England in another fine mess

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The Independent Online

reports from Karachi

Never a team to be outdone when there is a spot of humiliation in the offing, it took England just a single day to snatch back the headlines from a hapless West Indies side. Clearly not content with having the spotlight of ridicule removed for more than a few days, England again found themselves basking in its humiliating glow after being beaten by a scratch Karachi City Cricket Association team.

It is a seismic event when minnows the size of Kenya swallow big fish the size of the West Indies. Yet such is the regularity with which this England side have invited ridicule, that nobody seems surprised when the giant-killing happens to them. And judging by some of the expressions on the players faces after the game yesterday, neither do they.

The one noticeable exception was Michael Atherton, who failed to emerge from the dressing-room to collect either the "runners-up" cheque, or his memento from the match. This has not been a good week as far as PR is concerned for the England captain, and both keepsakes had to be accepted on his behalf, by Alec Stewart.

Afterwards, Ray Illingworth shrugged off the five-wicket defeat, coolly executed with five balls to spare. The match, he said, had been "used for practice". A fact conveniently borne out by the presence of both Graham Thorpe and Jack Russell in the KCCA batting line-up. However, the 57 runs contributed between them hardly represented the lion's share, and the bulk of the home team's target of 264 was scored by the teenage opening pair of Shadab Kabir with 68 and Hashif Ahmed, who scored 71.

"Our problem," Illingworth said, "has been the batsmen not getting runs. As such our priority here was to get batsmen to the crease, which we did and I think they'll be in better form for it, especially as the pitch was a little bit quicker than the ones we've been playing on."

But if the batting benefited, the bowling lacked direction, particularly early on, when DeFreitas and Cork looked like they would rather be anywhere other than the Karachi Gymkhana, bowling on the bare brown pitch. "It's never easy to get 100 per cent out of yourself," reckoned Illingworth by way of an excuse for some of the England bowling, "but we had a good work-out."

Just how good remains to be seen, and despite the tame performance by the bowlers, they are being given today off before Sunday's Group B game against Pakistan. However, even if England should win the match, it is unlikely to alter where they end up playing the quarter-finals. At present, this looks like being Faisalabad, and their first important match of the tournament since securing wins over the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

If it were not for Pakistan's unrivalled capacity for self-destruction, however, you would blithely write England off. Prone to excitability and squabbling, especially in front of a capacity home crowd, they were easily beaten by South Africa, whose superiority, based on Bob Woolmer's homework, paid off handsomely.

Pakistan have never been very good at setting targets. This was particularly true last Thursday, when several well established batsmen seemed to want to leave it to others to play the big shots, causing the innings to lose momentum during the latter stages.

The chief culprits were the centurion, Aamir Sohail, and Salim Malik, who kept giving each other the strike in the hope that one of them would launch an attack. Neither did, and the total Pakistan eventually set was at least 30 runs light.

However, chasing any target against Pakistan requires special attention to the first 15 overs. South Africa, without a "pinch-hitter", plundered 105 off them after which the game was a formality providing they did not lose too many wickets.

It was a deliberate tactic in order to keep the run-rate as low as possible over the last 10 overs, a phase of the game that Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis are particularly adept at, their pace and reverse-swinging yorkers being particularly hard to combat in the search for quick runs. And not many sides win needing more than six an over against them at the death.

There has been talk of late that Alec Stewart will take over the gloves from Russell, a rumour instantly scotched by Illingworth. On a pitch likely to be slow with a small amount of turn for the spinners, England will need players who are good sweepers of the ball like Russell and Dermot Reeve, if England are to combat Mushtaq Ahmed and the off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq effectively. It would be a touch ironic should Robin Smith get his first outing of the tournament against such fine bowlers.

However, Reeve's inclusion, looking more imminent after his 82 yesterday, will depend on what bowling options England decide upon, after they have seen the pitch. At the moment, Peter Martin is nursing a niggle, while Dominic Cork looks exhausted. Both are crucial when fit, as is Richard Illingworth, now fully recovered from his stomach bug.

After a week of low points, England will probably go and beat Pakistan in Karachi on Sunday. As the bookies in this part of the world will tell you, stranger results than that have happened.