LONDON // An agent for several Pakistani international cricket players was under arrest last night after British newspaper reporters recorded him taking £150,000 (Dh855,000) from them in an apparent "spot fixing" betting scam. Several Pakistani Test cricketers have also been accused of involvement in the scam during the team's current tour of England.
The "fixer" at the centre of the scam also tried to recruit a syndicate of gamblers as early as July, sources told The National. The News of the World newspaper said undercover reporters posing as front men for a Far Eastern gambling cartel had handed a stack of banknotes to the agent, Mazhar Majeed, 35, after he guaranteed exactly when three "no balls" would be bowled during the England-Pakistan Test match at Lord's, which ended yesterday.
On Thursday and Friday, the bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir delivered blatant "no balls" at the precise moment Mr Majeed had specified. A no ball is an illegal delivery by the bowler. At least four Pakistani players, including the captain Salman Butt, were interviewed in the team's London hotel by Scotland Yard detectives following the revelations. In July, Mr Majeed had approached business associates and asked them to use their contacts to find a prospective group of investors, according to a number of individuals who had invested in Mr Majeed's property business. His targets were wealthy individuals in Pakistan, where gambling is illegal.
The associates said that phone calls were made with the enticing offer: "You could make enough money to retire from this one deal." Would-be investors were told they would be provided information about "spot fixing". They would be given advance notice of small incidents during the four-match series against England, which they could then bet on. Those incidents would include the sort of "no balls" highlighted in the News of the World report.
The associates said their attempts to find investors in Pakistan had failed, largely because they had few social contacts there. "What's for certain is that Mazhar already had one lot signed up and was looking for another. He got greedy and that's why he got caught," one of them said yesterday. Police moved in on Saturday night to arrest Mr Majeed, who lives in south London, on suspicion of attempting to defraud bookmakers. He remained in custody last night.
"Scotland Yard detectives visited the team hotel where they took statements from captain Salman Butt, fast bowlers Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir, and wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal," Yawar Saeed, Pakistan's team manager, said in London yesterday. "Scotland Yard are now investigating and we will assist them in whatever way they may need. I cannot say anything more right now." Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, said the allegations made his country "bow its head in shame". He has asked his government's sport ministry to conduct an inquiry.
"Spot betting" on match incidents is not common in the regulated bookmaking industry in the UK but is popular in the unregulated betting markets in the Far East and Indian subcontinent. Mr Majeed had detailed what would happen on the field, according to the News of the World. "I'm going to give you three 'no balls' to prove to you firstly that this is what's happening. They've all been organised, OK?" he reportedly said.
"This is exactly what's going to happen. You're going to see these three things happen. I'm telling you, if you play this right you're going to make a lot of money, believe me. "I've been doing it match fixing with them for about two-and-a-half years and we've made masses of money." Mr Majeed is a cricket enthusiast who used his wealth earned from a property boom between 2000 and 2005 to gain access to social circles frequented by Pakistani players.
He was said to be a friend of Farooq Butt, a London-based relative of Salman Butt. Pakistan-based cricket writers said they had become aware four years ago of the relationship between Pakistani cricketers and Majeed and his younger brother Azhar after the pair had arranged interviews for pakpassion.net, a website for Pakistani cricket fans. The pair later became part-time agents for the cricketers. "I know that they were trying to negotiate legitimate sponsorship deals for Pakistani cricketers, including with English county cricket teams and the bat manufacturer, Gunn & Moore," said Osman Samiuddin, the Pakistan editor for cricinfo.com, a leading cricket news website.
Azhar Majeed yesterday described the betting scam allegations as "rubbish", adding: "I saw the [News of the World] video of Mazhar sitting there counting out money on the table. They are alleging it was for match fixing. I have absolutely no idea about it whatsoever." It is not the first time that Pakistan's best cricketers - who are due to start a Test series against South Africa in Abu Dhabi in October - have been accused of cheating.
In the mid-90s, the Australians Shane Warne and Mark Waugh accused the then-Pakistan captain Salim Malik of offering them bribes to perform poorly. A decade ago, Malik and the bowler Ata-ur Rehman were found guilty of match fixing. Four years ago, the team was accused of ball tampering during a tour to England. In May this year, the International Cricket Council's (ICC) anti-corruption unit looked at the team's poor performance during a series in Australia.
Cricket supporters are dismayed by the latest accusations. The former England captain Alec Stewart told the BBC: "It's a very, very sad day yet again for cricket. Match fixing, or spot fixing, has reared its ugly head again and it's something the game doesn't want." The ex-Pakistan batsman Basit Ali said that Rashid Latif, a former captain of his country, had warned in a letter to the ICC in 2003 that they should be aware of the trend of spot fixing. "No one took it seriously and this is the result," said Ali.
The former Pakistan skipper Aamir Sohail said: "It is a disgrace for Pakistan cricket. I don't think this board or management can do anything now when all this has happened under their nose. Now it is time for the president to act and show the world we are serious about tackling corruption in sports." Mr Saeed confirmed on the cricinfo website yesterday that Mazhar and Azhar Majeed were agents representing a number of Pakistan players.
"I told the players they should not be entertaining these two in their hotel rooms," Mr Saeed added. "These boys are their agents and, anywhere we tour in the world, we tell our players that they are not allowed to have agents in their hotel rooms. It is the policy on the tour."
Tom Hussain reported from Islamabad