Sages confidently predicted that England were liable for a hammering in the one-day series following their Test defeat in Pakistan. Mere pundits thought it would be much less close.
It was entirely in keeping with the continuing ability and spirit of the tourists that they confounded such scepticism yesterday by winning the first of five matches by 42 runs. Only once since one-day internationals were reduced to 50 overs have England made more runs, and as that was against Bangladesh it can be safely assumed that their 327 for 4 at the Gaddafi Stadium was more substantial.
Winning the toss helped, but it is never a hindrance in floodlit games where mist is in the air, dew is on the ground and the faintly ridiculous supersub regulation is all around.
The key to England's victory lay a little in favourable conditions but largely in holding their nerve when Pakistan were motoring along like a jet- propelled toot-toot in pursuit of their target. The victory, while as encour-aging as it was unexpected, does not necessarily put England more firmly on track for the World Cup next year, but it does throw some doubt on the return to the side of their apparently inviolable captain, Michael Vaughan.
It was not that they won in his absence, it was that in stand-in skipper Marcus Trescothick and rookie Matthew Prior they used their seventh different opening partnership in 51 matches since the last World Cup.
The upshot was that Andrew Strauss, Trescothick's partner for the previous 10 matches, was moved to No 3. It worked effectively, since Strauss made an extremely well-paced 94 from 98 balls, the highest score by an England No 3 since Nasser Hussain's 115 at Lord's in the NatWest Series final in 2002.
Before he went home to attend the birth of his first child and missed the Third Test, Strauss could hardly make a run. Yesterday, baby Samuel having been safely delivered, he seemed as though he would never stop scoring. Ah, the joy of fatherhood.
"I think the batting order was finalised after the practice match the other day," said Strauss, who was made man of the match. "I think you have to be flexible depending on the pitches. We are very fortunate to have two world-class players in Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, and you need guys at the other end who can work it around and get them back on strike."
It was Strauss's innings that allowed the Big Two their respective charges. Pietersen, giving the lie to the mantra that nothing happens between overs 15 and 40, clumped 56 from 39 balls with seven fours and two sixes, and Flintoff bashed 72 from 65 balls with five and three respectively. Flintoff and Paul Collingwood shared an unbroken stand of 90 from 66 balls.
Still, at one point Pakistan's target was beginning to resemble ever so slightly a stroll in the park. In the 20th over Pakistan were 132 for 1, before the 25th they were virtually halfway to their objective and England, like Pakistan before them, were getting no help from the pitch. But just as little boys and girls the world over were changing their career plans from international bowler to deepcast miner for an easier life, impres-sively controlled bowling from Collingwood, the recalled Ian Blackwell and the debutant Liam Plunkett stemmed Pakistan's flow of runs.
Blackwell caught the eye above all. He was called out to the team only to replace the injured Ashley Giles, and although he claims genuinely to have been working on acquiring a less full figure, the rosy cheeks and the generous girth still managed to make it look as though his training had been geared towards landing a seasonal job as Santa Claus in a Taunton department store.
But the judgement in his left-arm spin was impeccable. He varied his pace delightfully and his line from over the stumps à la Giles never allowed the batsmen much room to manoeuvre. Forty-five runs in 10 overs represented parsimony.
Plunkett was barely less laudable. His inexperience mattered not, or maybe he simply did not have enough experience to know that a side going along at seven runs an over, as Pakistan were, are heading for victory. Like Blackwell, he usually found the appropriate length and the slower ball to go with it.
Collingwood bowled only four overs but they came when they were most needed - and he will gain no more prized wicket than that of Inzamam-ul-Haq. Pakistan still stayed in the hunt almost to the last, and at 262 for 4 in the 44th over - 65 needed from 32 balls - victory was still attainable before packed, baying stands. The loss of their last six wickets in 23 balls was not the climactic finish the crowd wanted.
For all the sleekness of their performance, England took a gamble on the supersub rule and won. In winning the toss and batting, it meant they were able to omit Pietersen from their fielding unit and use Plunkett. Had they lost, their options and opportunities would have been reduced. The rule is a dud. England, however, are 1-0 up.
