Shafiqullah, the Afghanistan batsman, has become the latest international cricketer to be banned from playing the game for breaching the anti-corruption code. Shafiqullah, who has represented Afghanistan in 24 internationals, including two Twenty20 World Cup campaigns, was sanctioned for his conduct in the Bangladesh Premier League 2019-2020 and the Afghanistan Premier League in 2018, and has been banned from cricket activity for six years.
“This is a very serious offence where a senior national player is involved in the corruption of a high-profile domestic game in APL T20 2018,” said the ACB’s senior anti-corruption manager, Sayed Anwar Shah Quraishi. “The player had also attempted but failed to get one of his team-mates to engage in corruption in another high-profile game during the BPL 2019.”
While the banning of an Afghanistan player may appear not to be particularly significant at first reading, it comes on the back of other higher profile cases.
The Bangladesh bombshell
When Shakib-al-Hasan was banned for two years in October 2019 for failing to report approaches from illegal bookies, he was undoubtedly the highest profile cricketer to face the ire of the International Cricket Council. Shakib is undoubtedly Bangladesh’s most talismanic cricketer, but beyond that, he is one of the leading all-rounders in the world game.
In the 2019 World Cup played in England, Shakib scored 606 runs at an average of 86.57, his last act before being banned. Since then, however, Shakib has repented his mistake.
“I have realised that there are certain things that you just cannot take lightly due to ignorance, and probably that is the biggest lesson I learnt during this time,” Shakib, told the DW Bangla media outlet in an interview. “It is a very difficult time for me because at the back of the mind you always think that I am not playing or not being able to play.”
Shakib’s hope was that he would be able to return to performing to his high standards once he has served his time. “First of all, I want to return to the game. I will return to the game after four-five months. No other decision [will be taken] before that,” said Shakib. “The biggest challenge is to be able to start again from where I had stopped, that is what I’m expecting from myself. I just wish I can start from where I ended up. That is the challenge for me, nothing else.”
Akmal lets himself down
Umar Akmal was once thought to be the brightest young talent in Pakistan’s cricket firmament. The attacking batsman invited comparisons to the best players in the world and his ability to turn matches around singlehandedly had fans excited.
When Akmal received his three-year ban late last month for failing to report an approach to fix matches, there was anguish in Pakistan. After all, Akmal, at 29, was no stripling and had represented Pakistan in 16 Tests, 121 one-day internationals and 84 Twenty20s. But the Pakistan Cricket Board had to be firm in the action it took.
“The PCB doesn’t take any pleasure in seeing a promising international cricketer being declared ineligible for three years on corruption charges, but this is once again a timely reminder to all who think they can get away by breaching the anti-corruption code,” the PCB’s anti-corruption and security director Asif Mahmood said.
“The anti-corruption unit regularly holds education seminars and refresher courses at all levels to remind all professional cricketers of their obligations and responsibilities. And even then if some cricketers decide to take the Code in their hands, then this is how things will pan out.
“I request all professional cricketers to stay away from the menace of corruption and immediately inform relevant authorities as soon as they are approached,” said Mahmood. “This is in their as well as their teams’ and country’s best interest.”
Akmal, who believed the three-year ban was too harsh, has announced his intent to appeal the ban and the length of his suspension.
Not just high profile sportsmen
While it is the cricketers whose names appear in the headlines when a corruption scandal breaks, the crack down from authorities have snared other stakeholders as well. Only recently, the ICC banned Indian businessman Deepak Agarwal from all cricket for two years. Agarwal owned the Sindhis team in the 2018 T10 league held in the United Arab Emirates.
It was in identifying Agarwal and the subsequent investigation that the name of Shakib came up. Shakib engaged in Whatsapp conversations with Agarwal before matches in the Bangladesh Premier League, an international tri-series and the IPL between 2017 and 2018, but denied passing on inside information.
Agarwal was charged with “obstructing or delaying an investigation”, including concealing, tampering or destroying documents and other information. “There were a number of examples of Mr Agarwal obstructing and delaying our investigations and it was not just a one-off occurrence,” ICC general manager for integrity Alex Marshall said. “However, he made a prompt admission of his breach of the ICC Anti-Corruption Code and continues to provide substantial assistance to the ACU in relation to several investigations involving other participants. This cooperation is reflected in his sanction.”
Cricket interrupted but corruption threat looms
Cricket may have ground to a halt as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic but the threats to the game loom as large as ever, the International Cricket Council has warned. In a recent notice sent out to all its members the governing body called for vigilance.
Alex Marshall, the anti-corruption boss, especially highlighted the dangers caused by increased exposure to social media.
“With most of the world experiencing lockdowns and restrictions, it has left many with time on their hands, some of which can be filled on social media.The creativity some have shown has been remarkable, but there is a darker side,” said Marshall in the missive. “We have seen evidence that corruptors are using their time to contact players through social media, particularly Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook. To the unaware this can seem innocent, but that is not always the case and it could be a prelude to a corrupt approach.”
Marshall outlined the routes that maybe taken by those seeking to taint the game. “Some will try to make what may seem like innocent contact to offer sponsorship opportunities. They may claim to be representing team owners and offer a place in a franchise tournament. They sometimes use false names and untraceable numbers from a variety of countries.”
Marshall also outlined what needed to be done, in addition to the usual practices, in order to be careful of the new threats. “They may invite players to travel once restrictions are lifted to a place like Dubai or India to meet the ‘owners’. We have even seen the Maldives used for such meetings. Player agents, some of whom have been targeted for such approaches, have an important role to play in protecting players. It is good practice to ask for proof of who you are dealing with or push the contact towards agents”
India confident its players know the drill
Soon after the ICC reminded its members to stay vigilant on the issue of corruption in cricket, the Board of Control for Cricket in India stated that its players knew what the risks were and how to deal with them. Ajit Singh, the Indian anti-corruption head, insisted that the risks could be mitigated.
“We have made our players aware about the way people approach you and modus operandi through social media. We have told them ‘look this is how they (potential fixers and bookies) would approach you’,” the veteran officer of the Indian Police Service was quoted as saying by news agency Press Trust of India. “They will try and behave like a fan and then try to meet you through someone who may be your acquaintance. Somehow these elements try and touch base with players. Most of them (India players), whenever it happens, they do report to us that I have got a contact.”
Singh said that no stone would be left unturned, no matter the current circumstances, in keeping the game clean. “Whatever can be tracked online, we do that. But obviously the physical verification part of going out and checking locations is out of question in times of a lockdown,” he said. “But if something comes to our notice, it automatically goes into our database and once lockdown is over, we will verify those if the need arises.”
Staying true to the basics
Through all the trials and tribulations, the Anti-Corruption Unit of cricket’s apex governing body has spelled out a simple formula for players to keep in mind. While there was a time when players new to the international circuit, especially those without too much exposure, could make simple mistakes and then find themselves in a mess, the situation has changed drastically, with education at all levels of the game alerting players to the dangers they face.
And yet, nothing works quite as well as a return to the basics. The ACU calls this the ‘3 R’s’ of keeping the game clean. Recognise, Reject and Report. In short, this is to Recognise that something is not quite right with what is happening, Reject any such offer firmly and at the outset, and then Report the matter immediately to the anti-corruption unit. All the players need to do, is follow this.