As had been expected for some time now, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif were finally ruled out of Pakistan's World Cup squad, though the decision, farcically, came minutes before the team's departure to the Caribbean. Asif is down with an elbow injury while Shoaib is nursing a crocked knee.
"We have received their medical assessments and the players are physically unfit. Therefore we felt we shouldn't take them for such a big tournament," PJ Mir, the team spokesman told Cricinfo. "Their injuries will take time to heal so after selectors consulted Inzamam-ul-Haq the decision has been taken to not take them."
The pair will be replaced by fast bowler Mohammad Sami and allrounder Yasir Arafat. "Sami and Arafat will join the team in the Caribbean in a few days but we have to get clearance for them from the ICC's technical committee. Their names were decided by the captain and the selection committee together," Mir added, mindful perhaps of reports today speculating that the decision to name Azhar Mahmood as a replacement for Abdul Razzaq overlooked the selection committee altogether.
Though injuries remain the official reasons for their withdrawal it is understood that continuing doping-related concerns clinched the issue. The pair tested positive last year for Nandrolone in internal dope tests conducted just before the Champions Trophy got underway, but their bans were eventually overturned, much to the chagrin of the global cricket community.
Fears that traces of Nandrolone remained at unacceptably high levels in their bodies were enhanced as the pair, for varying reasons, avoided undergoing another PCB-conducted dope test, held last week for all members of Pakistan's World Cup squad. Only last week, an official close to the team had told Cricinfo that neither of the injuries were serious enough and if the pair didn't go, it would only be "over concerns with the doping issue", a thought confirmed once again today by an official. There was a threat that if the two tested positive again, either in internal tests or those conducted by the ICC, they would face stringent bans.
Shortly before the pair were ruled out, the ICC confirmed they would be target-testing players at the World Cup and Malcolm Speed made specific reference to Shoaib and Asif. "Both Shoaib Ahktar and Mohammed Asif have played for Pakistan over the past few months despite testing positive for prohibited substances last year," he said.
"That is a fact neither player has disputed and it is also a fact that has caused the game a high level of embarrassment as a result. We want to make absolutely sure that all players who take part in the World Cup do so on the basis that they are free from banned substances.
"From an ICC perspective, having the option to target test as well as the already-scheduled tests in place means that if a player does have anything in his system then there is a very strong possibility he will be caught out."
Nasim Ashraf, the PCB chairman, however, stressed that Shoaib and Asif's exclusions were due to injuries and unrelated to the doping issue. "The truth is both of them are injured and they may take even months to make a full recovery," Ashraf told PTI."The board's medical panel will soon check them out but the chances of them recovering quickly from their injuries is very bleak."
Whatever the reasons for their exclusion, the impact of their absence cannot be underestimated; Asif is one of cricket's most exciting young bowlers and Shoaib one of the game's fastest. Inzamam acknowledged to reporters that losing the two, and the uncertainty surrounding them, was not the best way of preparing for the tournament. "It is not an ideal situation for us. We are going there under intense pressure. But in the past we have played in such situations with tremendous team spirit and we can achieve best results even without our key players."
Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, preferred to draw strength from good results achieved over the last two years without the two bowlers. "It is a big blow and I feel sorry for both these players. They are missing a mega event.
"But last year we did well without Shoaib in Sri Lanka and the year before in India without either of the two bowlers," he added. "I want to remind the players of those two series and of playing with the same unity and spirit we showed on those tours. If we can replicate that, we can still do well. We also now know at least where we stand and exactly what players we have available."
It now means that Pakistan go into cricket's premier event without three key components of their team, after Razzaq was also ruled out of the tournament this week with a serious knee injury. Additionally, they will be without allrounder Shahid Afridi - owing to a four-match ban imposed by the ICC for misconduct in South Africa - for their first two games, including a tough opening game on March 13 against the hosts. Preparations for big series or tournaments in Pakistan are often blighted but few in recent memory have been as ravaged by injuries, controversies and scandals as this.