Something unusual happened in London last week. At the Members' Dining Room of the House of Commons in the British Parliament, the seventh annual 'Asian Voice Political and Public Life Awards' ceremony was held. Typically, the award honours people who have had an impact on the Asian community, especially Indians, in the United Kingdom. One of the recipients of the award was an Indian Member of Parliament from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. It would be fair to say he was given the award not for the four years he has spent as a politician, but for the 99 Test matches and 334 One-Day Internationals Mohammad Azharuddin played between 1985 and 2000.
"Though I had a long innings in cricket, in politics it is just four years. This is one of the best awards I have received," Azharuddin said in a typically spare acceptance speech. Soon after, when speaking to members of the media, some of whom were clearly still in awe of his cricketing achievements, Azhar went one step further. "Whatever little cricket I have played, I have learnt a lot and I would like to impart those skills to young players. It is up to the board (BCCI) to use me in the best way. I would certainly like to be involved with Indian cricket," he said when asked if he might want to coach the Indian team at some point in the future.
Azhar, it's worth pointing out, received a lifetime ban for match-fixing which left him one match short of the century mark in Test cricket. Nearly 12 years later, a court in Andhra Pradesh held the action by the Board of Control for Cricket in India "illegal" and "unsustainable" and set aside the ban. Since then, Azhar has been careful not to attack the BCCI over the 12 years of his life in which he was always referred to as "the disgraced former Indian cricketer", and the BCCI has been working behind the scenes to see if it would be judicially viable to challenge the latest ruling.
What happens in the courts, in Azhar's case, is merely a technicality, for there is little chance of him being appointed coach, or anything else, of the national cricket team. In the court of public sentiment, one of India's most loved cricketers has already been tried and found guilty, and although sentimental reminisces of his wristy strokeplay, agile fielding and personal warmth abound, even his greatest fans will not suggest that he deserves any further rehabilitation, irrespective of what the courts have to say on the matter.
At 49, most sensible people have accepted that Azhar's cricket days are behind him, and it appears that so has the man himself. For, it would be difficult to anticipate the reaction of his former teammates and the public, should he make a serious move to actually try and reintegrate into the game.
But, the case of the three men most recently banned for similar activities, Pakistan's Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, is subtly different. In Amir's case, an acceptance of guilt coupled with serious levels of co-operation into investigations made him automatically eligible for leniency when it came to sentencing. That said, he served a prison term, and was slapped with a five-year ban. His colleagues, Butt (10 years) and Asif (seven years) received harsher terms, but a portion of their sentences would be seen to be suspended (five years for Butt, two years for Asif) in the event that they admitted the role they played, showed contrition and worked to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Had they done so, there was every chance the trio would have been eligible to return to cricket in 2015.
Thus far, there is no evidence of Butt or Asif either publicly or privately either admitting guilt or showing contrition. If anything they have been doubly defiant, and most recently arrived in Lausanne, Switzerland to challenge the length of their sentences at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), on varying grounds. While highly paid and skilled lawyers look to exploit loopholes and technicalities, and might well succeed in winning a favourable verdict, it's worth noting that neither Butt nor Asif are using innocence as the thrust of their arguments.
"I love cricket: it is something that runs through me in my veins and my blood," said Butt, whose every utterance only makes cricket fans wince and recall that famous photograph where he stood at mid-on and was fiercely focussed on whether the bowler was overstepping on a designer no-ball or not. "I await the decision of the CAS. It means so much to me. I truly pray that they can change it for me by reducing the sentence."
Asif's reasoning was not far behind Butt's. "Hopefully I am going to win this case," Asif said after a day of CAS hearings. "I'd like to play cricket again."
It cannot be a coincidence - not with expert coaching from legal luminaries - that both Butt and Asif have refrained from saying: "I want to win this case because I am innocent."
In the absence of both a claim of innocence and an acceptance of guilt, can there be any way back for Butt and Asif?
Already, as idle years take their toll on the bowling muscles of the finest young left-arm quick of recent times and an artful dodger who elevated seam and swing bowling to new heights, the cricket world has moved on. While there's sympathy for Amir, there are few who believe he was the young, vulnerable, mostly blameless, teenager led astray as he has projected himself. While there's a pining for the magic that Asif could create with the ball, there's the fear that his cunning was not restricted to seam and swing alone. As for Butt, his skills have been missed little, and his smugness less so.
Sentences may run out and relief reach in the form of the courts, but this trio will do well to remember that the cricket world seldom forgets, and never forgives.