Commentary

Spot-fixing suspicion clouds World Cup

Updated: March 25, 2011, 1:51 PM ET
By Peter Della Penna | Special to ESPN.com

In the post-BALCO era, sports fans have become increasingly suspicious of athletes who do too well, particularly if their accomplishments have never been done before or if they're achieved past a certain age. Marion Jones proved there's a big difference between taking performance-enhancing drugs and testing positive for them.

Floyd Mayweather is only too eager to avoid a fight with Manny Pacquiao unless Pacman agrees to more stringent blood testing. Pacquiao has never tested positive, but that's not good enough for Mayweather. Are his doubts about Pacquiao justified? Why can't he accept that Pacquiao may just be a once-in-a-generation phenomenon?

Cricket has a similar issue in regards to questioning the legitimacy of a player's on-field exploits. However, the suspicion is raised at the opposite end of the performance scale, when an athlete doesn't do well enough. Is it because he's really that bad or just bad on purpose?

Already two instances have popped up during the World Cup. The first involved Australia and Zimbabwe. A report surfaced that the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit may be investigating their match, which was the first match for each team in the tournament. Even though Australia won comfortably by 91 runs against a vastly inferior opponent in Zimbabwe, an Indian newspaper reported some suspicion surrounding that Australia only scored five runs in the first two overs and 28 runs after 10.

The second took place when Pakistan lost to New Zealand by 110 runs on Tuesday. Respected cricket columnist Peter Roebuck addressed the elephant in the room by declaring that New Zealand won fair and square, despite that Ross Taylor's 131 not out was enabled by two dubious missed catching chances by Pakistan wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal.

Taylor had yet to score when he sent a chance that flew to Akmal's right. Akmal practically pulled out a red matador cape and yelled "Ole!" as he watched the ball go to the boundary. Two balls later, a far simpler chance came off Taylor's bat and went straight to Akmal, who dropped it in "Three Stooges" fashion.

Last summer's spot-fixing scandal is the reason cricket is currently on the road to cynicism. Seven Pakistani players, including Akmal, were suspected of prearranging the outcome of certain deliveries during matches last summer against England. Only three players -- Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir -- wound up being suspended. Akmal remains under intense scrutiny for another series of Moe, Larry and Curly errors in a Test match 14 months ago against Australia that allowed Michael Hussey to make 134 not out before Pakistan collapsed chasing a small target to lose by 36 runs.

Akmal's reputation precedes him, much like it does for South Africa. While everyone raises an eyebrow in speculation toward Akmal, the cricketers from "The Rainbow Nation" are classified as cricket's biggest chokers. During a home series in January, South Africa tripped and face-planted itself on the pitch to lose by one run against India, which was a harbinger for their epic failure by six runs against England last Sunday. Yet, it's generally accepted that South Africa's implosions are psychological, not sinister.

Even though the best solution for Pakistan would be to drop Akmal, ESPNcricinfo's Osman Samiuddin has cleverly noted it seems destined never to happen. In the meantime, the best solution for Akmal is for him to hold on to the ball when it comes his way and help Pakistan win matches. Sadly, in a Catch-22 sort of way, that would only add more fuel to the fire that his prior history of drops wasn't accidental.

Whether Akmal's efforts are real or WWE-real, it makes for a compelling viewing experience. There's never a dull day when Pakistan is involved in a match. Its recent history of investigations mixed with incredible performances make it indispensible to the World Cup.

Peter Della Penna is an American cricket journalist who also writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. Since 2010, he has penned the USA entry in the Cricket Round the World section of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.
Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterDellaPenna