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The Stars of Pakistan’s Resurgence

By Jamie Alter for Cricket Next

Pakistan’s 3-0 sweep of England, the No. 1 Test team, in the UAE was the most glittering result for a team that has managed to hold its own on the field despite facing a mountain of problems off it. Here’s a look at the key players in Pakistan’s resurgence as a Test team.

Misbah-ul-Haq

Ten months ago, Misbah-ul-Haq was a condemned man whose time as an international cricketer seemed over after he was made the scapegoat for Pakistan’s defeat to India in the World Cup semi-final in Mohali. Today, he is being heralded as an astute leader of a team bristling with pride and rightful claims to being a top-level Test side. Handed the captaincy ahead of Pakistan’s series against South Africa in the UAE in 2010, the soft-spoken, almost laidback Misbah has been hugely influential in steering Pakistan from a host of troubles and to series wins over New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and England – not to forget a draw with South Africa – and just the anomaly of a 1-1 scoreline against West Indies.

He hasn’t always been a proactive captain – his reluctance to push for a win against Sri Lanka in Sharjah last November attracted criticism – but his numbers as leader have been highly impressive: 15 matches, 1165 runs, average 64.72, with one century and 12 fifties. That one century – an unbeaten 102 in the second innings at Basseterre – played a big role in Pakistan leveling the two-Test series in the West Indies in May 2011. Innings of 99 and 70 not out earned him the Man-of-the-Match award in Wellington in January 2011, and those were clutch innings in a draw that gave Pakistan their first series victory outside the subcontinent since a triumph in New Zealand in 2003-04, and their first anywhere since 2006-07. In the first innings of the second Test against England in Abu Dhabi, Misbah top-scored with 84 on day in which the opposition dominated, and what a key innings it proved.

Saeed Ajmal

If there is one player who personifies Pakistan’s new-found aggression and fluency, it is the leader of their immensely proficient spin attack. Ajmal, 34, has been a constant threat to opposing teams with his accurate, nagging and attacking offspin, with his doosra causing batsmen much strife. His role as a strike bowler – he has bowled 696 overs in those 12 Tests, the most for any Pakistan bowler – has taken pressure off Umar Gul and meant he has been relied on to consistently take wickets. His success is staggering.

In 12 Tests under Misbah, Ajmal has reaped 77 wickets an average of 22.63 and strike-rate of 54.20 – significantly lower than career figures of 26.70 and 61.20. Along the way he picked up Man-of-the-Match awards for eight wickets in a nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka and in Dubai and 10 – including a career-best 7 for 55 – in a 10-wicket win over England at the same venue. He was the leading Test wicket-taker in 2011, and so far this year he has grabbed 24 wickets in three Tests against England.

In this recent series, the England batsmen were largely baffled by Ajmal’s variety. In the second Test, he became the fastest Pakistan bowler to 100 Tests, and to make his achievement more remarkable, he has not played a single of his 20 Tests at home.

Abdur Rehman

If Ajmal has been an expected success during Pakistan’s run under Misbah, then the 31-year-old Abdur Rehman has been a surprise package. In 13 Tests, this canny left-arm spinner – enjoying unexpected success in his late-blooming career – has been a constant threat with 64 wickets at an average of 26.57. With an almost immaculate line and length he has attained turn and dip while convincing batsmen to play back when they should have been forward. Nothing summed this up better than the series against England, when he made several reputed batsmen appear hapless against spin, none more so than Eoin Morgan.

However, it was Rehman’s Man-of-the-Match performance against New Zealand at Hamilton in January 2011 that really made him a certainty in the playing XI. His three wickets in each innings and a crucial innings of 28 helped propel Pakistan to victory in the first Test. This year, a career-best 6 for 25 routed England for 72 as Pakistan grabbed the series in Abu Dhabi, and in the final Test his 5 for 40 was decisive in Pakistan reducing England’s lead to 42. His 19 wickets in the series played a huge role in a 3-0 scoreline, and highlighted what a key ingredient Rehman has been for Pakistan.

Like Ajmal, he has bowled a lot of overs – 683.4 – while rarely allowing the batsmen to dominate. Rehman’s batting has been handy too, with an average of 13.s8 and a half-century offering some stability to the lower order.

Umar Gul

The only fast bowler to play consistently under Misbah, Umar Gul has carried himself with discipline all throughout. Ajmal and Rehman have hogged the wickets, but Gul’s 49 victims at 29.79 have been every bit as crucial in the team’s success.
The reliance on spin has eased Gul’s workload – he has bowled 452.5 overs in 13 matches – and this has undoubtedly led to the tall fast bowler not breaking down from injury, as he was prone to do so earlier in his career. His eight-wicket haul at Wellington was a stand-out effort in overseas conditions, and even on tracks in the UAE he has plugged away relentlessly, as 29 wickets from eight matches show.

In the first Test in Abu Dhabi, Gul responded to a flat surface with a hostile spell on the third day – during which he surpassed 150 Test wickets – as his new-ball incursions bagged him four wickets before Ajmal and Rehman wrapped up the rest. In the third Test in Abu Dhabi, Gul’s four wickets on the final day set the course of the match categorically towards Pakistan. The spinners have been the talking point of Pakistan’s success, but Gul’s role cannot he underestimated.

Mohammad Hafeez

At last looking like he belongs at Test-match level, Mohammad Hafeez has flourished in his latest avatar as opener and key ingredient in Pakistan’s spin-heavy bowling attack.

With the bat, he has offered solidity to a top order that has for too long been shaky, scoring 967 runs in 15 Tests at an average of 38.68, including two centuries and four fifties. With Taufeeq Umar – another cricketer enjoying a new lease on his international career – Hafeez has stitched together three century stands and four of 50 or more. For a side that used to regularly chop and change openers during the last decade, Hafeez’s pairing with Taufeeq over 15 Tests has been nothing short of solid.

Relied on heavily with the ball – he has bowled 250 overs – Hafeez has repaid the faith with 51 wickets at 26.36. His brisk offspin has helped Ajmal and Rehman take much-needed breaks in the field, and when tossed the new ball in Guyana he responded with wickets. The highlight of Hafeez’s run over these 15 Tests was a fine all-round performance against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, where Hafeez followed a quick-fire 119 with four wickets and a brisk 38 in a successful chase.

Taufeeq Umar

Given an extended run as opener after a four-year hiatus, the 30-year-old Taufeeq has scored 1055 runs in 15 Tests under Misbah while averaging 39.07. His batting hasn’t always been attractive, as a strike-rate of 43.18 indicates, but the fact that he has been able to deliver platforms has been immense. Two fifties in New Zealand helped blunt the threat of the home team’s pace bowlers in seam-friendly conditions, and his 135 in the second innings against West Indies at Basseterre helped Pakistan level the series.

A career-best 236 followed against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi, as Pakistan drew the first Test. It was a marathon effort that helped grind Sri Lanka patiently through the second day, and Taufeeq was just pipped by Kumar Sangakkara for the Man-of-the-Match award. A seventh Test hundred would come against Bangladesh soon after.

Taufeeq’s form trailed off after a fifty in the first innings of the series against England, but his success in Pakistan’s resurgence merits further persistence.

Younis Khan

The former Pakistan captain has come back excellently from a ban imposed by the PCB after allegations that he had been partially responsible for infighting within the team. His 1138 runs at 66.94, including four centuries and four fifties, have been invaluable to Pakistan.
His presence in the middle order has steadied the team numerous times, not least when he scored centuries against South Africa and Sri Lanka to go with twin fifties against New Zealand at Wellington. But his most responsible innings came in the second innings of the third Test against England, as an out of form Younis took the game away from the opposition with a superbly crafted century. Yet again, he had summoned the resolve to produce a century when his detractors were gunning for him.

Azhar Ali

Of the younger players that have flourished under Misbah, 26-year-old Azhar Ali has been the most successful. His 1220 runs from 15 matches at 50.83 include two centuries and 11 fifties, and he has been a consistent performer at No. 3. Three consecutive half-centuries against South Africa got him going after an indifferent start to his career, and from there he ploughed on with fifties against each of the teams he played. His two centuries – 100 against Sri Lanka and 157 against England – were proof that Azhar has a long career ahead of him.

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England crashes to defeat to Pakistan spinners

By The Sydney Morning Hearld

Left-arm spinner Abdul Rehman took a career best 6-25 to help Pakistan humble England by 72 runs in the second Test in Abu Dhabi, to giving Pakistan unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series.
The 31-year-old twice took two wickets in successive overs to dent England’s chase after Andrew Strauss’s side was set a 145-run target on a weary fourth-day Abu Dhabi Stadium pitch.

England was all out for 72 – its lowest total against Pakistan in all Tests.
Rehman’s effort overshadowed Monty Panesar’s 6-62, in his first Test for England in 30 months, which finished Pakistan’s second innings at 214 in the morning.

This is England’s first series defeat after being unbeaten in its previous nine since a loss to the West Indies in early 2009 – a sequence which saw it rise to world No.1 in the Test rankings in August.
Pakistan won the first Test in Dubai by 10 wickets. The third Test will also be played in Dubai, from Friday.

Skipper Misbah-ul Haq said Pakistan wanted to make a match out of it after setting a tricky target.
“We knew that it would be difficult so we wanted to make a match out of it,” said Misbah, who has now won eight Tests with one defeat since taking over the captaincy in October 2010.

“Our bowlers, led by Rehman, responded well and this is a great win.” Strauss showed his disappointment at England’s woeful effort.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said Strauss, whose side last lost two Tests in a row against South Africa in July 2008. “We must acknowledge how well Pakistan bowled and they thoroughly deserved the series win.”

Rehman was ably assisted by off-spinners Saeed Ajmal (3-22) and Mohammad Hafeez (1-11) in a match in which spinners dominated from the first day.
England lost its top four batsmen in the space of just 37 balls after an extra cautious start on a difficult pitch. Strauss top scored with 32 before he became one of Rehman’s victims during his maiden five-wicket haul.

In the penultimate over before tea, Rehman trapped Kevin Pietersen (one) and two balls later bowled Eoin Morgan (duck) to raise hopes of an unlikely win for Pakistan.

Sensing it could only upset its rival through early wickets, Pakistan opened the bowling with Hafeez, who responded well by catching Alastair Cook (seven) off his own bowling after England had edged cautiously to 21 by the 15th over.
Ian Bell, promoted to No.3 after Jonathan Trott was unwell, was all at sea against master spinner Ajmal and his tentative push went through his legs to hit the stumps. He made only three.

Pietersen, who has been woefully out of form with just 16 runs in the series, managed one before Rehman trapped him and in the same over had the equally out-of-form Morgan bowled to dent England’s hopes of a victory. Rehman then accounted for Trott (one) and Stuart Broad (duck) in the same over to leave England 7-68.

Ajmal dismissed Graeme Swann (duck) and Matt Prior (18) to reach 100 Test wickets in his 19th match, before James Anderson was caught off Rehman to give Pakistan a sensational win.

Earlier, Pakistan lost its last six wickets for 89 runs after resuming at 4-125, with all hopes pinned on Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq. Panesar took three of those wickets to finish with his eighth five-wicket haul in Tests. Azhar Ali (68) and Asad Shafiq (43) added 88 for the fifth wicket before Panesar struck.

The Khan of the Season

BY E. Shahid for The Khaleej Times

When Imran Khan is around, there are more jealous husbands than worried batsmen. The famous remark made about the handsome Pathan cricketer, who took the subcontinent by storm in the 1970s and 80s, is symptomatic of the aura of the man that transcended sporting excellence. Despite the fierce cricketing rivalry, Imran was admired both in India and Pakistan, and continues to be a revered figure across the world of cricket.
Intensity and self-belief stood out in his performances on the field and charisma and poise surrounded him off it. Imran added virtues of honesty and missionary zeal to his personality when he single-handedly launched a cancer hospital for the poor and, more recently, a rural university in Pakistan. With his coming of age in the world of politics, it appears that the same set of qualities will hold him in good stead. Or is it?

To an outsider uninformed about the intricacies and conspiracy theories of Pakistani politics, Imran brings a breath of fresh air. He offers a glimmer of hope to an embattled country and a much needed respite from its present set of politicians. He combines neo-liberal political thought with a comprehensive worldview, traditional approach and a clean image in the face of rampant corruption. As a package, he promises a political transformation that can be invested in.

It appears that Imran has managed to bring a fragmented country under one umbrella defying the politics of identity, regionalism, sectarianism and even feudalism. He appears to have appealed to all segments of the society at least across a large swath of urban population, especially the youth who hold key to the future.

Imran has lured into his fold senior statesmen, veteran politicians, some even controversial ones, artists and army men. If the grapevine is to be believed, Imran Khan’s biggest catch is going to be former army general and President Pervez Musharraf, who is also trying to make a comeback into Pakistan politics.

Imran’s political discourse has also matured. In his public speeches, he stresses on programmes and policies and seems to have prescriptions for most ills facing the country, especially its ailing economy. If all this is taken at face value, Imran Khan is a godsend not just for Pakistan but also for the neighbourhood and the region as a whole.

Interestingly, not everyone is willing to label this as genuine transformation. People who matter – namely Pakistanis in and outside the country – often take disparaging positions on the subject. An Abu Dhabi taxi driver who hails from Swat valley paints a completely different picture from that of a Karachiite IT professional working in Dubai Media City.

One such individual says the rise of Imran is ‘escapism’ on a mass scale. Expecting an ‘elitist’ like him to change things is superficial, even idealistic, way of looking at the state of affairs in Pakistan. The argument is that Imran only promises to be a messiah and doesn’t have the wherewithal to become one.

The bottom line is that a lot of Pakistanis still do not see Imran’s upsurge as change, a positive one at that, and unless a majority believes in this change, it is going to be a futile exercise. There are bound to be differences of opinion but stakeholders must see change as a necessity and not necessarily as a means to an end. Pontification apart, outside perspective on Pakistan will always be interesting because it will reflect what the country should be instead of what it really is and is going to be. Unfortunately, the response usually ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous and is seldom a balanced one.

Imran is not making waves as a run-of-the-mill politician. Far from it, he is promising change in Pakistan and change doesn’t come easy. There is a natural resistance to such transformation, especially in a country where change has meant military rule or martial law. Imran is bound to make mistakes in the process but by putting faith in him the country would have at least tried and failed instead of reposing faith in those who breed inequality and deliver squalor.

Jacksonville Jaguars- Allah’s NFL Team?

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

The last few days have not been easy ones for me. I have had to watch as my adopted homeland, the United States, is accused by Pakistan, the nation of my forefathers, for being responsible for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers by “friendly” fire.

So it wasn’t hard to imagine that once again I would be hurting for being both American and Muslim as I was on 9/11, and now I am once again feeling the pinch of being both Pakistani and American as well. Believe it or not, you can love two countries; just ask Italian or Irish Americans. I am sure you know that this is not the first time and certainly will not be the last time that as a Pakistani American I will be reeling from news concerning Pakistan. Yet the covert attack and neutralization of Osama Bin Laden in May of this year in Pakistan, a country long suspected to be his hiding place, have all but shattered any remaining doubts to the American public regarding which side of the fence Pakistan finds itself. As President Bush so famously said “You’re either with us, or against us” to President Pervez Musharraf immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2011.

At least since Bin Laden’s killing on May 2, 2011, as far as the average American, John Q Public is concerned, it appears that Pakistan was against us all along, and merely only was paying lip service the last 10 years. However staffers at the US State Department, all the way up to Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Obama will rightly admit, that this simply is not the case. Pakistan has been a difficult ally to be sure, but the country has been an ally nonetheless and has proven time and time again to be invaluable not just in this current fight for the strategic direction of Afghanistan, but also was critical in the last great fight involving this land against the former USSR in the ‘80’s.

One can go even further back and talk about the historically strong US and Pakistan relations that go all the way back to at least President Eisenhower and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a security pact similar to NATO, but for Asia and parts of the Pacific, it was an organization of which Pakistan and the US comprised membership, along with six other nations namely Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand. This was an eclectic bunch of nations to be sure, but a defense pact tying Pakistan and the US, this once brought the two together in a treaty of mutual defense and cooperation going back as early as 1954.

One would also be remiss if we forget that the famous US Air force pilot Gary Powers flew on a U-2 secret mission from Pakistan’s Peshawar airbase at the request of Eisenhower and at Pakistan’s acquiescence. He had been doing a reconnaissance mission against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War when his plane was shot down causing the then famous 1960 U-2 incident. Amazingly, it was less than just a couple generations ago when President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously called Pakistan America’s “most allied ally in Asia. Wow, as the old Virginia Slim’s cigarette ad tagline used to go “ You’ve come a long way baby!” Haven’t you, Pakistan?

I suppose before we get lost on another few paragraphs on US-Pakistan alliances of old and their longstanding history of cooperation and friendship, whether from the days of the Cold War or the far more recent war on terror, let me get back to the original purpose of this article. So, there I was, in my now seemingly regular funk, on account of all the rapidly downward spiraling US-Pak relations, and then, there it was, a glimmer of hope for a bit of positive news. Maybe a chance for something unrelated to terror, bombs, Taliban, Shiite-Sunni violence, blasphemy laws, honor killings or anyone of the myriad of utterly negative topics that so easily and regularly grace the top of the headline news on any cable news channel on any given day regarding Pakistan.

So here finally was some positive news regarding this nation. Initially I wondered if perhaps this feel good story would be along the lines of the usual sports filled beacons of hope for the otherwise unfortunate Pakistani masses such as in the form of when an Amir Khan gains world boxing glory or when an Imran Khan led cricket team of old wins a Cricket World Cup or maybe it was similar to the legend of the Khan boys, Jahanghir and Jansher Khan who were busy conquering the world of squash (racquetball) for decades. Perhaps this news I so eagerly awaited to get me out of this rut was related to a scientific or professional endeavor that highlighted Pakistani achievements and success stories such as that of Pakistani born neurologist Dr Malik M Hasan, the man who single-handedly helped change the medical industry in the US for the better, when over the course of a few years through a process of mergers and acquisitions, he helped eventually form HSI, a multi-billion dollar healthcare provider that in 1993, which was an organization with about 1.4 million members, 40,000 doctors, and nearly 400 member hospitals! His innovative and entrepreneurial management style led to the very first modern Health Management Organization (HMO) in the United States, and thereby brought more affordable healthcare to the vast majority of Americans in the 1980’s. Dr Hasan eventually grew the business to be worth more than $10 billion dollars and countless thousands jobs for professionals through many midwestern and western states.

Maybe a boldly similar idea or solution in today’s rapidly increasing costs of healthcare and lack of insurance for over 40 million Americans can come, if not from a Pakistani American like Dr Hasan, then perhaps from another of the world’s brightest who still yearn to come to these shores with their dreams and aspirations for success and achieving a piece of the American Dream that millions of their countryman from Europe had done years before them. Along the way, people like Dr Hasan employed hundreds and thousands of Americans and become a mega job creator, kind of like the ones that Republicans say they love.

It could be that the Pakistani American feel good story bringing much needed good news to the Pakistani global diaspora, and indeed by that realization, at the very least, to a Pakistani American like myself was going to be similar to a fellow Lahore born compatriot like Tariq Farid, the founder of the wildly popular Edible Arrangements, a US based international franchise that specializes in fresh fruit arrangements for special occasions and gifts. With nearly a 1000 locations in the US and a few countries abroad, I am sure many a Congressman from both Red and Blue states would love to attract job creators like him to their state and lure his growing and profitable company, during these economically depressed times, to their state from their Headquarters in Connecticut.

I suppose I could go on and on at the long list of distinguished Pakistani Americans from the renowned NASA physicist, Dr Bashir A Syed, to Gibran Latif Hamdan, the first person of Pakistani descent to play in the NFL. Other major contributions not in the field of science, sports or business, yet still as inspirational to Pakistani Americans could have been the story of the American hero of Pakistani descent, Sgt. Wasim Khan, the first Purple Heart winner from that nation who won the award for valor during Operation Iraqi Freedom, costing him numerous injuries while fighting for our freedoms.

