Woolmer rides the storms

Shoaib and Asif merely the latest in long line of crises for Mr Imperturbable

For Bob Woolmer, Monday seemed just a normal day at the office. A couple of players sent packing after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs? No problem. Now, what could next week possibly bring? The board being replaced en masse with calls for the coach's head? Bring it on.

Woolmer appeared utterly resigned to the perpetual intrigues, accusations and turmoil of Pakistan cricket. It is a wonder that he has lasted two years and four months in the job, a feat of endurance and skill equivalent probably to 100 Test caps. He has been sustained by internal support stemming from the president (of the country, that is, Pervez Musharraf) and by results.

This was a man who nearly 30 years ago was one of five England players who turned their backs on Test cricket and def-ected to Kerry Packer's circus. A little later he enlisted for the first rebel tour of South Africa. He was coach of South Africa when it transpired that Hansie Cronje was fixing matches.

Nothing could surprise him. But it did. Woolmer recovered swiftly, but he was severely jolted by the news on Monday that two of his fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.

When he took the call early on Monday from the new chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Dr Nasim Ashraf, Woolmer barely twitched when he was told that he was to be given some news for which he should be sitting down. A million things raced through his mind without unduly disturbing it, but not what he was shortly hearing. The appointed tribunal sat in Lahore for an hour yesterday and was adjourned until Thursday. There are B samples to be tested, so nothing (really, nothing) should be prejudged and anything (really, anything) is possible. But cricket's first positive test for performance-enhancing substances is still something completely different.

At the last World Cup in South Africa, Shane Warne was sent home after a positive drugs test. He had taken a banned diuretic, a slimming aid given him by his mum, which might or might not have hastened recovery from injury. Shoaib and Asif, if guilty, have entered different territory. The cricket world - and not least the International Cricket Council - awaits the findings.

Woolmer had what might have been misplaced optimism. "Hopefully, there will still be a chance for them to be involved at the World Cup because they are two very useful bowlers. If they were tested in a match situation by the ICC it would be a two-year ban, but this is something we have instituted."

Similar sentiments were being expressed in Pakistan, though it was also noticeable that several people associated with the PCB, not least the former, respected chairman Shaharyar Khan, intim-ated that they were not surprised by Shoaib's positive test.

Warne may have set a dubious precedent. The great leg-spinner was banned for a year when the World Anti-Doping Agency's recommendation is for two. Although miffed, Wada did not intervene. It would be hard for them to do so now if the PCB, should guilt be determined, think a year is sufficient.

But that would still leave the pair out of the World Cup next spring. It is possible that Woolmer hit on the way things might work. So far the PCB have insisted only that the two will receive a fair hearing.

The PCB have not come well out of the affair. Although they instituted the drugs tests, it has been claimed that the players never received a list of banned substances. This would not excuse them, but it would make the alleged offence slightly less culpable.

The future of Shoaib and Asif is in the hands of the three-man PCB panel, including the former Test captain Intikhab Alam and the lawyer Shahid Hamed, who questioned the pair for the first time yesterday. It would be dreadful for cricket if they are proved guilty, and it should not matter whether they took the drugs inadvertently. It would be worse if any ban was not appropriate and they did indeed play in the 2007 World Cup.

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