For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94.
Since the turn of the millenium, no young cricketer has excited me more than Mohammad Amir. As a Sri Lankan supporter, I found Ajantha Mendis' emergence pretty thrilling but there was always the nagging worry that he would not be as effective once the mystery wore off, as has indeed proved to be the case. I've had no such worry about Amir, however, as his success has been due not to mystery but rather a precocious mastery of the fast bowler's art.
His 6-for last Friday made him - at age 18 - the youngest cricketer to earn an entry on the Honours Boards at Lord's. A week earlier at the Oval, he had become the youngest person to take a Test 5-for in England. In fact, he was also the youngest fast bowler to take a Test 5-for anywhere in the world when he ripped through the Aussie middle order last December in Melbourne.
Cricinfo published a blog post of mine about Amir in January. In it I tried to describe how uplifting I'd found it to watch him in action in both that MCG spell and the World T20 Final in 2009. As such, the most heartbreaking aspect of the spot-fixing scandal that has just hit the news is the fact that Amir is implicated in it. Kamran Akmal has already gained a reputation as a bit of an agitator in the Pakistan dressing room and Mr "A Class" Asif has hardly steered clear of controversy. Salman Butt's reputation as a leader has been growing until now but it is Amir who has undoubtedly been the star of what appeared to be a promising young Pakistan team.
Amir's displays on the field have combined youthful exuberance with a remarkable maturity. Whether he was bouncing out Tillakaratne Dilshan at Lord's, working over Michael Clarke with the old ball in Melbourne or torturing Andrew Strauss with the new one this summer, he has shown great skill, nerve and clarity of thought. Sadly it appears he has also shown these qualities in the execution of far less noble game plans, at least if the News of the World's allegations turn out to be true. It must be said that as things stand, the paper's evidence looks pretty damning.
What now for Mohammad Amir? My understanding is that under the ICC's anti-corruption code, the minimum punishment for any "fixing" offence is a five year ban from international cricket, while the maximum is of course a life ban. Pakistani players found guilty of spot-fixing would certainly be deserving of such punishments. Spot-fixing is not the same as match-fixing but it must be made clear that any involvement with betting cartels or bookmakers, no matter how irrelevant to the result of a match, cannot be tolerated. The shameful precedent set by the Australian Cricket Board in covering up Shane Warne and Mark Waugh's misdemeanours (accepting money in exchange for providing information to "John the bookmaker" in 1994) must not be followed.
However, my own sense is that a life ban would be unduly harsh on Amir. I feel this way not because it would be a tragic waste of an amazing talent - no talent should be above the law - but because he is, after all, still a teenager, and one who has been raised in a cricketing culture in which youngsters are expected to show total deference to their seniors. If he was a foot soldier rather than a ringleader then he deserves a second chance. Indeed, we do not yet know the extent to which he or any of the other players named may have been coerced into their actions. As Dileep Premachandran points out in the Guardian, betting rings have even been known to kidnap family members of players who have refused to cooperate with them.
Just like Warne, Amir may yet bounce back immediately from any enforced absence from the game. Regaining the wholehearted trust of his fans, on the other hand, may take him a good deal longer.