By Rishad Mahmood
Sports editor, Dawn newspaper
Pakistan's shock elimination from the 2007 Cricket World Cup at the hands of minnows Ireland last Saturday caps the most bizarre eight-month period in the country's 56-year cricket history.
Defeat by Ireland was unimaginable before Saturday
A relentless barrage of controversies and scandals have marred Pakistan cricket in recent months, starting with the infamous row with umpire Darrell Hair at The Oval cricket ground in August 2006.
Since that alleged ball tampering furore resulted in the only Test match forfeiture in cricket history, Pakistan cricket has reeled from one controversy to another.
From a doping saga involving key players, to captaincy issues, an overhaul of the cricket board, player-breakdowns and, of course, the age-old spectre of infighting, everything that could go wrong has.
That this culminated in a short World Cup campaign for Pakistan comes as no surprise.
But the stunning defeat to Ireland's part-timers at Sabina Park was a scenario not even the harshest critic could have envisaged.
The problems afflicting Pakistan cricket today are many, though none more menacing than lack of leadership.
In 2004, when the absurd Asian phenomenon of "hierarchal" leadership - where the most senior man, irrespective of ability, is made captain - prevailed with the appointment of Inzamam-ul-Haq as skipper, the deterioration process had started for Pakistan cricket.
Before his appointment, Inzamam had never shown himself to be a leader of men.
Woolmer (left) and Inzamam faced a number of crises
His careful style of captaincy, which has submerged his batting brilliance, has been catastrophic.
An inability to inspire players, injudicious reading of pitches and playing conditions, incessant shuffling of the batting order and increasing reluctance to heed any advice has contributed heavily to the team's downfall.
It was therefore ironic that Pakistan chose to hire the late Bob Woolmer as coach to assist Inzamam in 2004.
The former England batsman, an extremely skilled coach, was never known for taking tough decisions and remained in Inzamam's shadow until his untimely demise.
The two only heightened the team's lacklustre approach towards things, with the crucial killer instinct missing in the ranks.
Their first series together in 2005 was indicative of things to come as Pakistan lost its first ever home series against India two Tests to nil.
Although this was followed by victories in India and the West Indies, an away series win continued to elude Pakistan.
The 2006 tour to England, billed as Inzamam's sternest test as skipper, ended in absolute disaster with Pakistan losing the Tests 3-0.
This included the historic "forfeiture" at The Oval. In the one-day internationals, they barely managed a drawn series after taking the lead.
An ugly row followed that debacle when Inzamam's deputy Younis Khan, named skipper for the ICC Champions Trophy owing to the former's four-match ban, resigned on the eve of the team's departure to India.
There was pandemonium in the ranks and the crises threatened to once again tear the team apart.
The team has continued to be plagued by infighting
But Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) patron, President Pervaiz Musharraf, stepped in and removed then PCB chief Shaharyar Khan.
He then appointed one of his close advisers, kidney specialist Dr Nasim Ashraf, to revive the dwindling fortunes of the game.
Many hailed the move as "mission salvation" for Pakistan cricket.
But the worst was yet to come. On the eve of Pakistan's departure for the Champions Trophy campaign, news came that fast bowling spearheads Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif had tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone during the in-house dope tests conducted by the PCB.
Both men were called back and subsequently banned from international cricket by an inquiry tribunal.
The jolted national team failed miserably in India.
The ICC and other cricket boards across the world lauded the PCB's efforts at the time.
However, both Shoaib and Asif were exonerated a month later after they appealed against the ban.
While Pakistan tamed a mediocre West Indies in their next series in December 2006, the following away series against South Africa proved to be a nightmare.
Graeme Smith's men exposed the many chinks in Pakistan's armour.
The visitors fell apart on a tour that was a logistic-cum-strategic disaster, losing both the Test and one-day series.
As many as 26 players were experimented with in South Africa, with few being up to the mark.
Pakistan's cricket fans are usually unforgiving in defeat
To say that Pakistan's World Cup preparations were a disaster would be an understatement.
They were clearly on shaky ground given Inzamam's non-existent marshalling skills coupled with the absence of key players Shoaib, Asif and Razzaq.
The current debacle requires much soul-searching. With Inzamam having quit, a player more in tune with the modern game is needed to take over the reins of the team.
The prime task for the new skipper is Herculean - to try to make a team out of a group of brilliant but self-destructive cricketing individuals.
Also, drastic steps need to be taken to make domestic cricket more competitive.
Sporting pitches with more bounce are essential to lift the game while former cricketers should be brought in to play their role in grooming players.
Such moves will be instrumental in resolving the key issues of finding a reliable opening pair and the much-needed improvement in fielding.
But what is needed most is to make the players mentally tough and in tune with the demands of a gruelling and extremely professional sport.