Mohammad Shakeel shook his head as he rearranged the few remaining peaches on his rickety wooden fruit cart. “No, I don’t believe it,” the 28-year-old said. “It is propaganda. Amir is the hero of Gujjar Khan.”
Here, in the crowded alleyways of the main market in Gujjar Khan in Punjab province, 35 miles south-east of capital Islamabad, some locals are quick to defend their hometown hero, 18-year-old fast bowler Mohammad Amir, from allegations that he was involved in a cricketing betting scam. Others expressed a sense of deep, almost personal shame.
Cricket-mad Pakistan has been shocked by the weekend's explosive allegations by the News of the World, that alleged Pakistani middleman Mazhar Majeed was paid £150,000 in return for predicting exactly when three "no-balls" would come in the final Test against England at Lord's, one of which was bowled by Amir. A "disappointed" Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has demanded an immediate report from the country's cricket board about the allegations, while prime minister Youssef Reza Gilani said the claims "have bowed our heads in shame".
On the streets of Gujjar Khan, there was defiance and disbelief. “The politicians don’t have proof against our players, so why are they damning them?” Naeem Sethi, 54, asked from behind the counter of his cosmetics store. “If Mohammad Amir has done mischief he must be punished, but for now we need to support him.”
Some shoppers hurrying to finish the last of their chores before sunset and the end of another day of fasting during Ramadan questioned the authenticity of the video footage, suggesting that it could have been produced after the match. Several said it was “Indian propaganda” to defame Pakistan.
“I’m angry because this scandal happened in Ramadan,” said a man as he bought fruit from Shakeel’s cart. “It’s shameful.” Mohammad Ali, 26, was reading a local paper in his uncle’s air-conditioned shoe shop. “I’m just reading about the cricket now,” he said, holding up the Urdu-language paper. “I’ve been following the news and I feel very ashamed because it involves Pakistani players and it reflects badly on the country. We have floods and terrorism, cricket was our good news, but now this is terrible.”
Ali, like many others interviewed in the market, advocated harsh punishments for Amir and other players allegedly implicated. The Pakistani cricketers should not be let off lightly, he said. “If they don’t get lifetime bans for what they have done, I will stop watching the sport. They need to dismiss the whole team and get new management as well,” he said as several men nodded in agreement.
“But there’s no proof,” another young man said.
“Proof? What further proof do you need? Pakistani teams are corrupt. How many players have been banned for life in the past but still play?” asked Ishtiaq Ahmed, 43.
“We want players like Imran Khan, professional players who understand the team and the game. Look at Amir. His career is over at 18.”
“It isn’t proven!” shouted Arshad Mahmoud, 55. “Until then, I’m with Amir.”
Ali Asghar, 28, said he wasn’t surprised by the allegations but was more concerned with what was going to happen to the £150,000. “If they have taken this money, why don’t they donate it to the flood victims?” he said. “I’m sad to hear what the team has done, but if they give the money to the flood victims, that will make things better, won’t it?”