Star Pakistani Cricket Bowler Draws the Invective of His Fans

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 21, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Mohammad Asif might be one of the world's most brilliant cricket bowlers, but his star is fast losing luster in Pakistan.

When Asif, the darling of Pakistan's national cricket team, was arrested early this month on suspicion of drug possession at the airport in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, newspapers here virtually groaned in unison. It was the second time Asif had found himself wicket-high in a scandal over drugs.

Customs agents in Dubai said Asif, 25, had what an "illicit substance" in his wallet after he arrived at the airport, following a match in India. The News, Pakistan's leading English-language daily, splashed the news atop its sports page, saying authorities thought the substance was hashish or opium.

Pakistan has been cricket-crazed since long before its national team played its first test match in India in 1952. One of the many legacies of the British raj in South Asia, the game at times has proved more political than playful here. Matches against archrival India are the athletic equivalent of battlefield clashes. And when a star player lands in hot water, it's big news.

The last time Asif was suspected of drug use was in 2006, when he and teammate Shoaib Akhtar tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone. The Pakistan Cricket Board initially barred Asif from playing for one year and Akhtar for two. The suspensions were overturned on appeal, however.

While Asif denied using drugs in his latest brush with authorities, tongues were still wagging in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. This week, Dawn, Pakistan's other large-circulation English-language newspaper, decried the sorry state of the country's favorite pastime.

"The fact is that all is not well with Pakistan cricket," an editorial carped. "From reports of internal wrangling to charges of financial misappropriation, and from serious and persistent questions about nomination of the team's captain and the coach to the alleged misconduct of certain players, there is a lot that needs corrective action within the set-up."

Following Asif's arrest, the blogosphere was also crackling with the news. Coverage became downright microscopic on Cricket Bloggers of Pakistan, where plenty of invective was reserved for the cricket "paceman" credited early in his career with helping Pakistan declare victory over India. Asif "has already disgraced Pakistan once before," wrote an irritated blogger named Teeth Maestro. "We should have zero tolerance for such repeat offenders."

"Do us a favor," another blogger wrote. "Lock him away remembering to throw away the key at least long enough that he never represents Pakistan again."

On Thursday, Asif learned he would face no such fate. Prosecutors in Dubai dropped the case, citing its "insignificance." The cricket star returned home to Pakistan on Friday and again declared he is innocent. He told reporters it is good to be back.

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