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Akhtar and Asif absence will allow Pakistan to concentrate on cricket

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PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad: Pakistan was relieved that fast bowlers Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif were ruled out of the World Cup with injury — with coach Bob Woolmer saying their inclusion would have cast a shadow over the team.

The pacemen tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone last year, and while their suspensions were overturned by a Pakistan Cricket Board appeals panel, that decision has been questioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and International Cricket Council.

Woolmer said WADA's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reinstate the two-year ban for Akhtar and the one-year ban for Asif made it difficult for them to concentrate on cricket.

"As far as Pakistan cricket goes, it's been resolved but obviously there's other people wanting to get involved here," Woolmer said. "This is in-house drug testing and both were found to be positive and both were cleared.

"With WADA and ICC trying to get involved, this is hanging over their heads. So in an obtuse way, it's best they're not here. And it's best for the team that there's not all this rubbish hanging over our heads."

Woolmer said Akhtar's knee injury and Asif's elbow problem had not sufficiently recovered in time for the World Cup, which opens March 13 with Pakistan against West Indies in Jamaica.

And he was confident replacements Yasir Arafat and Mohammad Sami would easily fit in.

Arafat and Sami were flying to the West Indies on Tuesday to join up with the Pakistan squad, despite not yet being cleared to play by the ICC.

Pakistan media manager Pervez Jamil Mir said it was a formality.

"Sami and Arafat are on a flight to the West Indies," Mir said. "We expect the ICC to clear them soon. We don't anticipate any problems because it is the ICC itself that is making all the arrangements for the players."

Pakistan was playing a warmup match Tuesday against Canada in Trinidad.

The PCB sent the medical report of Akhtar and Asif to the ICC earlier in the week and formally asked for Arafat and Sami to be drafted into the 15-man squad.

"The majority of the players have been with us for 2 1/2 years," Woolmer said. "Asif only started playing last year and was out with injury on the England tour, so he only played against India. And Shoaib has only played two series in three years, so all our one-day games have been played with the same guys who are here.

"So it's right that they're playing because they've been doing the hard yards."

Woolmer said the entire Pakistan squad had been drug tested before traveling to the West Indies and all were cleared.
"We're one of the few countries that do that," he said.

Pakistan plays its second warmup match against South Africa in Trinidad on Friday before relocating to Jamaica for the group stage.
"We're going to give everyone a run," he said. "Our strategy will be to do well in the warmups and gain confidence to try and get our blokes in form."

Woolmer said the team had settled well, with the only fitness worry over fast bowler Rana Naved, who has a cold. Naved was named in the 13-man squad for the Canada game.

Pakistan is seeking its first World Cup title since 1992, but with most pitches re-laid for the tournament, Woolmer said it was difficult to predict what would most influence games.

"It's going to be interesting because no one really knows what the surfaces are going to hold," he said.
As for Pakistan's chances, Woolmer replied: "Simply, I think they are as good as anybody else is."
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