KARACHI: Former Pakistan captain Salman Butt and pace bowler Mohammad Asif can return to cricket this week following five-year spot-fixing bans, but age and public hostility mean the pair face a hard road to redemption.
On Wednesday they will join left-arm quick Mohammad Amir, whose own ban was relaxed by the International Cricket Council six months ago, in being free to restart their careers.
The trio were suspended in 2010 for arranging no-balls to order during a Test match in England, as part of a complex betting scam uncovered by a tabloid newspaper sting that rocked cricket and also saw all three and their disgraced agent Mazhar Majeed serve time in jail.
Batsman Butt, now 30, had captained Pakistan to Test victories over Australia and England and looked set for a long period as the team's leader before his career crashed to a halt.
"My heart tells me I should wake up early in the morning and go to a ground and bat," he told AFP.
"It's the cricket field where I want to start my redemption and prove myself again."
Asif, who will be 33 in December, was already considered one of the finest exponents of swing bowling in the world and appeared set to become yet another Pakistani fast-bowling great until his suspension.
Asif said he was excited to be able to return to the game.
"It is definitely a long-awaited day for me," the lanky right-armer said. "I have started bowling in the nets and look forward to my return."
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has announced both players must restart their careers at club level but both may face serious opposition among officials and the country's cricket-mad public.
For all his feats on the field, Asif was always controversial off it. He had already failed two dope tests for drug use -- one of which resulted in a one-year ban in 2008.
He was also involved in an infamous locker room fight with fellow fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar in 2007, and was even accused by his film star girlfriend of swindling her out of $130,000.
Moreover, unlike Amir who confessed early on to his role in bowling deliberate no-balls during the Lord's Test of August 2010 in exchange for cash, both Butt and Asif denied their guilt until they had exhausted all legal avenues of appeal.
Butt, meanwhile, was widely blamed for coercing the young Amir into wrongdoing.
The PCB has devised a six-month roadmap for the duo, ordering them to play club and grade-two cricket before entering into first-class competition.
They are also required to lecture domestic players about the perils of fixing.
Age weighs heavily against the duo, particularly Asif who at 32 is now beyond the generally accepted peak years for a pace bowler.
Precocious Amir, who at 18 became the youngest player in history to take 50 Test wickets, received widespread sympathy from across the cricketing world at the time of his ban.
The PCB were able convince the ICC to relax his ban, allowing him to feature in domestic matches from April this year.
He took an impressive 22 wickets in four grade-two matches and is set to feature in the National Twenty20 tournament starting from Tuesday.
But a long lay-off exposed his fragile fitness, something which may hinder his early return to international cricket even though at 23 his best years could still be ahead.
"I am not looking for international cricket so soon. I have to work on my fitness and perform consistently then only I can expect to play at the top level," said Amir, who says he is targeting a comeback for Pakistan in the World Twenty20 in India next March.
If he succeeds there, he could theoretically tour England in July, returning to the country where he was caught fixing.
Butt, Asif and Amir may have been forced out of the sport in 2010, but Pakistan moved on under the leadership of batting stalwart Misbah-ul-Haq, who has captained his country to a record 18 Test wins including series victories over Australia and England.
Many of the current crop of players are said to be opposed to the trio's return, with some seen leaving the practice area once Amir started bowling in nets at the national academy in Lahore last week.
Some influential voices, like former captain Ramiz Raja have suggested they should never be picked again. But columnist Irfan Hussain said their crimes mirrored the corruption that is widespread in Pakistani society.
"When so many killers and crooks escape scot-free, it appears vindictive to impose a lifetime ban on foolish young sportsmen," he wrote in a local newspaper.
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