After Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were jailed at Southwark Crown Court for plotting to bowl deliberate no-balls during last year’s Lord’s Test, Close said he felt sorry for them in the sense they had been “manipulated” by players’ agent Mazhar Majeed.
Butt was jailed for 30 months, Asif for a year, and Amir for six months after they were found guilty of conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments.
Although Close stressed his total opposition to any form of match-fixing, he insisted the real villains were men like Majeed, who himself received a 32-month prison term after an undercover News of the World reporter paid him £150,000 to arrange the no-balls in question.
Majeed admitted paying Asif £65,000, Butt £10,000 and Amir £2,500 to ensure three no-balls were delivered at set times during the Lord’s match.
“I feel sorry for the players, quite honestly,” said Close.
“It’s obviously the bloody agent who’s caused the trouble; it’s the agent who’s encouraged and manipulated them.
“If somebody comes and offers you money just to bowl a bloody no-ball, you’re liable almost to agree, aren’t you?
“I think a jail term, in some respects, is a little bit over the top.
“There are people who do a damn sight worse things and get let off, and it isn’t as if anybody’s been killed.
“Personally, I think this jailing is going a bit too far.”
Although Close, 80, said the players deserved to be suspended by the International Cricket Council, he disagreed with those who feel they should have received life bans.
Former England captains Michael Vaughan and Ian Botham were among those who criticised the ICC’s decision to dish out five-year suspensions to the players after the governing body last winter conducted their own inquiry.
“I wouldn’t ban them for life,” added Close.
“They ought to have a severe penalty, certainly, like being kept out of the game for 12 months or something like that.
“I think if you did that it would send out the message to players that you shouldn’t get involved in something like this.
“I think they ought to be banned from the game for a year or so and also fined.”
Close expressed particular sympathy for Amir, one of the world’s most promising pace bowlers.
The 19-year-old delivered two of the no-balls that triggered the police investigation which culminated in yesterday’s sad events.
“What happened was wrong and there’s no getting away from that,” said Close, who remains England’s youngest Test player after making his debut against New Zealand in 1949, aged 18 years and 149 days.
“At the same time, you’re vulnerable as a young player. You’re impressionable at that age, aren’t you?
“A young player will think, ‘oh, they’ve told me to do something so I’ll do it’, so you’ve got to consider that type of thing.
“In my day, of course, there wasn’t any money in the game so this was never a problem.
“There was no betting in cricket,” he said.
“Nowadays, you can bet on anything and you’ve got all these agents and what have you getting involved.
“It’s a completely different situation to what it was years ago.”
In sentencing the three players, the judge, Mr Justice Cooke, said cricket would always be tainted by their actions.
“It is the insidious effect of your actions on professional cricket and the followers of it that make the offences so serious,” he told them. The image and integrity of what was once a game but is now a business is damaged in the eyes of all, including the many youngsters who regarded you as heroes and would have given their eye teeth to play at the levels and with the skills that you had.
“You procured the bowling of three no-balls for money, to the detriment of your national cricket team, with the object of enabling others to cheat at gambling.
“Now whenever people look back on a surprising event in a game or a surprising result, or whenever in the future there are surprising events or results, followers of the game who have paid good money to watch it live or watch it on television will be left to wonder whether there has been fixing and whether what they have been watching is a genuine contest between bat and ball.”
Close echoed the judge’s fears for the game’s integrity.
“What they did didn’t affect the result of the match, but at the same time it definitely damaged the game,” he added.
“The next time a no-ball is called, you wonder whether it’s done on purpose and the whole situation is crackers, quite frankly.
“It’s a very unpleasant thing for the game because when anything unusual happens you wonder now whether it’s been done on purpose.”
Butt, 27, Asif, 28, and Majeed, 36, were sent to Wandsworth prison in south London, while Amir will serve his sentence at Feltham young offenders’ institution in West London.
The players could be released halfway through their terms for good behaviour, while Butt and Amir have already announced their intention to appeal.
Mr Justice Cooke described Amir as “unsophisticated, uneducated and impressionable” and “readily lent on by others.”
Trio should be banned for life, says Vaughan
Former England captain Michael Vaughan hopes the jail terms for Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir will “send shock waves through the game” but that the trio should have been banned for life by the ICC. He also believes others involved in corruption in cricket still need to be identified.
Vaughan told BBC Radio 5 Live: “It hits home how big a deal this has been to think three cricketers are going to be behind bars for varying lengths of time.
“I hope it sends a shock wave through the game, but I still believe there are more out there (involved in corruption) and that more can be done to catch those apart from those three.”
In relation to the ICC five-year bans, Vaughan added: “They could have done it a few months ago and banned these players for life.”
Pakistan Cricket Board spokesman Nadeem Sarwar said the jail terms made it “a sad day for Pakistan cricket” but that there was little sympathy in the country for the trio.
Sarwar said: “Instead of having pride in playing for their country, these players chose to disappoint their supporters, damage the image of their country and bring the noble game of cricket into disrepute.”
Lord Condon, the former ICC anti-corruption chief, said the scandal highlighted complacency in cricket.
Condon said: “They betrayed their national team and they betrayed cricket lovers in Pakistan and around the world. Sadly I’m afraid they deserved exactly what happened to them today.”