By Rishad Mahmood
Sports editor, Dawn newspaper
Yousuf and Younus are two of the finest batsmen to represent Pakistan
Pakistani cricket is at a crossroads once again.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), headed by former Test cricketer Ijaz Butt, finally woke up from a deep slumber on Wednesday to dish out unprecedented penalties to a number of leading cricketers.
In what is seen as a landmark disciplinary action following last December's disastrous tour of Australia, ex-skippers Younus Khan and Mohammad Yousuf were barred from the national team indefinitely, while one-year bans were given to senior all-rounders Shoaib Malik and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan for poor conduct.
Heavy fines were imposed on Shahid Afridi for ball tampering and Kamran Akmal and brother Umar for flouting rules and obstinate behaviour during the tour.
All the players have the right to appeal against their punishment.
The Australian tour debacle was, indeed, the last straw for Pakistani cricket, which has been grappling with a range of problems of late.
The indiscipline culture is so well entrenched in the team that any half-hearted move could jeopardise the country's future in the game
These include cancelled home series due to security fears, the 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, the IPL snub, the growing menace of player power and the thorny issue of the captaincy.
Against this backdrop, Wednesday's decisions have been widely hailed by fans and former cricketers alike - with only a few complaining of a "harsh" verdict. There is much applause, too, for the PCB officials for a rare show of spine while calls for wholesale changes are deafening.
But while the motives behind the decisions are laudable, the haphazard manner in which they are likely to be carried out could see Pakistani cricket sink deeper into the quagmire.
Many experts of the game believe that the verdict has come five years too late. A similar crackdown in 2005-06, they feel, could have yielded far-reaching results.
Then, Inzamam-ul-Haq and his followers were making the PCB dance to their beat, selecting their "favoured lot" match-after-match, at the expense of the hapless selectors, and equally undermining the authority of a high-profile foreign coach, the late Bob Woolmer.
Those were the initial indicators of a re-emergence of player power and needed to be nipped in the bud.
The PCB, however, never known for its prompt actions, continued to tolerate it and that finally culminated in the country's shameful campaign at the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, tragically marred by Woolmer's death.
Yousuf, Younis, Malik, Afridi and Akmal were all an integral part of the squad then and witnessed their predecessors getting away with a lot worse than that which they are accused of today.
Since then, while their talents have been obvious for all to see, people have often questioned their value to Pakistani cricket.
The rampant controversies, their ugly tussle over the captaincy, and the no-holds barred arguments with the team management have not only hurt Pakistani cricket, they have also in some way influenced younger players, leading to the flop Down Under.
There's no doubt that bad governance from politically motivated, less-than-competent cricket board officials has also contributed hugely to the current cricket scenario.
More often than not, it has been the PCB heads themselves - including Lt Gen Tauqir Zia, Shaharyar Khan, Dr Nasim Ashraf and now Ijaz Butt - who have made monsters out of level-headed, talented players like Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf, Shoaib Akhtar, Afridi and many others.
And although Ijaz Butt and Co have suddenly decided to play tough cops, the indiscipline culture is so well entrenched in the team that any half-hearted move could jeopardise the country's future in the game.
The first big international assignment ahead is the World Twenty20 in the West Indies, scheduled for late April and May. The much-hyped campaign for the defending champions is bound to be affected by today's decisions, unless the PCB is prepared to conduct a complete overhaul.
With the emergence of a number of talented under-19 players - Hammad Azam, Mohammad Waqas and Raza Hassan - coupled with young talents like Mohammad Aamir, Umar Akmal and others, Pakistan could still do well, provided those who have been penalised are not allowed to take control once again.