Pakistan's cricket team, barely recovered from the Ovalgate crisis, plunged into another controversy on Monday, on the eve of its opening Champions Trophy encounter against Sri Lanka.
In a dry official statement, Pakistan manager Talat Ali told the media that two frontline pace bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, had failed a drug test conducted by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) in September and would be sent home. The two tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone.
The PCB, which tested 19 players before the Champions Trophy at the behest of coach Bob Woolmer, has asked a World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab in Kuala Lumpur to test the two players' 'B' (second) samples too. The result is expected within 24 hours.
But few hold out any hope of the second samples being negative. Sources said in Akhtar's case, the B sample was also positive.
Akhtar and Asif could be banned for two years if their B samples are also positive. For Akhtar, 31, that could well mean the end of his international career.
Sources close to the Pakistani team management said it got the news of the positive dope tests sometime between Sunday evening and midnight. The information was leaked to a Pakistani newspaper, which meant the country woke up to the news on Monday.
Pakistanis here said it was done because the PCB is a divided house — one section wanted to embarrass the current regime. In another statement, skipper Younis Khan said the team management was "very disappointed" but would cope. "It is obvious that it will be tough when our top players are not there but I consider this a team game. It is best to be positive and try and play well," he said. Asked if there was a possibility of any other player testing positive, Younis laughed and said: "There is no other player as of now."
Woolmer looked far more upset. "I am angry and disappointed," he said.
Although no player was ready to come on record, in private, many admitted they were shaken. One called it "childish and immature" on the part of Akhtar to feign ignorance, saying players were regularly briefed on drugs that are banned. But he added: "I think both players may have taken the drugs at the behest of their doctors. Both have struggled with injuries in the recent past."
Meanwhile, Akhtar defended himself, saying: "I have done nothing wrong." ICC chief Malcolm Speed said a PCB inquiry committee would be set up to deal with the matter after the B sample report became known. "Shoaib has been quite an entertainer in the game. Let history decide how he will be remembered," he said.