Just eleven men standing?
This is one of those strange situations that seem to happen more regularly to Pakistan than to other teams. Now, after Shoaib Akhtar and Md Asif's positive tests, Pakistan are in the peculiar position of having just 12 players from whom to choose the 11 who will face Sri Lanka in their Champions Trophy opener on Tuesday. Maybe not even that.
And on Monday evening, practising under floodlights at the Sawai Man Singh stadium here, the mood in the Pakistani camp was reflected in the faces of the players. Almost uniformly sombre.
It was not unexpected, for right through the day, the Pakistan team has been hounded by the media and curious onlookers.Equally obviously, their Tuesday encounter looks in danger of being over before it has begun, unless the Pakistani players use this game to prove a point to the rest of the world.
“It would have been worse had such a thing happened after our first game,” said Pakistan skipper Younis Khan on Monday. Well, Younis was evidently trying to put up a brave face in the wake of unprecedented circumstances but no one would envy him his position.
Coming so soon after the Oval fiasco and Inzamam's ban, Younis's own stated disenchantment over divisions within Pakistan cricket, his resignation from the stand-in captaincy and equally dramatic reinstatement, this current scandal could well be another nail in an already scarred coffin.
On Monday afternoon, Younis said the team still had to discuss how they would handle the aftermath of the crisis. “We haven't discussed this as a team yet. The events have happened very quickly from yesterday to this morning. We will be sitting down this evening and chat it through. I’m pretty confident that the players will take adversity in their stride and rise to the occasion and play good cricket tomorrow,” he said, adding, “This is a team game and all of us, individually, will have to do our job for the team.”
Straightaway, Pakistan’s main problem would be the absence of two of their key fast bowlers. They are also expected to go without paceman Umar Gul — he suffered a groin strain in a practice game two days ago and team physio, South African Darryl Lifson, was seen working on him during the practice session. If Gul fails to recover, Younis would have no choice but to pick the rest.
Meanwhile, even while speculation off the field reached a crescendo, on it, the five support staff of the team made every effort to portray a semblance of normalcy.
The only noticeable difference from their last practice session was the usual boisterously friendly game of soccer. It was missing and the players played handball to warm up their bodies instead.
Just two days ago, coach Bob Woolmer had picked out Shoaib as his team’s best footballer. “Shoaib is just terrific in soccer. He is by far our best player,” Woolmer had told HT after the team's practice game against a RCA XI.
Of the Lankans, on a roll through the qualifiers, what can really be said? Chasing their 11th straight one-day win, they are looking fit, playing superbly as a team and oozing confidence. Sri Lankan skipper Mahela Jayawardene seemed content with his team’s performance so far but said he had warned his players against complacency against this depleted Pakistan.
“We won't take Pakistan lightly. From playing Pakistan a few times in the past, we've realised we cannot afford to do that,” said Jayawardene on Monday.
Both he and coach Tom Moody, however, expressed their disappointment over the entire drug fiasco, from a different perspective. Jayawardene said his team would miss the challenge of facing Shoaib and Asif, who could have become one of current cricket’s most fearsome pace duos. Moody also termed it unfortunate. “In any sport, the involvement of drugs is not welcome. I am sure the Pakistan board will look at the matter very closely.”