Cricket: Stewart all fired up in the desert

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IT WOULD be tempting to suggest that the Coca-Cola Cup in Sharjah, which opens today with a 50-over match between England and Pakistan, is just another meaningless one-day series. In fact the opposite appears to be true, and the proximity of the World Cup - as well as the boon such tournaments bring to the thriving but illegal bookmaking business in nearby India - appears to have everyone from taxi drivers to the players buzzing with anticipation.

Considering his team's 15-hour journey from Lahore the previous day, Alec Stewart, England's captain, was particularly enthusiastic, reiterating his desire to win the competition, rather than treat it simply as practice for the World Cup, which begins in just over a month's time. "There is not a blade of grass on the pitches and it's 40C out there, so you could say it's a bit different from May at home," Stewart said. "We may look at tactics with a view to using them in the World Cup, but the main idea is to win the tournament."

Given the 3pm (Sharjah time) starts of these day-night matches, England will not pick their final XI until this morning. With three wins during their warm-up leg in Lahore, the composition of the best side, now that both Stewart (groin) and Angus Fraser (back twinge) are over their respective niggles, no doubt required further debate.

There appear to be two places being contested. The first is the No 6 spot which pits the 21-year-old Andrew Flintoff against Adam Hollioake. Last time he was in Sharjah, Hollioake was captain and played a crucial role in marshalling clinical performances from his players. Since then his star has faded while Flintoff's has risen. In the end, the choice appears to be between the occasionally naive brute force of the younger man and the more worldly wise offerings of the former captain.

The other place up for grabs pits the one-dimensional Angus Fraser (in the sense that all he does is bowl) against the 3D talents and shape of Ian Austin. Providing the pitches play like they did last time England were here, when they were low and skiddy, Austin, a barrel-like 5ft 10in, should get the nod over the 6ft 6in Fraser.

Over the years Sharjah, perhaps unfairly considering the investment that has gone into creating this top-class stadium, has gained notoriety as the home of the thrown game. Obviously hard evidence is difficult to come by, yet the Chinese whispers that have ensued have never really been silenced.

The recent investigation in Pakistan involving high-profile players from Pakistan and Australia appears to have fizzled out. More likely is that the findings are being sat upon until after the World Cup, when a favourable result may provoke leniency for those allegedly involved.

Wasim Akram, the Pakistan captain and one of those at the centre of the allegations into match fixing, feels the topic has unfairly overshadowed the fine cricket he and his team are currently playing. With one defeat in their last five one-day matches, their confidence is brimming. "People only ask questions about betting when we are losing," Wasim said yesterday. "At the moment though, we are winning."

In fact Pakistan are playing some brilliant cricket at the moment and Wasim's new-ball partner, the decidedly fast Shoaib Akhtar, has given them a new cutting edge. Suddenly a side beset by squabbles has been moulded into an outfit that wants to pull together.

This new-found confidence and spirit, as well as the fact that Sharjah is a home from home, makes England's task of winning today's game tough one. But as the Bombay bookies will tell you, it is not always the favourite that wins here in the desert.

SHARJAH CUP ITINERARY: 7 April England v Pakistan; 8 India v Pakistan; 9 April: India v England; 11 England v India; 12 England v Pakistan; 13 India v Pakistan; 16 final.

ENGLAND (from): A J Stewart (Surrey, capt & wkt), N V Knight (Warwickshire), G A Hick (Worcestershire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), N H Fairbrother (Lancashire), A J Hollioake (Surrey), A Flintoff (Lancashire), M A Ealham (Kent), I D Austin (Lancashire), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Leicestershire), A R C Fraser (Middlesex), V J Wells (Leicestershire), N Hussain (Essex).

PAKISTAN (from): Wasim Akram (capt), Shahid Afridi, Wajahutullah Wasti, Ijaz Ahmed, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana, Salim Malik, Moin Khan (wkt), Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq, Azhar Mahmood, Abdul Razzaq, Shahid Nazir, Arshad Khan.