Just what was Shakib thinking?

Shakib Al Hasan
Shakib Al Hasan

By Sambit Bal

Editor-in-chief, ESPNcricinfo

Shakib Al Hasan now has a year of darkness to ponder over what his actions, or lack of them, have led to. Another superstar of the game banned, for a wilful infraction far greater, in our minds, than the brazen ball-tampering that put Steven Smith and David Warner out of the game for a year. What a relief that no trace of match-fixing has come to light, but in the name of whatever god you may want to invoke, just what was Shakib thinking?

The cold glare of immediacy is harsh: the punishment for failing to report not one but at least three obvious approaches from a bookie is not Shakib’s alone; the damage is far more profound. He has let down his team, the fans, and the game that has brought him fame and fortune.

Every cricketer must know in his or her heart that match-fixing is the most heinous of sporting sins. It strips the game of every worthy thing: honour, faith, belief, truth and heroes. There is nothing redeeming about sledging, and ball-tampering is a form of cheating, but it can tenuously be argued that these misdeamenours are employed in the pursuit of winning at least.

Fixing, on the other hand, reduces the game to a lie because only underperformance can be prearranged, never excellence. Every cricketer must know by now that corruptors lurk in every corner, preying on greed and weakness of character. These are enemies not merely to be wary of but warded off to the extent possible. With the proliferation of televised and loosely regulated cricket leagues around the world, the dangers are manifold. One little slip and a player is drawn into a web that is hard to break free from.

This is not a battle that the ICC and the anti-corruption units can fight alone. Match-fixing is tough to anticipate and detect, and even harder to prove. It is often with luck and by happenstance that investigators stumble upon leads, and when they do, it is virtually impossible to prosecute the offenders using the legal system. Many who have been charged in the past have had their sentences reversed; some now sit in commentary boxes, and some have found their way into cricket administration.

That is why the game needs the players on the front lines of this battle. It is to them that the approaches are made. It is inevitable that a few will succumb, but it falls upon the rest to do not merely what is expected but what has been drilled into them. It’s the least they can do. It can no longer be overlooked as negligence as was the case with Brendon McCullum who took three years to report an approach from a former team-mate. Every player is now aware that reporting suspicious approaches is a sacrosanct duty, and that silence in such matters is guilt.

Shakib was more than just the captain of Bangladesh. He has been, arguably, their greatest ever cricketer and their biggest sporting superstar. His centuries at this year’s World Cup lifted millions of hearts, and that he has frequently been ranked the No. 1 allrounder in the world is the source of endless pride for a cricket-crazy nation. Just a week ago, he rallied the country’s playing community into a revolt against the Bangladesh cricket administration for what was largely considered a just cause. And when the board bowed before the collective will of the players, the joy was widespread.

The halo of that leadership now feels misplaced. Instead there is a shadow of cynicism, however unfair, because a lot more is expected of leaders. And all through this, there is one question that wouldn’t go away: just what was Shakib thinking?

The approaches were from the same man, were fairly direct and occurred over three different tournaments and six months. There were suggestions of payment on offer. Apart from the fact that Shakib chose not to contest the charges and didn’t offer ignorance as an excuse for his lack of action, there is nothing to mitigate his failure to report these advances instantly. By his own admission, he inferred the person to be dodgy, but in a conversation featuring mention of financial inducement, Shakib is reported as saying he “wanted to meet him first”.

Few things in sport are more distressing than fallen heroes. Shakib’s lapses have cost him a year, but the cost of the collateral damage is impossible to measure. The greater the player, the greater the impact. The taint on Shakib – and it’s a taint all right – has taken the sheen off Bangladesh cricket, left behind a shaken team, and millions of broken hearts.