Wasim's ammunition for mischief makers

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There was an awful lot of talk, before the game began yesterday, that Pakistan would - how shall we put it? - not mind too much if they lost. Victory would send them to Madras to play (probably) India, which really would be a case of cricket being war pursued by other means. Defeat would grant them another day in front of their ferociously enthusiastic home crowd. So far as England were concerned, it made the match a joke: if by some chance they won, any thought that they had prevailed on merit would have been buried by a blizzard of nudges and winks.

In the event, (unless you are so cynical as to believe that it is hard to lose to England even when you want to) Pakistan crunched out an emphatic win: Aamir Sohail, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam-ul-Haq thumped the ball around with something approaching disdain. But their performance in the field was enough to make even the most rose-tinted spectator rub his eyes in disbelief.

Opening the bowling, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis trotted in like horses with sore feet and bowled mild long-hops. When the spinners came on, Wasim persisted with the incredible field that had proved so disastrous against South Africa: three men on the leg side, all of them in the deep. Mike Atherton and Robin Smith swept away at five an over without taking a risk.

It got worse. Waqar jogged half-heartedly towards a skier that ended up bouncing only a yard in front of him; Salim Malik made a hideous mess of a boundary save, letting the ball sneak under his foot; and Wasim gave away one of the most ludicrous overthrows you could ever see - he dropped the return, lumbered after it, saw that the batsmen had decided not to run, and hurled the ball past the stumps anyway.

It looked awfully suspicious. The truth, it turned out, was banal - Pakistan are simply a mess in the field. But it was an object lesson in what happens when one's view of the game is infected by doubts about its integrity. Cricket is extremely open to misinterpretation: every time a batsman is out, or a catch dropped, or a stumping missed, it looks bad - yet these are just normal parts of any game. This World Cup, with its foolish round of empty matches, has been a paradise for cynics. And in this part of the world, where every game is an excuse for some very heavy betting, there is a widespread conviction that money talks louder than runs.

Much of this rumour-mongering is overcooked, as yesterday's performance by Pakistan showed. But international cricket is going to have to do something to clean up its image, if not its act. A game that has ceased to be trusted as a contest becomes, at best, a kind of cabaret - mere empty showmanship.

England, as it happened, nearly played well. Atherton and Smith punished Pakistan for an hour and a half until normal service resumed in a flurry of wickets. And Thorpe once again put himself in line for some sort of medal by giving the back end of the batting a semblance of order with his third consecutive half century. Anyway, they march on (if that is the right word) to face Sri Lanka.

It is not clear that they realise it, but they will start as underdogs. The Sri Lankan game plan is to take 100 off the first 15 overs, and they have mastered it. The other day they took India's first five overs for 50, and never looked back.

Atherton agreed yesterday that Sri Lanka are "no longer a pushover", but that is a bad understatement. If England go into the match with the least sense that they ought, by rights, to win, they could come one heck of a cropper. If, on the other hand, they go to Faisalabad determined to give it a real crack, then who knows? Having been walloped by New Zealand, South Africa and Pakistan they are one good innings away from the semi- final. Funny old game, cricket.