Certainly no one to date has better demonstrated a greater sacrifice to this nation than the story of Cpl. Kareem R Khan, another Pakistani American, one who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his beloved country, the United States, when he gave his life for American freedom, liberty and ideals dying on Iraqi soil during combat there. He also earned the Purple Heart and has the honor of being buried at the resting place of fallen American heroes, the venerated Arlington National Cemetery. One can do their own Google search for a list of Pakistani Americans to find out that this list comprises far more accomplished and good citizens of Pakistani descent than the occasional delusional individual like Faisal Shahzad, of the Times Square bomb fame.

So you bet it was good news for me to hear a few days ago that a successful and hard working American businessman and multi-millionaire from the midwest, Shahid Khan, a Pakistani American owner of a large automobile parts manufacturer, Flex-N-Gate, had just bought an NFL team, the Jacksonville Jaguars! My rare good optimism however seems to perhaps been ill placed though because it seems that even a positive and notable news story like this can quickly turn into something far more twisted and sinister as witnessed by the scores of Islamophobic and racial comments being left on the Jacksonville Jaguars Facebook page and other sports blogs and boards, hours since the sale and the origins and national background of the new owner became public. The deal which still has to go to an NFL owner’s vote would only then be complete and final. Whether the NFL owner’s vote affirmatively on the deal or not, the rancid and clearly Un-American comments on the team’s fan page demonstrate that a majority of the local fans of this NFL team seem only to care about his Pakistani background and not of the fact that he is committed to staying and keeping the team in the small Jacksonville market and that he is a genuine fan of football and by all accounts would make a great manager/owner of the franchise.

The sad fact remains that there is a possibility that despite all the countless contributions to this great nation made by Pakistani Americans, many of these die hard football fans have no problem with risking losing their team to a different owner who would take the team out possibly west to the vacant Los Angeles market than to have a “Paki” keep the team in Florida’s small Jacksonville market and try and build a contender there.

Maybe its his IRS troubles that Shahid had a few years ago that prevented him from buying the St Louis Ram’s majority ownership stake last year or maybe it really is his very interesting moustache that scares people away. Regardless, I will gladly take either reason for his bid not being approved than anything that points to his national origin or racial makeup. Afterall, us Americans should never forget the words of the late great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr when he said that we should ”not judge a man by the color of his skin, but rather by the content of his character.” All I know is that this Pakistani American still keeps alive Dr King’s dream. So no amount of paranoia should let the die-hard Jaguar fans fear that Muslims and Allah are on their way to taking over their beloved NFL franchise. Now gentlemen, let’s play ball!

Manzer Munir, a proud American of Pakistani descent, is a former US State Department Foreign Service Officer Management Selectee, and the founder of Pakistanis for Peace. He is also an often tormented fan of the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL as well as having the good fortune of being a lifelong fan of Kansas Jayhawk Basketball.

Trust Deficit with Pakistan Shrinking: Singh

As Reported by The Express-Tribune via AFP

 

 

The leaders of India and Pakistan will meet on the sidelines of a regional summit this week, as the nuclear-armed rivals seek to push a tentative rapprochement in their fractious relationship.

Talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani will take place at the summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations that opens Thursday in the Maldives.

India’s foreign minister said Wednesday that a “trust deficit” with Pakistan was shrinking as he headed for a regional summit, in a clear sign of warming relations between the neighbours.

“The trust deficit with Pakistan is shrinking,” S.M. Krishna said on board his flight to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in the Maldives, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

He also said that it was necessary for Pakistan and India to develop a joint strategy to fight terror in the region, the agency reported.

Their meeting follows what Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai described as “positive indicators” from Pakistan in recent weeks that it is serious about reducing tensions.

An Indian military helicopter which strayed into Pakistani territory last month was promptly released along with its crew and returned to India, avoiding what in the past could easily have escalated into a diplomatic row.

And last week the Pakistani cabinet approved a proposal to grant India the status of “most favoured nation” in a move towards normalising trade relations.

“These are I would say indications of forward movement,” Mathai said, adding that “all aspects” of the India-Pakistan relationship would be discussed during the Singh-Gilani talks.

The two prime ministers last met in March when Gilani accepted Singh’s invitation to watch the India-Pakistan cricket World Cup semi-final. They last held formal talks at the 2010 SAARC summit in Bhutan.

