CRICKET: The mouse that hardly squeaked

Robert Winder finds himself in splendid isolation at Shahi Bag stadium
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The Independent Online
England's first victory in this World Cup was achieved in a stadium of almost spooky emptiness. In Peshawar they don't really like cricket - they just like Pakistan; and even the presence of the Muslim Emirates was not enough to lure a crowd.

There were snow-capped mountains in the distance, and kites wheeled in the empty sky over the North-west frontier, but that was about it. A handful of barmy soldiers lugged their hilarious banners ("England eat curries to get the runs") on the three- day bus journey from Ahmedabad, and found themselves almost in the majority.

As a result, the game felt uneventful, almost soporific - and that suited England just fine. No one expected them to discover anything like a killer instinct here, but it was certainly possible - especially when Graeme Hick joined Robin Smith on the injured list - that they would be exposed as toothless. But all went well.

There wasn't much panache about it, but who cared? Phillip DeFreitas (on his birthday) bowled straight and with purpose; Neil Smith lobbed the ball up, successfully inviting the air shot, and Graham Thorpe stroked a few boundaries with the air of a man who thought it would be rude to hit it too hard.

It was exactly the sort of no-nonsense performance England's doctor had been ordering. But he found himself pressed into a different sort of service when Smith threw up furiously on to the pitch and was led off. It didn't stop him picking up pounds 1,000 as man of the match, which is rather more than would have been forthcoming for the man who had to run out and spread sawdust on Smith's dinner.

For the UAE captain, Sultan Zarawani, it was a different story. He has said all along that for his improbable band of Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Arabs this World Cup is primarily "a learning experience". And it hasn't taken long for him to discover just how much there is to learn. England's sports fans are well used to mice that roar, but this one hardly squeaked.

It hasn't been a great few days for Zarawani. At the opening ceremony in Calcutta his team aimed ironic hooking motions at Allan Donald, a foolish move. When Zarawani walked out to bat against South Africa, it didn't matter that he was a No 8, or that he wasn't wearing a helmet, or that his side was 68 for 6 chasing 320. Donald greeted him with a bouncer just the same, and whacked him on the head. There's a little lesson in cricket etiquette at the highest level for you. Thanks for coming, Sultan.

Towards the end the small group of local cricket fans gave up worrying about the match and starting making their own fun. A contortionist hoisted one foot behind his head and hopped along the terraces to a roar of applause. No one was much interested in England, apart from wanting them to lose. "Which one's the captain," they kept asking. "Which one's Gooch?"

When the result was no longer in doubt, they blew their whistles and started shouting for Pakistan. There were only a few of them, but they provided England with a nice taste of what awaits them when they play the host nation in Karachi. "Oh, we'll beat Pakistan," Atherton said after the match. Local journalists stared at him as if he must be joking, or mad. But he didn't move a muscle.