reports from Rawalpindi
There is nothing like a three-hour bus journey in Pakistan to get the body loose and sharpen the senses before a big match. That was the extent of England's preparation yesterday as they travelled here, where they play South Africa tomorrow, from Peshawar.
The roads may be less crowded than their Indian counterparts, but that does not mean they are any less terrifying. Often the extra speed simply means more abrupt braking and even more piercing blasts on the horn as slower traffic is barged out of the way.
This relationship between the bully and the bullied is a curious one. For one thing, supremacy is often so taken for granted that lethargy can set in, allowing the bully to be toppled by those who have suffered. At least that is what England will be hoping after their recent 6-1 thrashing by South Africa in the recent one-day series. A result which, Raymond Illingworth still insists, was not a fair reflection of England's capabilities.
"We will want to play our best side against South Africa," Illingworth said at the team's hotel here. "There was enough experimenting done when we were out there. Perhaps too much from the point of winning the series. But even so, we still should have won four of the games."
Illingworth is probably right, but his words would be comforting only if he was dealing with a team whose confidence had not evaporated as much as England's has out here.
When this happens, most of the blame finds its way to the captain's door. And for the first time since he took over, Atherton is suffering a bout of poor form. That in turn leads to periods of self-doubt, and often some withdrawal into oneself.
Perhaps this has infected the rest of the party, although Atherton gives little away at the best of times. "I should know," Illingworth said, "I've played poker with him."
"He's got a bit of a problem outside off-stump," Illingworth added. "He's squaring up against the seamers. What he needs is an innings to get him going. Even the best player in the world needs to get runs in the middle."
The same goes for Alec Stewart, who is struggling against the new ball which he normally times with such fluid nonchalance. It is a situation which - should Atherton return to open the innings with him - is not ideal for taking advantage of the fielding restrictions of the first 15 overs.
England have not yet sparkled during this phase, and Illingworth said Atherton might well return to open - as he should against a quality attack - but hinted that it could well be Robin and not Neil Smith, (or Stewart) who will join him.
Smith - Robin - needs a game, if only to find out what kind of form he is in. Everyone is thought to be fit - though we are waiting to see if there is any reaction from Graeme Hick's injury, and Dominic Cork has indefinitely postponed a cortisone injection to his knee - but England, despite Illingworth's protestations, have yet to make any kind of point against Hansie Cronje's increasingly confident side.
So far, South Africa have played the outstanding cricket of the competition. Their demolition of New Zealand (who comfortably beat England) was ruthless; their bowling and fielding brilliant even by recent standards. Their strength is only increased by the return from injury of Fanie de Villiers, but their batting will be weakened if Andrew Hudson misses out because of flu.
Much will depend on the state of the pitch, and persistent rain has been falling since yesterday lunchtime. Of all the surfaces South Africa's pacemen could have wished for in Pakistan, the normal strip at the Pindi stadium with its pace and bounce, is the one they would most like.
That means Paul Adams, who has yet to bowl a ball here, may again have to sit out. If he does, the decision could have a tactical slant. England are, after all, the only team in the competition to have faced him.
England (from): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, R A Smith, N H Fairbrother, R C Russell, D G Cork, N M K Smith, P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, R K Illingworth, D A Reeve, P J Martin.
South Africa (from): G Kirsten, S J Palframan, W J Cronje (capt), D J Cullinan, J H Kallis, J N Rhodes, B M McMillan, S M Pollock, P L Symcox, P S De Villiers, A A Donald, C R Matthews, P Adams.
Woolmer's edge, page 26