Two of the world's best cricket players, Pakistani teammates Younis Khan and Mohammad Yusuf, were kicked off the national team on Wednesday, prompting howls from the nation's many fans at what seemed like a disproportionate punishment.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said in a statement that it decided to permanently ban the two players from the national team as a result of "infighting which resulted in bringing the whole team down." Both men have captained Pakistan.
While the exact offenses are unclear, it is believed that the Board is unhappy with Mr. Khan for relinquishing the captaincy twice, then failing to make himself available for selection on recent foreign tours. Mr. Yusuf may have angered the PCB by going public with accusations of bad blood in the dressing room.
Cricket is a wildly popular sport here, and at times it has provided welcome relief from the security and political problems that the country faces. Last June, fans in Lahore and Karachi danced and cheered in the street after the national team won the Twenty20 World Championship in England, their first major win since 1992.
But such triumphs have been exceedingly rare in recent years, and some in Pakistan believe the country's cricket bureaucrats are seeking to cover up their own failings with the harsh action against the players. The Board has long been accused of haphazard selection of players, nepotism, and poor management.
Administrators are now “trying to divert attention from their own failings,” said Saad Shafqat, a cricket reporter for Dawn, a leading English daily. “This is basically a Hail Mary pass by Ijaz Butt [the unpopular PCB chairman], and the bans are going to last only as long as this administration is in place,” he says. PCB administrations are often ousted before serving their full terms.
Pakistan's chances of defending its world championship title next month, at a tournament in the Caribbean, have now suffered a major blow.
In addition to the ban of Mr. Khan and Mr. Yusuf the PCB banned present captain Shoaib Malik and key bowler (similar to a pitcher in baseball) Rana Naved-ul-Hassan for one year, possibly for disrupting team harmony. Each man was also fined 2 million rupees ($24,000).
Three other players were placed on probation for reasons ranging from dissent to a videotaped incident of ball-tampering. In the clip Shahid Afridi, the darling of Pakistani cricket, bit into a cricket ball during a match to alter its flight path and extract an unfair advantage.
The team had already faced several setbacks in the past year. The PCB is conducting an inquiry into the players' recent disastrous two-month tour in Australia, where they failed to win a single match in 10 attempts.
Last spring, Pakistan was stripped of its rights to host international matches – and benefit from any home team advantage – after a terrorist attack aimed at the Sri Lankan cricket team killed eight police officers.
Pakistan's cricket team enjoyed a heyday in the 1980s and 90s, but aside from its championship last year has steadily declined toward the lower rungs of world rankings