Australia's cricketers last night became the first to break rank and withdraw from next month's Champions Trophy in Pakistan. The players of England, New Zealand and South Africa have also expressed severe reservations about visiting the volatile country, and are expected to follow the lead set by Ricky Ponting's team before the end of the week.
In the last week Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council, along with representatives of Nicholls Steyn and Associates, the Champions Trophy independent security advisor team, have travelled around the world briefing players and officials from England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on the security arrangements that have been put in place for the tournament. The aim of the group was to alleviate the fears of players and officials from these countries, convincing them it was safe to participate in the tournament.
The briefings, however, do not appear to have made any impression and the decision of Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, to stand down after eight-and-a-half years in charge can hardly be seen as a move that would decrease the chances of bombs going off in the country. It seems the tournament will have to be moved to Sri Lanka for the eight competing countries to confirm their participation.
Paul Marsh, the head of the Australian Cricketers Association, said that the danger posed by suicide bombers could not be eased, even with beefed-up security. "Our position is that we can't recommend the players tour Pakistan for the Champions Trophy," said Marsh. "Obviously, we put a position forward a few weeks ago [to the ICC] to that effect but we said we would keep an open mind with the taskforce, which we did. We heard them speak on Friday. Now we have had a chance to digest it, our position hasn't changed."
New Zealand's player's union representative Heath Mills expressed similar reservations last week and it would be a major surprise if New Zealand failed to follow Australia's example.
No player in the England team would have a better idea of what it is like in Pakistan than Owais Shah. Shah was born in Karachi in 1978 and lived in the city for the early years of his life. When asked if it was his impression that the four concerned countries – Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa – would stick together Shah said: "I think so, I hope so. Obviously we all have concerns about going. Yes, I have a Pakistani background, I have a lot of family in Pakistan, so I do know what Karachi can be like having grown up there. We are all waiting for a decision to be made by the England and Wales Cricket Board, and we will see what happens."
Shah will be hoping the tournament takes place somewhere in the world because it offers him the ideal stage on which to show the world his talent when batting in the position normally occupied by the team's leading player. Number three is the spot filled by Ricky Ponting, Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards when they were at their best, and Shah has been given the opportunity to try and follow in their footsteps.
The abandonment of this evening's Twenty20 international against South Africa in Durham means that Shah and the rest of the England team will now have to wait until Friday to push for possible Champions Trophy selection. The saturated outfield also deprived the players of a final chance to impress in Twenty20 cricket before England select a squad to take on Sir Allen Stanford's all-star XI in a multi-million dollar game in Antigua on 1 November.
Shah was not a member of England's one-day team 14 months ago but impressive performances since have led to him becoming an integral member of the side. The 29-year-old scored a maiden one-day hundred against India at The Oval in 2007, but he realises he still has some way to go before being recognised as the best batsman in the England team.
"I don't think I am the best batsman in the team, I think that may be occupied by number four [Kevin Pietersen]," said a smirking Shah. "But it is something I would like to strive for. To outdo a batsman like Kevin Pietersen would be a huge challenge. He has set the standards and I would like to match them, and – who knows? – one day I might be the best batsman in the team.
"When you play in any team you want to move up the order, so that you get a better chance of a hundred. Twelve months ago I was just desperate to play for England and the number five or six positions were the ones that were up for grabs, and I was quite happy to try and make that my own. But the number three position is the one I have always had for Middlesex. I have batted there for eight or nine years now and I feel I can do a really good job."