Little sympathy in Pakistan for disgraced cricketers

CHANGA BANGYAAL, Pakistan: The mother of one of the Pakistani cricketers disgraced in a bribery scandal said on Wednesday her teenage son's actions were understandable because he was still a child.

"I've had this in my hand for a year and a half," said Naseem Akhtar, mother of 19-year-old Mohammad Amir, pointing to prayer beads in her hand.

"Children make mistakes. Amir became a big name in cricket, but he is still a child."

Other Pakistanis were not as forgiving, saying the fiasco has hurt the South Asian country, already tainted by widespread allegations of government corruption, where cricket is a way of life and to many an expression of national identity.

Pakistan cricketers Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif were found guilty on Tuesday of taking bribes to fix part of a test match against England in a case that prosecutors said revealed rampant corruption at the heart of international cricket.

Former captain Butt, 27, and opening bowlers Asif, 28, and Amir, who had admitted his part in the scam before the trial started, plotted to bowl deliberate no-balls at pre-arranged times during the Lord's test in August last year.

The men will be sentenced on Wednesday, with Butt and Asif facing up to seven years in jail or large fines. The three players have already been banned from playing by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for a minimum of five years.

"I hope they are sent to jail as well, so that they become a symbol for the future cricketers. Corruption should not be tolerated anywhere and at any level, and I am very happy that justice has been done," said Adeel Azhar, a Pakistani radio host and cricket fan.

"Let's just hope now that our media does not look for conspiracy theories and start blaming Western or Indian cricket lobbies for all this, and thus making a hero out of these corrupt cricketers."

Many Pakistanis and officials often blame their country's problems - from militancy to power cuts to natural disasters - on arch-rival India, ally the United States, or Israel.

During the three-week trial in London, the jury heard how an undercover reporter recorded sports agent Mazhar Majeed, 36, boasting he could arrange for Pakistan players to rig games for money and how huge sums could be made for gambling syndicates.

Cricket is by far the most popular sport in Pakistan, with children in poor areas using old bats and makeshift equipment to imitate star players like Butt, Asif and Amir, while the rich enjoy leisurely days at private cricket grounds.

In Amir's home village of Changa Bangyaal, a small collection of modest cement houses surrounded by wheat fields, some hoped he could one day redeem his image and bowl again.

"He has made a mistake. But we all pray he will come back and play for the country," Mohammad Shafeeq, a farmer who was leading a buffalo to his homestead.

Asfandyar Khan, a security guard, showed no mercy.

"These people make so much money and yet want more money through illegal means," he said.

"I am sure that there must be some other players involved too, but at least those who were caught have been punished."

Shahid Afridi, one of Pakistan's highest-profile players, wondered if Pakistan could ever recover from the scandal and said he hoped future generations of players could learn from the dark episode in Pakistani cricket.

"Our country, our cricket, has been disgraced. This is a lesson," he told reporters on Wednesday.

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