Pakistan cricketers face corruption inquiry

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PAKISTAN GOVERNMENT investigators will start questioning members of their national cricket team within the next few days to try to find out the reasons behind the team's heavy defeat in the World Cup final in England last week.

Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister, personally assigned the case to the government anti-corruption agency, known as the Ehtesab (accountability) bureau, after receiving reports from intelligence agents who have been tracking the team for several weeks. A close friend and aide of the Prime Minister, Senator Saifur Rehman, has been put in charge of the investigation which, the senior investigator said, will focus on allegations that some members of the team took money in return for playing badly while others spent their evenings gambling and drinking.

Pakistanis were devastated by the defeat of their team. In this cricket- mad country the ease with which Australia cruised to victory a week ago was felt to be deeply humiliating, particularly with nationalist sentiment running high as a result of the Kashmir conflict.

Most of the players have returned to Pakistan where they have received a hostile reception. At Karachi airport 200 armed commandos were deployed to guard the team against an angry mob, crowds in Lahore paraded effigies of players on the back of donkeys and the home of at least one player has been attacked.

The investigation has been welcomed by ordinary Pakistanis. "The whole thing has to be cleared up," said Ahmetullah, a waiter at a restaurant in Islamabad, the capital. "If they have done wrong then they should be punished."

Several investigations of Pakistan's top cricketers are already under way, including a judicial inquiry into allegations that players have "thrown"matches in recent years after taking bribes from bookmakers. The inquiry appears to have gathered little in the way of hard evidence.

The Ehtesab bureau usually tackles high-profile corruption cases. In April investigators from the bureau secured the conviction of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, on charges of benefiting from kickbacks on government contracts.

A spokesman for the bureau said that, like the Bhutto case, the fate of the national cricket side was a matter of national honour. "If it is match-fixing then it is corruption like any other. If it is merrymaking and disobeying the management and performing badly as a result then it is bringing the name of the country into disrepute," he said.

But there is still support for the team. The Interior Minister has said that Pakistan should be proud of them for reaching the final and the team manager, Zafar Altaf, has accused the national media - which claim the team accepted a bribe of 400 million rupees (pounds 5m) to lose the final - of making shameful, baseless allegations.

"The team are sad, dejected and upset ... but they tried their best," Mr Zafar said.