England won toss
* M E Trescothick c Danish Kaneria b Naved-ul-Hasan 13
(Hit slower ball to mid-off; 40 min, 21 balls, 2 fours)
M J Prior lbw b Mohammad Sami 45
(Misread dipping full toss; 81 min, 55 balls, 6 fours)
A J Strauss c Salman Butt b Danish Kaneria 94
(Pulled short ball to deep mid-wicket; 122 min, 98 balls, 6 fours)
K P Pietersen st Kamran Akmal b Shoaib Malik 56
(Missed huge swing at leg-side wide; 52 min, 39 balls, 7 fours, 2 sixes)
A Flintoff not out 72
(76 min, 65 balls, 5 fours, 3 sixes)
P D Collingwood not out 34
(47 min, 27 balls, 4 fours)
Extras (lb3, w5, nb5) 13
Total (4 wkts, 211 min, 50 overs) 327
Fall: 1-43 (Trescothick), 2-94 (Prior), 3-185 (Pietersen), 4-237 (Strauss).
Did not bat: ÝG O Jones, V S Solanki, I D Blackwell, J M Anderson, S J Harmison. Supersub: L E Plunkett (replaced Pietersen in Pakistan innings).
Bowling: Shoaib Akhtar 10-0-60-0 (nb4 w3) (5-0-21-0 1-0-12-0 4-0-27-0), Naved-ul-Hasan 9-0-75-1 (7-0-45-1 2-0-30-0), Mohammad Sami 7-0-35-1 (6-0-32-1 1-0-3-0), Abdul Razzaq 6-0-33-0 (one spell), Danish Kaneria 9-0-62-1 (nb1) (3-0-24-0 6-0-38-1), Shoaib Malik 9-0-59-1 (w2) (one spell).
Strauss 50: 72 min, 55 balls, 4 fours. Pietersen 50: 45 min, 35 balls, 6 fours, 2 sixes. Flintoff 50: 57 min, 55 balls, 2 fours, 2 sixes.
Salman Butt c Flintoff b Harmison 67
(Miscued drive to mid-off; 86 min, 65 balls, 8 fours, 1 six)
ÝKamran Akmal b Anderson 5
(Edged attempted pull on to stumps; 8 min, 6 balls, 1 four)
Younis Khan c Collingwood b Flintoff 60
(Sliced slower ball to point; 94 min, 56 balls, 6 fours, 1 six)
Mohammad Yousuf c Solanki b Plunkett 59
(Drove high to long-on; 98 min, 63 balls, 5 fours)
* Inzamam-ul-Haq c Jones b Collingwood 13
(Nicked attempted late cut to keeper; 17 min, 18 balls, 1 four)
Shoaib Malik c Jones b Plunkett 50
(Top-edged attempted pull; 76 min, 60 balls)
Abdul Razzaq c Jones b Plunkett 13
(Edged off-cutter to keeper; 8 min, 7 balls, 1 four, 1 six)
Shoaib Akhtar run out (Jones TV replay) 3
(Slow to turn scrambling a single; 5 min, 3 balls)
Naved-ul-Hasan not out 2
(7 min, 2 balls)
Mohammad Sami c Trescothick b Flintoff 1
(Drove to extra cover; 3 min, 2 balls)
Danish Kaneria b Flintoff 0
(Beaten by swinging yorker; 1 min, 1 ball)
Extras (lb5, w5, nb2) 12
Total (206 min, 46.5 overs) 285
Fall: 1-15 (Kamran Akmal), 2-132 (Salman Butt), 3-160 (Younis Khan), 4-179 (Inzamam-ul-Haq), 5-262 (Mohammad Yousuf), 6-279 (Abdul Razzaq), 7-282 (Shoaib Malik), 8-282 (Shoaib Akhtar), 9-285 (Mohammad Sami), 10-285 (Danish Kaneria). Arshad Khan named as super sub but did not play.
Bowling: Harmison 8-0-58-1 (w2) (4-0-30-0 2-0-15-1 2-0-13-0), Anderson 7-0-33-1 (w2) (6-0-29-1 1-0-4-0), Flintoff 8.5-0-73-3 (nb2 w1) (4-0-41-0 1-0-5-1 2-0-10-0 1.5-0-17-2), Plunkett 9-0-51-3 (3-0-20-0 1-0-9-0 5-0-22-3), Blackwell 10-0-45-0 (2-0-10-0 8-0-35-0), Collingwood 4-0-20-1 (one spell).
Salman Butt 50: 61 min, 47 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. Younis Khan 50: 72 min, 45 balls, 5 fours, 1 five, 1 six. Mohammad Yousuf 50: 86 min, 54 balls, 4 fours. Shoaib Malik 50: 70 min, 59 balls.
Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and B G Jerling (SA).
TV replay umpire: Asad Rauf. Match referee: J J Crowe (NZ).
England won by 42 runs. Man of the match: A J Strauss.