THERE IS just over a month before England play their first match in the World Cup but the circumstantial evidence coming from their opening game in Sharjah, where they conceded their highest-ever score, is that home advantage will have to be considerable for Alec Stewart's side to even get near the final, let alone win it.
According to bookmakers and pundits alike, Pakistan are not even one of the favourites for that competition, yet they managed to thrash England here by 90 runs. Stewart's boys in blue have now lost seven of their last eight one-day internationals.
Not content with scoring 323 for 5, 10 runs more than the previous record which the West Indies notched up in St Vincent in 1994, Pakistan removed any notion of a counter-attack when Shoaib Akhtar, combining hostility with blistering pace, took three early wickets. Following as it did so soon after the indignities meted out by Ijaz Ahmed, who flayed 137 from 130 balls, and Inzamam-ul-Haq, who made 59, England began to sink from view even faster than the setting sun and were finally all out for 233 in front of a disappointing crowd of around 2,000.
Bowling at speeds consistently above 91 miles per hour, Shoaib would have been a handful on a length of putty and later in the piece he nearly decapitated Robert Croft with a rapid, but illegal, bouncer. Come to think of it, the only thing currently quicker in these parts are the taxi drivers who ply their kamikaze trade up and down the highway between Sharjah and Dubai.
Mind you, the bulk of the damage had essentially been done before Shoaib had got the white ball in his hand and successfully chasing scores of 300-plus are rare against Test-playing countries.
England have only conceded such scores on four occasions. More worrying, especially for those who take note of trends, is that three of them have come in the last calendar year, the others being against the West Indies in Trinidad last April and, more recently, against Sri Lanka in Adelaide.
To be fair, England had few things go their way on the day. Pakistan are playing some superb one-day cricket at the moment and, once Stewart had lost the toss, a lapse that consigned his team - despite the later 3pm start - to fielding when temperatures were nudging the 100 degree mark, the bad omens were writ large.
What perhaps made matters worse was that the searing Shamal which blew in from the great empty quarter of Saudi Arabia had switched to become a pleasant sea breeze by the time Pakistan came to field under the floodlights.
Stewart, who has had a dismal time winning the toss since assuming the captaincy - he has lost 12 of the last 17 - did his best to rally his flagging troops, but short of 11 sprinklers, they looked beyond revival.
The heat obviously played havoc with his memory as well and having repeated himself ad nauseam that England's tactics would be consistent with winning the tournament, rather than perhaps experimenting for the World Cup, he placed a heavy burden on the debutant Andrew Flintoff, by bowling him at the death.
For Flintoff, whose seven overs cost 62 runs - his last two balls of the innings both went for six - the experience was bound to be a humbling one. Perhaps this is what Stewart intended when he asked him to bowl in place of the vastly more experienced Adam Hollioake.
As it was, Flintoff's batting almost made good the debt as he belted 50 from 51 balls, a power display that included four mighty sixes. In fact at one stage, when he and Graeme Hick were assaulting Pakistan's support bowling to all parts of the Emirates, England almost got themselves on course for an upset.
Having added 94 in 17 overs however, both fell to Saqlain's wily off- spin within the space of four balls, the omnipresent Shoaib taking two fine catches to complement his dynamic efforts with the ball.
Chasing a large total is never easy even on docile surfaces such as this one. Indeed, had England managed to overhaul the 323 asked of them, the justice system in Pakistan, responsible for probing allegations into match fixing, would probably have imploded.
As it was they won with just the merest of hiccups, an impressive performance that enhances their coach's claims that they are a side capable of winning the World Cup. Certainly they have a wealth of experience and it is probably worth noting that this was Ijaz's 222nd one-day international and his 42nd on this ground. That is more than most of the current England players have managed in their entire careers.
Pakistan won toss
Saeed Anwar c Stewart b Gough 17
(26 mins, 27 balls, 2 fours, 1 six)
Shahid Afridi c Gough b Ealham 41
(92 mins, 54 balls, 3 fours, 1 six)
Ijaz Ahmed c Hick b Gough 137
(165 mins, 130 balls, 12 fours, 1 six)
Inzamam-ul-Haq c Hick b Gough 59
(109 mins, 64 balls, 3 fours)
*Wasim Akram c Hollioake b Flintoff 22
(26 mins, 15 balls, 3 fours)
Moin Khan not out 29
(18 mins, 14 balls, 2 fours, 2 sixes)
Azhar Mahmood not out 0
(1 min, 0 balls)
Extras (b1, lb10, w3, nb4) 18
Total (for 5, 221min, 50 overs) 323
Fall: 1-30 (Saeed Anwar), 2-116 (Shahid Afridi), 3-261 (Ijaz Ahmed), 4-280 (Inzamam), 5-311 (Wasim Akram).
Did not bat: Yousuf Youhana, Salim Malik, Saqlain Mushtaq, Shoaib Akhtar.
Bowling: Gough 10-1-55-3 (nb3,w1) (5-1-26-1, 2-0-8-0, 3-0-21-2); Mullally 10-0-64-0 (w2) (7-0-36-0, 2-0-15-0, 1-0-13-0); Ealham 10-0-52-1 (nb1); Croft 6-0-36-0 (one spell each); Hollioake 5-0-30-0 (4-0-24-0, 1-0-6-0); Hick 2-0-13-0; Flintoff 7-0-62-1 (4-0-25-0, 3-0-37-1).
Progress: 50: 43 mins, 64 balls; 100: 82 mins, 119 balls; 150: 122 mins, 174 balls; 200: 156 mins, 223 balls; 250: 182 mins, 262 balls; 300: 216 mins, 297 balls. After 15 overs: 82-1.
Ijaz 50: 61 mins, 54 balls, 5 fours. 100: 129 mins, 102 balls, 8 fours, 1 six. Inzamam 50: 89 mins, 56 balls, 2 fours.
N V Knight b Shoaib 1
*A J Stewart c Inzamam b Shoaib 18
(19 balls, 3 fours)
G A Hick c Shoaib b Saqlain 65
(90 balls, 6 fours)
G P Thorpe c Azhar Mahmood
b Shoaib 18
(15 balls, 1 four, 1 six)
N H Fairbrother b Azhar Mahmood 19
(23 balls, 3 fours)
A Flintoff c Shoaib b Saqlain 50
(51 balls, 2 fours, 4 sixes)
A J Hollioake b Shahid Afridi 18
(18 balls, 1 six)
M A Ealham st Moin b Shahid Afridi 11
(14 balls, 1 six)
R D B Croft c Yousuf Youhana
b Shahid Afridi 4
D Gough c Sub b Saqlain 4
A D Mullally not out 2
Extras (lb10 w10 nb3) 23
Total (45.5 overs) 233
Fall: 1-12 2-29 3-53 4-91 5-185 6-186 7-208 8-221 9-224
Bowling: Wasim Akram 7-0-33-0; Shoaib Akhtar 10-2-42-3; Saqlain Mushtaq 7.5-0-23-3; Azhar Mahmood 10-1-55-1; Shahid Afridi 9-0-53-3; Salim Malik 2-0-17-0.
Umpires: K T Francis (S Lanka) and I D Robinson (Zim).
TV Replay Umpire: D B Hair (Aus).
Match Referee: S Wettimuny (S Lanka).
Result: Pakistan win by 90 runs
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content