England's run of seven consecutive limited-over defeats came to a welcome end here last night. But it was not the brilliance of their play that brought Andrew Strauss' side solace, it was the uninvited front of rain that arrived in Cardiff at about 9.05pm. By then, Pakistan had moved effortlessly to 46 for 1 in pursuit of the Duckworth-Lewis target of 159, a position that made the tourists strong favourites to take a 1-0 lead in the five-match NatWest series.
Though England were totally outplayed by Pakistan, it would have been unfair for them to have lost. An initial spell of rain, which arrived after England had been bowled out for 202, kept the players from the field for two hours and reduced Pakistan's run chase to a 32-over affair. It made conditions for the fielding side extremely difficult, with fielders skating around on the damp outfield and bowlers struggling to grip a wet ball.
Several England players spent the eve of the match watching the Rolling Stones concert at the Millennium Stadium but, with the exception of Ian Bell, who struck a career-best 83, the home side's batting provided little satisfaction. Bell's innings highlighted what a fine player he has become. He rode his luck in the early part of his innings he was dropped by Younis Khan at second slip on nine and played at and missed Rana Naved-ul-Hasan on a number of occasions but once through this awkward period he struck the ball crisply on a pitch offering assistance to the pacemen.
Bell drove strongly whenever the Pakistan attack overpitched, but it was his back-foot play that brought him most of his 12 fours. Naved-ul-Hasan was pulled and cut whenever he erred, as was Shoaib Akhtar.
England are continually tinkering with their top three. During the winter, Andrew Strauss was pencilled in for the No 3 spot but Bell now looks the favourite to bat there in the World Cup. It is debatable whether he has the game to make a success of it, but this innings, along with hundreds in three consecutive Test matches against Pakistan, suggest he is the best man for the job.
Bell received minimal support. Jamie Dalrymple put on 66 with him for the fifth wicket, and the only other partnership of note came from Darren Gough and Stuart Broad, who put on 29 for the 10th wicket.
It was the dismissal of Strauss, who top-edged an ambitious pull off Mohammad Asif to square leg, that brought Bell to the crease. Marcus Trescothick soon followed when he edged a wild swipe at Asif through to the wicketkeeper.
England's hopes of posting a huge score now rested with Kevin Pietersen, who was undone by a brilliant piece of bowling from Asif. In an attempt to mess the seamer's length up, Pietersen advanced down the wicket, but Asif saw him coming, bowling a bouncer that hit him on the shoulder. A chastised Pietersen stayed in his crease to the next ball, which seamed away, found the outside of his bat and was well caught by Kamran Akmal. The dismissal highlighted a flaw in Pietersen's technique. He has a brilliant eye but, in seamer-friendly conditions, indeterminate footwork makes him vulnerable.
Asif is a class act. His action appears to take little out of him and he instinctively bowls that perfect length, where batsmen do not know whether to play forward or back to him. He finished an excellent opening spell with the fine figures of 3 for 19 in eight overs.
Bell and Dalrymple struggled to score freely against Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez, the Pakistan spinners, and only 34 runs were added during 11 overs but, while the pair were at the crease, England harboured hopes of posting a respectable total.
These aspirations disappeared during a crazy four-over period in which they lost five wickets for seven runs. Bell was the first to go when he was run out by Afridi taking a quick single to mid-on. With the next ball, Shoaib ripped a full delivery through the defence of Dalrymple, knocking back his off-stump. The dismissal gave Shoaib his 200th one-day wicket.
Chris Read chipped a soft catch back to Hafeez and Rikki Clarke top-edged a cut at Shoaib to third man. Sajid Mahmood, who does not appear to relish facing fast bowling, irresponsibly had a wild slog and was bowled, leaving Gough and Broad with the burden of setting England a defendable target.
England's batting failed to enthral a 15,000 crowd, who had their own problems prior to the game. Sophia Gardens will host its first Test in 2009, when England take on Australia in the Ashes, but the redevelopers and local council here need to take note of access to the ground as well as the building of new stands.
Hampshire's Rose Bowl continues to receive plenty of criticism for having just one entrance/exit and this venue is currently the same. While the transport system at Southampton is a major problem, the ground here was only two-thirds full when play started at 2.30pm and the sight of huge numbers of spectators frantically attempting to get through congested streets did little to appease fans.
Scoreboard from Cardiff
Pakistan won toss
M E Trescothick c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif 16 44 min, 27 balls, 2 fours
*A J Strauss c Shahid Afridi b Mohammad Asif 2 16 min, 14 balls
I R Bell run out (Shahid Afridi) 88 144 min, 117 balls, 12 fours
K P Pietersen c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif 2 17 min, 11 balls
P D Collingwood lbw b Shahid Afridi 14 49 min, 29 balls, 2 fours
J W M Dalrymple b Shoaib Akhtar 27 50 min, 53 balls, 1 four
R Clarke c Shoaib Malik b Shoaib Akhtar 6 14 min, 14 balls, 1 four
ÝC M W Read c and b Mohammad Hafeez 0 3 min, 2 balls
S I Mahmood b Shoaib Akhtar 1 11 min, 7 balls
D Gough c Shoaib Malik b Shahid Afridi 18 25 min, 16 balls, 2 fours
S C J Broad not out 8 22 min, 11 balls
Extras (lb5 w10 nb5) 20
Total (202 min, 49.2 overs) 202
Fall: 1-14 (Strauss) 2-35 (Trescothick) 3-51 (Pietersen) 4-98 (Collingwood) 5-166 (Bell) 6-166 (Dalrymple) 7-167 (Read) 8-173 (Clarke) 9-173 (Mahmood) 10-202 (Gough).
Bowling: Shoaib Akhtar 10-1-45-3 (nb3 w2) (4-0-13-0, 2-0-15-0, 4-1-17-3); Mohammad Asif 10-3-28-3 (w2) (8-3-19-3, 2-0-9-0); Naved-ul-Hasan 7-0-43-0 (w3) (4-0-24-0, 2-0-11-0, 1-0-8-0); Abdul Razzaq 4-1-10-0 (nb1) (one spell); Shahid Afridi 8.2-0-38-2 (nb1 w1) (8-0-36-1, 0.2-0-2-1); Mohammad Hafeez 10-0-33-1 (w2) (one spell).
Progress: Powerplay 1: overs 1-10 35-2; PP2: overs 12-16 from 42-2 to 60-3; PP3: overs 17-21 from 60-3 to 81-3. 50: 58 min, 79 balls. 100: 118 min, 158 balls. 150: 150 min, 229 balls. 200: 200 min, 299 balls.
Bell's 50: 95 min, 71 balls, 9 fours.
Pakistan: Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, *Inzamam-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, ÝKamran Akmal, Naved-ul-Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Asif.
Umpires: B R Doctrove (West Indies) and I J Gould (England).
TV replay umpire: M R Benson (England).
Match referee: M J Procter (South Africa).