By Mike Marqusee, the author of 'Anyone But England: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket' (THE GUARDIAN, 26/03/07):
It is a serious matter - as umpire Darrell Hair found out - to accuse a team, purely on the basis of supposition, of cheating to win a cricket match. It is an even more serious matter to accuse a team, or a player, of taking bribes to lose a match. But to accuse a player or a team of being involved in the death of their coach raises the stakes by several orders of magnitude.
Hyperbole may be the bane of sports journalism, but the unsubtle innuendo linking Pakistani cricketers to Bob Woolmer's ghastly murder goes beyond sensationalism. The rush to judgment here is fuelled by that other bane of sports journalism, national stereotyping.
Pakistan's shock loss to cricketing minnows Ireland, which led to their elimination from the World Cup, is said to be "under the microscope". The implication is that the match was fixed and that this is somehow related to Woolmer's murder. As conspiracy theories go, this one is particularly weak.
Given the team's abject performance on the day, virtually all the players would have had to have been bribed and the bribes would have had to have been on a colossal scale - sufficient to compensate for the huge financial loss, public humiliation, and termination of careers that would accompany an early exit from the cup. Neither the putative motive nor means are credible here.
There is, to hand, an alternative explanation: in recent months Pakistan has played dreadfully inconsistent cricket. Weeks before the players' arrival in the West Indies they were beaten by South Africa 3-1, bowled out once for a measly 107 and then for a barely more respectable 153. Ireland had already pulled off a surprise by tying with Zimbabwe days before encountering Pakistan.
The fact that three members of Pakistan's squad, including the captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, were questioned by police on Saturday was blazed in banner headlines. That police immediately confirmed the questioning was routine and declared that the entire team was free to leave the country was buried in the columns below.
But never mind the facts, it's easier to stick to stereotypes. We all know that south Asians take their cricket too seriously (which they do), that corruption is rife in these societies (which is true), and that wiliness and duplicity are part of the oriental (or Muslim) character (which is idiocy).
Since the Irish humiliation, the Pakistan cricket management - the chairman of the cricket board, the selectors and the captain - have all resigned. This represents an instance of rapid accountability exceptional in either the cricket world or in Pakistani public life. Significantly, it leaves Pakistan cricket entirely in the hands of its "patron in chief", General Musharraf.
While "factionalism" is often cited as a source of the malaise of Pakistani cricket, little is said about the bugbear of authoritarianism. The US-backed military dictatorship - which controls all the cricket structures - is treated by the cricket media as a natural state of affairs.
Ironically, in recent days, the English-language Pakistani press has displayed a greater sense of proportion than its British counterparts. The headlines there have been about the clash between Musharraf and the judiciary. On March 9, the general sacked the chief justice, who was then roughed up and confined to his house. Soon after, lawyers protesting in Lahore were baton-charged and tear-gassed by police, who also vandalised an independent TV station in Islamabad. After eight and a half years in power, Musharraf clearly has no intention of loosening his grip. That is rightly considered bigger news than the disappointment on the field and the tragedy off it which have beset the cricketers.
Can I propose a ban on the use of the word "volatile" by British journalists in relation to Pakistani (or south Asian) cricket? Like cliches in general, it's a tell-tale sign of a failure to reflect, and from a media addicted to the heroes-to-zeroes script, somewhat hypocritical: witness the wild mood swings that accompanied England's entry and exit from the football World Cup and Freddie Flintoff's transformation from Ashes messiah to pedalo piss-artist?
Virtually all contemporary societies take sport too seriously. That's not about national cultures, it's about global economics. Thanks to the IT and media explosions, international sport is becoming ever bigger business and consuming an ever larger slice of public attention. Hence the escalating investments by broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers, and, on the other side of the equation, the atomisation of spectators and the decline of other forms of collective identification.
The Jamaican police and the ICC should rigorously investigate any possible link between Woolmer's murder and match-fixing. But for the moment, what remains most disturbing is the juxtaposition of the triviality of sport with the taking of a human life. That's hard for any of us to assimilate.