Pakistan cricket trio released by police

London: Pakistan`s scandal-hit cricket team sought to focus Saturday on the next stage of its England tour after British police questioned three of its star players over an alleged betting scam.

Bowlers Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif and Test captain Salman Butt were all released without charge Friday after the interviews at a police station near the "home of cricket", Lord`s in north London.

But the trio -- who protest their innocence -- are still battling charges under the International Cricket Council`s (ICC) anti-corruption code and have been barred from playing any further matches pending the outcome of their case.

Aamer, at 18 one of the game`s hottest talents, Asif, 27, and Butt, 25, had already withdrawn from the England tour claiming "mental torture", missing Pakistan`s eight-run win over county side Somerset on Thursday.

The allegations all relate to the fourth and final Test between England and Pakistan at Lord`s, which finished with an England win last week, in which a tabloid newspaper said deliberate no-balls had been bowled.

Team manager Yawar Saeed said Friday he was "not happy" about the situation but was trying to focus on his duties ahead of the forthcoming two Twenty20 internationals and five one-day games against England.

The team was due to train in Cardiff on Saturday ahead of their first Twenty20 fixture in the Welsh capital on Sunday.

Detectives questioned the accused trio Friday at Kilburn police station in what their lawyer Elizabeth Robertson stressed were voluntary interviews.

"At no time were they placed under arrest, they were free to leave at any time and they have answered all of the questions that were put to them and have been released without charge or conditions," she told reporters afterwards.

The head of the ICC`s anti-corruption and security unit had earlier defended its decision to charge the players.

"The conclusion that we have come to is that there is a really arguable case to answer," Ronnie Flanagan told a press conference at the Lord`s ground.

He said the players had been charged under Article 2 of the ICC code, which relates to offences including corruption, betting and misuse of inside information, but declined to go into details.

Calling it a complex investigation, he said that if the players were found guilty they could face a life ban.

ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat said the case could be the worst example of corruption in cricket since former South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was revealed a decade ago to have accepted money from bookmakers in a bid to influence games, as well as trying to entice his team-mates to do the same.

The sanctions have infuriated the Pakistani authorities, in particular Pakistani High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who has said he believes the players are innocent and has suggested they may have been set up.

"I met the cricketers for two hours, cross-questioned them, got to the bottom of it and concluded that they were innocent," Hasan told the BBC Friday.

"The ICC had no business to take this action. The ICC is just playing to the public gallery."

Hasan suggested that Indian bookmakers had a part to play in the affair.

ICC chief Lorgat said there was "no truth that there is a conspiracy against Pakistani cricket".

He expressed his "extreme disappointment and sadness" at the situation, but repeated that "we will not tolerate any sort of corruption in the sport."

The accused players have 14 days to request a tribunal hearing at which they can challenge the charges.

Meanwhile an ICC spokesman told AFP the trio had been dropped from its annual awards list, where Aamer was in the running for the best emerging player award and Asif was listed in the best cricketer category.

The News of the World newspaper alleged that it paid Mazhar Majeed, an agent for several Pakistan players, 150,000 pounds (185,000 euros, 230,000 dollars) in return for advance knowledge of pre-arranged no-balls -- normally accidental -- which could then be bet upon.

The 35-year-old has since been arrested and bailed by British police.

Bureau Report