Karachi: Pakistan cricket faces an abysmal future unless it cleans up the game and institutes sweeping reforms after three key players were banned on corruption charges, former players and commentators said on Monday.
Former Test captain Salman Butt was banned for 10 years, with five years suspended, bowler Mohammad Asif for 7 years, with two suspended, and teenage pace sensation Mohammad Aamer for five years.
The bans follow alleged incidents during last year's Test against England at Lord's, when Britain's News of the World newspaper claimed players were willing to bowl no-balls deliberately.
The newspaper said the three colluded in a spot-fixing betting scam organised by British-based agent Mazhar Majeed.
On Friday, British prosecutors charged the players and Majeed with corruption, summoning them to appear in a London court on March 17.
"Pakistan's cricket image is tainted badly," former captain Zaheer Abbas conceded.
"But on the other hand the latest bans give us a last chance to root out corruption and indiscipline from our cricket or else we might be thrown out of international cricket," he told AFP.
After the scandal surfaced, the International Cricket Council (ICC) ordered the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to keep tabs on players through an integrity committee and introduce harsher punishments in their annual contracts.
PCB complied, refusing to clear some tainted players for selection in the national squad, introducing a corruption code for domestic cricket and bringing in anti-corruption lectures - all steps praised by the ICC.
Despite these measures, Imran Khan, the only captain ever to lead Pakistan to World Cup victory, called for major upheavals.
"Our cricket system is wrong," said Khan, now head of the political party Teherik-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice).
"The chairman of the PCB should be an elected person held accountable for all such incidents.
"What prevails in our system is that the patron of the PCB (President Asif Ali Zardari) appoints the chairman who doesn't ban key players because he fears his team will lose and he will get sacked," he told AFP.
Many believe Pakistan missed the chance to purge cricket after a match-fixing inquiry led by judge Malik Mohammad Qayyum between 1998-2000 saw Salim Malik and Ata-ur Rehman banned for life.
Six other players - Wasim Akram, current national coach Waqar Younis, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Saeed Anwar and Akram Raza - were fined.
"I conducted a judicial inquiry which could have served as a way to purge our cricket but my recommendations to keep close eyes on Pakistan players were now followed," Qayyum said recently.
Former captain Ramiz Raja said the latest bans will serve as a warning to future players.
"It will go a long way towards putting the fear of God in all Pakistan cricketers and cricketers of the world, that cheating doesn't pay and rogues have no place in this beautiful game," said Ramiz.
The local media also raised hopes of a silver lining to the punishments.
"Whether the ICC verdict will affect the culture of illegal betting that has infected cricket, is doubtful. What it will have done is put down a marker for other who may follow the example of the trio," said English-language daily The News.
"Pakistan must use the opportunity to prevent a repeat of such a scandal," cautioned Pakistan's oldest newspaper Dawn.