Pakistan cricket, already besieged by multiple controversies, has received another body blow with Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, their leading new-ball bowlers, testing positive for the banned anabolic steroid Nandrolone during an internal dope test carried out by the Pakistan Cricket Board. They have been recalled to Pakistan and will miss the Champions Trophy.
Salim Altaf, Director Operations, PCB, told Cricinfo that the board, as signatories to the ICC's Anti-Doping Policy (ADP), had carried out a routine test on 19 players at the end of September. The tests were put in place at the behest of Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach and are thought to be the first ever held in Pakistan cricket. The results were sent to the nearest World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) laboratory, in Malaysia for analysis. "They told us two samples had come back positive - of Asif and Shoaib - and the chairman was duly informed," said Altaf.
The board had asked for the concerned samples to be tested again though there was some confusion over whether the second results had arrived. The PCB claimed in the morning that the results were due tomorrow, but Dr Nasim Ashraf, newly-installed chairman of the PCB told reporters in Rawalpindi that the second test had also yielded the same results.
The decision to call back the players pre-empts the embarrassment of them being found guilty during the tournament, at one of the random drugs tests recently put in place by the ICC for major events. The ICC had, according to the PCB, been informed of the situation and a decision was expected to be taken soon on whether two replacements can be sent. The possible replacements, the PCB says, are Abdul Rehman, the left-arm spinner who toured Sri Lanka with Pakistan earlier this year, and all-rounder Yasir Arafat.
The PCB also set up a drugs tribunal to investigate the matter. Altaf said, "We have set up a drugs tribunal, consisting of lawyers, doctors and PCB officials to fully investigate this case. They will look at the lab reports and also hear from the players before deciding on a suitable punishment." Avoiding any sort of ban appears, for the moment, inconceivable though Ashraf also reiterated that a thorough investigation will be carried out by the committee before any future decision is taken.
What the PCB might also want to look at is the collection of rumours and speculation over the last six months regarding this very issue. One doctor, an ex-PCB employee who had worked closely with members of the team, had hinted over the summer about possible steroid use to aid Shoaib's rehabilitation from injury. At least one other source close to the team has also suggested likewise. None of this was, however, confirmed and at no point was Asif's name brought up.
Ashraf added that the board had acted commendably thus far. "We chose not to cover it up and as soon as we got the results we released it to the public."
There are echoes in this of Shane Warne's sensational ouster from the 2003 World Cup. Warne, high-profile like Shoaib, was sent home from the tournament on the morning of Australia's opening game against Pakistan after testing positive for a diuretic. His case was heard under Cricket Australia's anti-doping policy, which followed a test by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.
The agency reported that a sample taken on January 22, 2003, showed diuretics and he was sent home almost three weeks later from the World Cup in South Africa hours before the team's first game against Pakistan. He was banned from all cricket for a year, reduced from two, after a hearing. Pakistan will now have to do without their opening bowling attack, one day before their first game against Sri Lanka.
The news comes on the back of an autumn of turbulence for Pakistan cricket, taking in the Oval fiasco, a farcical captaincy saga and the replacement of the head of the board. As prepaprations for major tournaments go, Pakistan's has hardly been ideal.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo