On Thursday 26 August 2010, at Lord’s cricket ground, the 18-year-old Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Amir bowled two no-balls. Nothing unusual in that – pace bowlers often overstep the line behind which they should keep their feet – except for two things. First, Amir rarely bowled no-balls. Second, these were big no-balls: he overstepped by as much as nine inches, drawing gasps from ex-cricketers in the Sky Sports commentary box.
What they couldn’t have known was that Amir bowled them deliberately and that another no-ball, by his fellow opening bowler Mohammad Asif, was also deliberate. The two men, along with their captain Salman Butt and their agent Mazhar Majeed, had received £150,000 as part of what they thought was a betting scam. But they had been duped in a sting set up by the News of the World (NoW)’s investigative reporter Mazher Mahmood. The following Sunday, the paper’s front page and eight inside news pages were dedicated to what it called cricket’s biggest scandal. By then, Majeed was under arrest while Butt and the two bowlers were being questioned by police.
All four went to prison and the three cricketers received lengthy bans from the game. Yet the years that followed the scandal were even bleaker for those who exposed their criminality. In 2011, the NoW was closed by Rupert Murdoch after its journalists were found to be responsible, over many years, for hacking hundreds of mobile phones. Andy Coulson, a former editor, went to jail. In 2016, Mahmood – named Reporter of the Year at the 2011 UK press awards for his role in the cricket exposé – faced trial for conspiring to pervert the course of justice after a court case against another of his victims collapsed. By then a reporter for the NoW’s successor, the Sun on Sunday, he was sentenced to 15 months in jail, a longer sentence than either Amir or Asif received.
While all three convicted cricketers returned to first-class cricket, and Amir even played Test matches again, Mahmood’s stellar journalistic career – during which he exposed other sports stars, members of the British royal family, terrorists and drug pushers – was over.
It was not only his many victims who saw poetic justice in the fall of the fake sheikh – so called because he secured many of his stories by dressing up in Arab robes. Mahmood, critics argued, made a career out of luring naive and sometimes vulnerable people into illegal acts. Few of them were as well-known to the public as the three convicted Pakistan cricketers or Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, who was filmed negotiating access to her former husband Prince Andrew in return for £500,000. His typical targets were small-time criminals and minor celebrities, not City financiers or multinational company bosses. One example, quoted by the foremost Mahmood critic, the Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade (no relation to the author), involved an Albanian immigrant sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for obtaining cocaine and forged documents. The Criminal Cases Review Commission eventually declared the conviction unsafe and it was quashed.
Even where Mahmood exposed the rich and powerful – such as the Countess of Wessex, Prince Edward’s wife, mocking top politicians and fellow royals, or Newcastle United directors making derogatory comments about their fans and players – there was a “so what?” element to his stories. Nobody died or even suffered serious damage. The same could be said of the Pakistan players. Was this really cricket’s greatest scandal? In 2000 the South African captain Hansie Cronje threw a Test match in return for £5,000 and a leather jacket. In a five-day Test, three no-balls are of little consequence. Amir and Asif were vulnerable to corruption because, by the standards of modern international sport, they were ill paid and, unlike their captain Butt, came from poor backgrounds.
Mahmood’s defenders can argue that the no-balls were the tip of a very large iceberg. Match-fixing – or, more commonly, spot-fixing, involving discrete episodes in a match – had been endemic in cricket, particularly Pakistan cricket, for the previous 30 years. The unusual visibility of the no-balls that Mahmood arranged allowed more or less instant arrests and relatively speedy convictions. Their exposure provided a salutary warning for professional cricketers everywhere. But it also undermined public confidence in the sport and reinforced racist stereotypes, from which Pakistan’s players have long suffered, about devious Asians.
Nick Greenslade, deputy sports editor of the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, tells this complex story in gripping fashion and with exemplary clarity, largely leaving readers to make up their own minds about the wider issues. He admits his sympathy for the NoW’s “old school journalism”. But he also acknowledges that diggers of dirt like Mahmood “were often mirror images of the rogues they were exposing: quick-witted, resourceful and – let’s not deny it – downright devious at times”. As the police have long understood, catching villains is not a job for saints.
The Thin White Line: the Inside Story of Cricket’s Greatest Scandal
Pitch Publishing, 256pp, £19.99
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid