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Pakistan buzzes with familiar talk of player unrest

Five months on from the lowest point in their cricket history and into another fresh era, disruption and uncertainty have seemingly crept back into Pakistan cricket.

Following persistent reports linking several top players with the Indian Cricket League (ICL), news has also emerged of an impending showdown between a group of senior Pakistan players and a board official, a confrontation that some say may lead to the group boycotting the Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa.

A senior player, speaking to Cricinfo, alleged that an argument between Shoaib Malik, the captain, and Zakir Khan, director cricket operations, PCB, had led to the group of players demanding Zakir's immediate removal. The players are said to be keen on sending a letter of protest against Zakir's behaviour to the chairman of the board and to its patron, President Pervez Musharraf.

The argument was reportedly over an appeal filed by Shoaib Akhtar against a fine imposed on him by the board for leaving the national training camp in Karachi earlier this month without informing the team management. Akhtar, fined Rs 300,000 [approximately US$5,000], maintains he left the camp after informing the captain.

The story, which appeared in several local papers, has been strongly denied by several players and officials. "There is absolutely no truth to this whatsoever," Malik told Cricinfo. "I was in Karachi and have come straight to Sialkot [his hometown] so where and when was this supposed altercation meant to have taken place? As for the boycott, there is nothing in it at all."

Shahid Afridi, also allegedly part of the group, echoed Malik's claims. "This is complete rubbish. We are busy preparing for the Twenty20 World Championship and there is no question of any boycott. We have a good relationship with our board and there is no reason to damage it."

Zakir also expressed disbelief at the reports, claiming that his relationship with the players was strong. "My relationship with the team is very cordial. I have a good rapport with them individually and I don't understand how this story has come about. It is absolutely baseless," he told Cricinfo.

Other management officials have also expressed doubts over whether the players would consider a boycott. One told Cricinfo, "Zakir doesn't have that much interaction with the players so I am surprised to hear first of an altercation. And I don't think the players would seriously consider a boycott - they are committed to playing for Pakistan."

Yet there is no smoke without fire and bubbling away in the background is an issue of potentially greater concern: The ICL. Since their omission from the 15-man squad to South Africa, reports have consistently linked Mohammad Yousuf and Abdul Razzaq with the ICL.

Neither has yet signed their central contracts with the board, despite being given an extension in the original deadline to do so. Until August 15 - the extended deadline -neither player had got in touch with the board to reveal their plans. Younis Khan and Danish Kaneria, the others who haven't yet signed their contracts, have been in touch with board officials to explain the delay (both are playing county cricket currently), further fuelling speculation that Yousuf and Razzaq may shun the PCB for the ICL.

Though Razzaq has said publicly he is considering the ICL offer - and risks facing sanction for doing so - Yousuf told Cricinfo earlier in the week that nobody from the ICL had been in touch with him and so there was no question of signing on.

Imran Farhat, until recently Pakistan's first-choice opener, has all but finalised his deal with the ICL while at least two other players still a part of Pakistan's national selection equation are seriously mulling over ICL offers. Inzamam-ul-Haq, the former Pakistan captain, has signed up with Yorkshire for the remainder of the county season but is still keen on the ICL.

Asim Kamal, another discard and one of 27 players kept on a retainer by the board has also been approached. "I have to think about it seriously. I want to play cricket and I need to make a living too," he explained.

Geoff Lawson arrives next week to begin his stint as coach. It is meant to formally mark a new beginning. Like many before him, however, he may not be aware of what exactly he has let himself in for.

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