that such a course would damage their prospects with the board. But people in the film and fashion industry, for instance, are more forthcoming. Says Jackie Shroff: "There has to be a sincere committed probe that will sort out the matter once and for all. This betting is a big network. There is too much money in it. If there is a serious inquiry, there will be discipline in the players." Adds Shekhar Suman: "Of course there should be an inquiry. The BCCI and the government should come together and unravel the whole thing. It should not be another namesake inquiry." Prasad Bidappa, Banga-lore fashion guru, is more forthright. Says he: "At one point, there were rumours that corporate houses were deciding who should be in the team who not. Theres big money involved. The organisers fix it and market it for people like us to watch. But everyone is trying to sweep it under the carpet. Its like saying that horses are never pulled back at the race course."
Latif, who has more than fringe knowledge of even the Indian situation, is pessimistic. Says he: "The Indian board will not do anything. Look at the kind of tours they organise in a year. These Sri Lanka, Kenya, Singapore, and Bangladesh tours. Its these kind of tournaments that have been suspect in the past and will be in the future. Nothing big is at stake and the players fall to temptation." In Pakistan, however, at the moment the writing seems to be on the wall for Akram and company. Judge Qayyum is expected to return from leave on August 17 and his report is likely to come out within a week of that. That report could decide the issue once and for all. But with politics being what they are there, a change in government could well alter the whole scenario.
With Fareshteh Gati-Aslam in Karachi, B.R. Srikant and Manu Joseph
Initially, the apprehension was that Shiv Lal Yadav and Ajit Wadekar might opt for Azhar being retained as captain because of their known closeness to him. In fact, the other three selectorsMadan Lal, Anil Deshpande and Ashok Malhotrawere anticipating moves by Wadekar to that affect. Says a selector: "We thought that if Wadekar said that Sachin is not interested in captaincy, we would ask him to give it in writing. But it didnt come to that."
Now that the selectors have brought the maestro back, they should give him a long rein. The South African board, for instance, gave the captaincy to Hansie Cronje for three years at a stretch. With Sachin, they should look until the 2003 World Cup scheduled in that country.