Talks between the neighbours’ foreign ministers in July failed to produce a major breakthrough, but both sides signalled a warming of ties, with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani speaking of a “new era of cooperation.”

But efforts to reduce tensions have been complicated by the increasing influence of Afghanistan in the bilateral equation.

Indian involvement in Afghanistan is sensitive, with Pakistan vehemently opposed to its arch foe meddling in what it considers its backyard. Islamabad’s suspicions were fuelled when Afghanistan and India signed a strategic partnership pact last month.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai will also attend the SAARC summit, along with the leaders of other member nations Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Previous summits of the regional body have been largely overshadowed by the India-Pakistan dynamic — a fact that Mathai acknowledged with regret.

“We would like the focus to remain essentially on the common business of SAARC … and hope that the focus will not be diverted to one single event,” he said. The summit is being held in Addu, on the southern Maldives’ island of Gan.

Players Get Prison Terms in Fixing Case

By John F Burns for The New York Times

The judge in London’s monthlong cricket corruption trial imposed prison sentences Thursday on the four men involved, including a 30-month jail term for Salman Butt, the captain of Pakistan’s national team.

The longest term, 32 months, went to Mazhar Majeed, the agent for the three players sentenced. Butt’s teammate Mohammad Asif drew a one-year sentence, and another teammate, Mohammad Amir, received six months. Amir, 19, is to serve his time in a institution for young offenders.

The judge, Jeremy Cooke, who admonished the men for “the insidious effect of your actions on the international game,” said that if they behaved they would be released under supervision halfway through their sentences. He ordered the players to pay compensation toward the cost of their prosecution, with the highest sum, about $49,600, imposed on Butt.

The scene in Southwark Crown Court, close to the Thames in South London, was tense. Butt, 27, and Asif, 28, appeared stunned as the judge read out the sentences. Afterward, security guards led the men to their cells. The lawyer for Amir said his client planned to appeal.

The trial, which rocked the cricket world, centered on a sting operation conducted by the now-defunct News of the World newspaper during Pakistan’s tour of England in summer 2010. It followed years of suspicions that powerful gambling syndicates based on the Indian subcontinent were bribing players to fix parts of high-profile matches, or even to throw them entirely.

The case hinged on a secretly recorded meeting at a London hotel at which Majeed took £150,000 in marked notes, or about $240,000, from a reporter posing as an agent for the syndicates. The three players were found guilty of a scam that involved bowling three so-called no balls — foul deliveries — at predetermined points in a test match between Pakistan and England at Lord’s, the London ground that is the spiritual home of cricket.

Majeed also boasted at the meeting that he could fix matches involving Pakistan outright in return for about $1.6 million.

Much of the concern has focused on Pakistan’s national team, but a special corruption unit of the International Cricket Council, the Dubai-based governing body of the world game, has been investigating the possibility that other teams have been involved in similar scandals.

Cricket experts have said corruption has the capacity to destroy the game unless policing is expanded, perhaps to the extent of posting officials from the unit, which includes former police officers, at all top international matches.

Amir, 18 at the time of the match, entered a guilty plea to the corruption charges early in the trial, a fact that was sealed on Cooke’s orders until the trial’s resolution. At sentencing, Cooke, addressing Amir through an Urdu interpreter, said that in determining his punishment he had taken into account Amir’s age, his vulnerability to pressure from the older players and his plea. “It took courage,” he said, to plead guilty, according to a BBC account. “You come from a village background where life is hard.”

Earlier this year, the players were barred from all forms of cricket for five years by the International Cricket Council, which had conducted its own inquiry. Cooke said he took that into account in passing sentence, but some powerful figures in the game have said publicly that the punishment, especially in Butt’s case, should be reviewed in light of the evidence at the trial and extended to expulsion for life.

Cooke scolded Butt at the hearing, saying he deserved the heaviest sentence of the three players because the evidence showed that he was “the orchestrator of this thing.” Cooke also said Butt had done “a terrible thing” in corrupting Amir, who was regarded by many as a natural successor to the legendary fast bowlers in Pakistan’s past.

