ANOTHER BLOW to PAKISTAN

What motivated the Pakistan Cricket Board, already struck by the recent controversy surrounding Inzamam-ul-Haq, to take such a bold and potentially damaging step and expose its drug-tainted players? Was it driven by a desire to clean up the sport? asks Vijay Parthasarathy.

Cricket's wild child is at it again; only this time he might have crossed all acceptable boundaries turning, in the process, from prince to pariah.

Shoaib Akhtar's collective transgressions — the roster includes among other things, ball tampering and a dubious bowling action (which was subsequently cleared) — had already made him one of the most controversial cricketers.

The two-year ban he has received after testing positive for nandrolone could effectively destroy the 31-year-old's international career. Fellow fast bowler Mohammed Asif, who tested positive for the same drug, received a one-year sentence; a lighter ban, because the panel believed he did not understand what he was taking and that he stopped as soon as his physiotherapist told him to.

The two-year ban on Akhtar is the heaviest ever imposed on a cricketer found guilty of taking drugs. In one sense the drug bust has put Akhtar on level with that other great character, Shane Warne.

Of course, speaking in terms of achievement alone, Akhtar's record isn't particularly impressive, and in fact he now risks finishing as a footnote in cricketing history. The figures (165 wickets in 42 Tests and 208 wickets in 133 ODIs) don't nearly do justice to his ability to sear through sides. Akhtar may end up being remembered as the first bowler to officially register 100mph (twice), not as the man who, for example, memorably ripped Australia in 2002 in a display of the highest calibre of fast bowling, dismissing the Waugh twins for zero in energy-sapping conditions.

Neither Akhtar nor Asif reportedly disputes the presence of nandrolone in his sample; any appeal will probably rest on the premise that his use of the drug was accidental. What motivated the Pakistan Cricket Board, already struck by the recent controversy surrounding Inzamam-ul-Haq, to take such a bold and potentially damaging step and expose its drug-tainted players? Was it driven by a desire to clean up the sport?

It is unclear whether, and to what extent, Akhtar's "Western lifestyle" influenced the decision of the drugs tribunal. "If people read our statement they will understand. He (Akhtar) drinks alcohol, has an active sex life and has been part of anti-doping awareness programmes," said Intikhab Alam, the former Pakistan Test captain and one of the three-member committee that pronounced judgment upon Akhtar and Mohammed Asif. "He has been around for the last 10 years and the written statement that his spokesman gave about him taking dietary supplements and not consulting a doctor, shows he was negligent." However, the fact remains Akhtar was beginning to stick out in an increasingly devout side. His many clashes over the years with authority couldn't have endeared him to the establishment. The question obviously arises if he was made an example of, for moral and political reasons. According to the official report, Akhtar admitted to using several supplements: Blaze Xtreme, a fat-burning supplement; Nitron5, designed to increase strength; Ergolean AMP, a pre-workout stimulant; Promax 50, a liquid protein diet; Viper, an isotonic drink; and TBomb II, a testosterone-enhancing tablet. In addition, there were "herbal medicines from friends".

Indeed, the only thing missing was a diuretic pill given to him by his mother.

Former captain Imran Khan believes that the ban imposed on the duo is excessively severe. "There has to be an example set but without knowing the judgment details I would say it's harsh," Imran said. "Their ban will severely reduce Pakistan's chances in next year's World Cup in the West Indies."

At 24, Asif will fancy his chances of making a comeback even if the appeal fails. Akhtar, on the other hand, will struggle to resuscitate a career seemingly cut short by cardiac arrest. Not that Akhtar is likely to disappear from our screens entirely: given his fierce charisma and peculiar set of circumstances, he would make a convincing Bollywood villain.