Absolute mystery, bewildering contradiction and utter chaos surrounds the fate of fast bowlers Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar and their participation in the forthcoming World Cup for Pakistan.
With only days to go before the tournament gets underway, the pair are not only awaiting clearance over various injuries, they are also yet to undergo, and clear, crucial dope tests, the date for which still hasn't been decided.
The pair turned up on the first day of the training camp at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore and bowled in the nets. But opinion on their fitness differs within the PCB; one official told telepk.com that they were only "50-50" for the Caribbean and were both due to travel to London in a day or so for a reassessment of their injuries.
The assertion was later contradicted by a source at the camp, who explained that Asif was not suffering from any major injury worries and bowled as per normal in training. "He is 90% fit for the World Cup. He had an elbow niggle which was classified as not serious in South Africa by doctors. There is no need, as I see it, for him to go to London for further checks." Shoaib, he added, seemed to have some trouble with his knee.
PJ Mir, PCB media manager, later confirmed to telepk.com that, as the situation stands, only Shoaib is due to go to London for further scans. "Shoaib will be going to London on February 26 for a scan. Whatever the doctor then tells him, he will inform the board and any further decisions on his status will be taken then."
Lurking underneath the issue of injuries is what many see as the real problem: the dope tests. Mir said that no date had yet been set for the pair to be tested. As a direct result of this unwillingness to test them, speculation is rapidly mounting over their status.
The fear is that the levels of Nandrolone in their bloodstream are still above the legal limit. Any positive test, by the PCB or the ICC at the World Cup, could result in stringent bans. One official said that the board has discussed all possibilities in detail with various lawyers and had learnt that, in a worst-case scenario, life bans could be applied if they test positive during an ICC tournament, irrespective of the players having been let off on a technicality the first time round.
Seen in this light, it seems understandable that both players, and the board, should be keen on avoiding dope tests and perhaps even the World Cup altogether, on the pretext of injuries. Pakistan has few major assignments after the tournament, until at least September when South Africa are scheduled to visit. By then, might be the hope, Nandrolone levels in both will have come down to acceptable levels, clearing the way for their full return.
Further clouding the picture are persistent rumours about Shoaib and Asif having undergone dope tests in private. The nature of the trips both players made to England, ostensibly for medical treatment, after the South Africa series in particular have aroused suspicions. Urdu newspapers already ran similar stories last week and though the board has publicly denied it, officials have been less committal privately: "We cannot stop players from carrying out tests in private if they want to," says one.
With still no date set on the dope tests for either, the speculation is likely to intensify further over the next few days. Pakistan's preparations for the World Cup, meanwhile, take a back seat, at the worst possible time.