Several Pakistani cricketers were found with large quantities of bank notes in their London hotel rooms by police investigating claims of a betting scam run by a middleman who boasted that he controlled up to seven players and could arrange for international matches to be fixed.
Scotland Yard detectives yesterday questioned Mazhar Majeed, a 35-year-old agent, about allegations that he accepted £150,000 in cash from undercover News of the World reporters posing as a gambling syndicate. Last night he was bailed without charge.
The police investigation, which led to officers confiscating the mobile phones of three Pakistan players including the team's captain Salman Butt in a late-night sweep on Saturday, raises the possibility of members of an international cricket team being arrested and facing prosecution in Britain before the tourists leave after the final game of their summer tour on 22 September.
Detectives took statements from Butt, the bowlers Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif, and the wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal after Mr Majeed was seen on film to give precise details of when three "no-balls" would be delivered by Aamer and Asif during the Test match at Lord's that ended yesterday. Each of the no-balls was then delivered by the two bowlers exactly as Mr Majeed had predicted.
Television footage showed Aamer, who was yesterday named the Pakistani man of the series, bowl two of the no-balls by stepping comfortably beyond the crease, prompting pundits to comment on the unusually clear nature of the infringements. But other events predicted by Mr Majeed to the NOTW team, such as an over in which Butt would deliberately fail to score a run, failed to materialise.
On a sombre day for world cricket which saw England complete a hollow Test match victory against Pakistan, the dejected Pakistani players lasted barely 90 minutes batting as they slumped to an innings defeat. They left Lord's after their heaviest-ever Test defeat and under the cloud of the latest allegations of corruption to hit their team.
Yawar Saeed, the Pakistan team manager, said he was "not delighted" at the claims, adding: "The allegations are allegations. We are disappointed with them but we should still like to wait until the investigations are over."
Asked whether he would expect any player found to have committed wrongdoing to be punished, Mr Saeed added: "If anybody is guilty he is guilty and should be punished."
It is understood that the Pakistan team and its management first knew of the claims after a spectacular Pakistan collapse in the field on Saturday. Mr Saeed received a phone call at the team's hotel in Swiss Cottage, north London, at about 7.30pm telling him that two police officers were waiting to see him. Police spent two hours searching rooms, including that of Mr Butt and several players, before confiscating the phones of the captain and Aamer and Asif. The Independent understands that officers also found large numbers of bank notes in the rooms of unnamed players which exceeded the daily maintenance payment made to the cricketers by their employers. It is not known if these bank notes relate to the allegations.
The NOTW investigation claimed that Mr Majeed, a property developer and keen cricketer who became involved with the Pakistan team in 2006 by setting up sponsorship deals in Britain for several players, took a "deposit" of £10,000 in cash for distribution to players he allegedly controls. The agent, who lives in a £1m house in Croydon, Surrey, said he used BlackBerry mobile phones which he changed on a regular basis to communicate with the cricketers.
Gambling on no-balls and other apparently insignificant quirks in cricket is the subject of a lucrative practice known as "spot fixing" or "fancy fixing" in which punters across India and South-east Asia wager sums in real time on the minutiae of a game. The one-time betting sideshow has increased in popularity since an attempt by the International Cricket Council (ICC) to crack down on match fixing.
Last month, Rashid Latif, a former Pakistan captain and an adviser to the ICC on tackling corruption, told the Cricinfo website: "Focusing on small events within games rather than entire games gained prominence when the heat of match fixing got to be too much for bookies. There are clever ways to manipulate this and maximise your profits if players are involved."
During secretly recorded discussions, Mr Majeed, who claimed to have set up Swiss bank accounts to pay fees to players, said it had already been agreed that Pakistan would lose one of its one-day internationals against England.
Azhar Majeed, Mr Majeed's brother, who is also a cricket agent, denied the claims against Mazhar, saying: "I thought it was just rubbish." Pakistani team officials said they had warned their players not to meet the Majeed brothers in their hotel rooms during this summer's tour of England.
In a joint statement with English and Pakistani domestic cricket boards, the ICC said it was assisting police with their investigation, adding: "No players nor team officials have been arrested in relation to this incident."
Lord's reaction: 'My friends have been texting me, telling me to boo'
The verdict of Dr Asim Safdar, one of many Pakistan cricket fans who formed part of a relatively sparse crowd at Lord's yesterday, was damning. "They need to cancel the one-day series, cancel the Twenty20s, and give all the spectators their money back," he said. "I've got two tickets for one of the one-day games. I'm selling them on eBay, even if they make a loss. I just want to get rid of them. And I'm not going to get up in the middle of the night to watch them play in the World Cup next year. I'm fed up with it."
The final session of the fourth Test match was suddenly charged with less sporting tension perhaps than any ever played at the home of cricket. "It's always Pakistan," said Dr Safdar's friend Dr Asad Saleemi. "These things seem to follow them around. The team needs to be suspended from international cricket. The players concerned must be given life bans. We're doctors. If we did something like this, we'd be struck off."
Around the bars and food stands, the allegations in the News of the World overshadowed everything. "My friends have been texting me telling me to boo the team," said Dr Safdar, as the final wicket tumbled. "You see. Was that fixed? Is he trying? You don't know now do you? I spend so much time and money following the team: what's the point?"
"People in Pakistan are going through such turmoil," said Dr Saleemi. "And then there's these guys, who are supposed to be international representatives, pocketing huge sums of money. People have come to expect it from the crooked politicians, but cricket is the dream of every kid from a poor background. They are seen as heroes."
England fans were equally unimpressed. "It makes a farce of the whole game," said Alex Goldsmith. "It dilutes the magnificent achievements of the England players earlier in the game." His father, Luke Goldsmith, was more forgiving. Aamer is only 18, he pointed out. If the bowler turns out to be guilty, he may have had a reason to behave like that. "Has he or his family been threatened by some unsavoury character? You just don't know."