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In Good Conscience

Spot fixer Amir's belated comeback to Test cricket is redemption

What is your attitude to convicted match fixers being allowed to return to play any game once they have "done their time"?

This weekend's return to Test cricket of Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Amir has divided opinions between the chattering classes at Lord's, the London home of international cricket.

The intolerant say he should have been banned for life as a deterrent.

The other view is that he was 18 when he broke the rules (also at Lord's in a Test match six years ago), that he did it on instruction from his captain, and that there has to be redemption in life.

What Amir did was to bowl two deliberate no-balls at a specific time in the game.

He wasn't the only bowler to do that; the vastly more experienced Mohammad Asif did the same. They were doing so to order.

Amir was indeed naive, and responsible for his action (of spot fixing six years ago) even if he was coerced. He was tried in court and served three months of his six-month jail sentence.

Their captain, batsman Salman Butt, had plotted to "spot fix" the moments when his opening bowlers would send down no-balls. Butt was caught on camera negotiating the deal for £150,000 (S$269,350) to fix these moments for what he believed was a betting cartel.

In fact, he was entrapped by a newspaper sting. The News of the World fooled him into believing that its reporter was acting for a syndicate of fixers.

The reporter, Mazher Mahmood, specialised in such set-ups, both for The News of the World and its sister paper The Sunday Times. Sometimes, under the guise of being "The Fake Sheikh", he tricked celebrities and even royalty with his fake bribery offers.

In 2006, he fooled Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was under contract to the Football Association as England manager, to fly to the Middle East to discuss a bogus offer to manage Aston Villa, and to bring David Beckham back from Real Madrid as part of the non-existent Villa takeover.

If Eriksson, a worldly manager, fell for the sting, imagine how vulnerable a teenager might be to such an offer.

That much is history. What is happening now is a polarisation of views broadcast and written because of Amir's comeback.

The person who in my view spoke the best sense on the matter is Kamila Shamsie. A Pakistan-born novelist, educated in the United States and resident, as it happens, a stone's throw from Lord's, she was the BBC radio tea-time guest on day one of the Test.

"If you believe in justice and you believe in rehabilitation," Shamsie said, "you cannot say that what you did at 18 is your life."

Amir was indeed naive and responsible for his action even if he was coerced. He was tried in court and served three months of his six-month jail sentence, and was barred by the International Cricket Council from playing any form of the sport anywhere in the world for five years.

Butt and Asif are now back playing club cricket in Pakistan. Amir, still with his athletic prime ahead of him, is back playing Test cricket against England at Lord's.

This column's tolerance towards cheats, for gambling purposes or anything else, is sub-zero.

I truly think that Butt, as the ringleader, should indeed have never been allowed to return. I hold a more lenient view (the Shamsie view) on Amir simply because he was young, and if I put myself in his shoes, I can imagine that it would have been difficult to go against the captain.

What surprises me somewhat is the divergence of former cricketers on Sky Sports, the TV channel owned by the same proprietor as the now-defunct The News of the World. The channel has the rights to screen and sell the Test matches across the globe.

Michael Atherton, the former England captain and opening batsman who is very often the voice of measured reason, broadcast that he believes Amir deserves a second chance. Atherton described the sting as creating a crime, or enticing people into committing a crime.

"They turned to the youngest and most vulnerable player and put him under pressure to bowl those no-balls," Atherton said. "So I think a ban for life would be unbelievably hard. A five-year ban, that's fine."

Former West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, on the same commentary team, pointed out: "People have committed murder, served their term, and found themselves back in society."

David Lloyd, at 69 the grandee of the commentary box and a former cricketer, umpire and England coach, is less forgiving. "Bumble" as Lloyd is known, stated on TV and wrote for newspapers that match fixers should be banned for life.

"I don't buy the excuse that he was young," Lloyd insisted. "Amir had played international cricket, and every international cricketer would know full well what you do when you get an approach. He chose not to.

"I'm quite happy for him to play cricket at club level in Pakistan, but he shouldn't play international cricket for Pakistan."

That last comment is illogical. It is half-baked at best, and might possibly be construed as racist.

It smacks of a "Let him play in his own back yard, but not in ours" mentality. Dare one say, an old colonial attitude?

Finally, on a much lighter note, the first day of this Test brought a beautiful innings by Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq, who joined the elite band who have scored a century at the home of cricket.

When he reached three figures, he took off his gloves and his helmet, dropped to the turf, and did 10 push-ups. "I promised the army guys I would do the push-ups, like we did at a camp in Abbottabad to get fit for this tour," he said.

Misbah is 42 years and 47 days old - the oldest man to score a Test ton since England's Patsy Hendren in 1934, and the oldest at Lord's since Jack Hobbs in 1926.

Misbah is a better example of leadership and longevity. He was finally dismissed for 114, and Amir was the last man out, caught for 12.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2016, with the headline 'Spot fixer Amir's belated comeback to Test cricket is redemption'. Print Edition | Subscribe