In 1992, Pakistan won the sport’s World Cup, and it has continued to be an international power. For many of the nation’s 170 million people, cricket has been a source of pride in a society plagued by a history of military coups and political corruption. Pakistan has also been accused by the United States of conniving with the Taliban in mounting suicide bombings.

Inevitably, cricket fans will compare the penalties imposed on Butt with the fate of Hanse Cronje, the former South African captain who until now had been the most prominent player caught in a corruption scandal.

In 2001, after a lengthy inquiry in South Africa into match-fixing between South Africa and India, Cronje was barred from the sport for life. He died the next year, at 32, in a plane crash in Johannesburg. Two other South African players were suspended for six months but later resumed their international careers.

Imran Khan Laps Up Acclaim in Pakistan

Declan Walsh for The Guardian

For a decade Imran Khan has occupied the hinterland, if not quite the wilderness, of Pakistani politics. The cricket legend has won just one seat in parliament – his own – and been scorned by critics as a celebrity windbag at best and a Taliban sympathiser at worst.

But this weekend Khan dramatically transformed his standing at a stroke, bursting onto the national stage with an impressive show of street power that jolted Pakistan’s largest parties and turned received wisdom on its head.

At least 100,000 people gathered to hear Khan issue a rousing call to political “revolution” spiced with strident denunciations of government corruption.

“Declare your assets or face the wrath of the people,” he shouted, drawing roars of approval, in the largest rally for decades in Lahore, Pakistan’s political heartland.

The crowd reflected the vein that Khan has tapped – young, urban and mostly educated Pakistanis who have grown disillusioned by the chaotic politicking and inept governance of the traditional political elite. “It’s an activation of the upper middle class – people who, over the years, haven’t had a voice in Pakistani politics,” said political analyst Mosharraf Zaidi.

In contrast Khan enjoys a reputation for being incorruptible and straight-talking, polished by a glint of fame. Also in Lahore was his ex-wife Jemima, who remains a supporter, and Jennifer Robinson, a London media lawyer whose clients include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “Yes we Khan,” she tweeted afterwards.

The rally set the political scene abuzz with speculation; “Imran’s Lahore rally stuns opponents” read the headline in Dawn. But large questions loom about whether he can transform his acclaim into power.

Despite his claims of a “revolution” against President Asif Ali Zardari, Khan is more likely to hurt Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader who considers Lahore his political base. Sunday’s rally crowned a wave of smaller yet well-attended rallies across the surrounding Punjab province over the past three months.

“It’s been slowly taking root. People are getting disillusioned, they saw Imran as more dynamic and focused,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran journalist and analyst.

National elections are not scheduled until 2013, although a midterm Senate election next March – which is likely to see the Pakistan People’s party led by Zardari seize control of the upper house of parliament – has caused the political temperature to soar.

Electoral success for Khan would likely fracture politics further – a prospect that would please Pakistan’s spymasters and generals, who have traditionally liked their civilian leaders both shaken and stirred. Khan has faced accusations that his new-found popularity is being quietly boosted by the military, and his Lahore speech was notable for his lack of criticism of the army. Khan denies any link. “I think Imran and the army will get along very well – if he ever comes to power,” said Sethi. He entered politics in 1996 as one of the most loved public figures in a cricket-crazy nation, and the founder of a cancer hospital that remains one of Pakistan’s most respected charities.

But his politics have been more controversial. He supported Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999, sided with Islamist mullahs and, in 2009, opposed an army operation against the Taliban in the Swat valley, arguing it was better to talk than fight. He boycotted the 2008 election, a move that relegated him to the chat show fringe of politics.

But in recent years he has steadily built his popularity among young Pakistanis, capitalising on disillusionment with political corruption and anger at US drone strikes in the tribal belt.

His Lahore rally echoed many of those themes. Pakistan wanted “independence, not slavery” in its relations with the US, he said, before announcing that he would be leaving for China hours later. “I am leaving at the invitation of the Chinese government. Friendship with them will be pursued to the fullest,” he said.

But critics said that while his speech was high on inflammatory rhetoric – including gratuitous attacks at some rivals and one diplomat – it was lacking in concrete prescriptions. “His next challenge is to show that he understands Pakistan’s problems – and can formulate policy to deal with them” said Zaidi.

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