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Australian fears over security plunge Pakistan tour in doubt

The Pakistan Cricket Board is confident that Australia's tour in March and April can go ahead despite security fears following the assassination of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last week. With the country plunged into violence, there have been grave concerns voiced by members of the Australian team, despite the reassurances of Pakistan officials.

"As far as we are concerned the tour is very much on," said the PCB chairman, Nasim Ashraf, yesterday.

But in Sydney, the Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, said that his players held serious reservations about the tour. The all-rounder Andrew Symonds has already indicated he would skip the tour if he considered it unsafe and Ponting said other players were also worried. "No doubt, sitting back and watching the events of last week in the changing rooms did create some grave concerns," he said.

Ponting added that the decision on whether the team would proceed with the tour would be left to Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association after an inspection tour next month.

"We are always going to be guided by the experts on the ground here in Australia and on the ground in Pakistan to let us know how the safety and security issues are in Pakistan. It looks like now that Cricket Australia and the ACA will be sending a group over in early February to check things out."

In Karachi, Ashraf said he expected the security situation to calm down. "The tour is still two months away and, obviously, the situation will improve after the general elections are held," he said. An announcement is expected today on whether the elections will go ahead next week or be postponed.

"The PCB is well aware of its responsibilities as a host nation and firmly believes the Australian tour can be held on schedule with the required security provided for their players," Ashraf added.

Australia's last scheduled tour of Pakistan in 2002 was switched to Colombo and Sharjah because of security concerns and Ponting said he would hope the series could be played elsewhere.

However, Ashraf said logistical and economic aspects made it impossible for the board to think about using a neutral venue. "We are willing to listen to their point of view as far as venues in Pakistan are concerned. It is premature to talk about cancellation at so early a stage," he added.

Australia are due to reach Pakistan on 10 March to play three Tests, five one-day internationals and a Twenty20 match.