When mediocre was good enough
It was a relief to have an ordinary game of 50-over cricket on Friday. (All right, 41-over cricket, but you know what I mean.) Neither England nor Pakistan played particularly well or particularly badly, and the team which played a little better than their opponents ran out the winners. That the winners were England was not very surprising: they've become a very good one-day team over the last 12 months, and the present Pakistan squad are probably only capable of being a good team rather than a very good one.
The absence of the alleged spot-fixers clearly weakens Pakistan's playing strength, though it goes a long way towards re-establishing their moral strength, especially with Shahid Afridi as their leader. All the gossip points to his having absolutely clean hands with regard to shady dealings with bookmakers, which is unsurprising given that shadiness has never been one of his characteristics: here is a man who cheats extravagantly in public, whether it be eating the ball or dancing in the middle of the wicket, so it seems very unlikely that he would waste his time committing crimes without an audience.
He was unable to work any leadership magic on the shell-shocked team for the Twenty20s, which were appalling games of cricket as a result: Pakistan were physically present but their minds were obviously elsewhere. But with the suspected villains on their way home and the news reporters congregating at Heathrow rather than Chester-le-Street, they managed to get round to concentrating on cricket and played tolerably well.
I'm not sure why anyone other than the authorities would be scrutinising these games for evidence of corruption: even illegal bookmakers know when to lie low, and I can't believe any player would be stupid enough to try anything with the spotlight on full glare. (Not that I have any high estimation of international cricketers' intelligence when Kevin Pietersen and Dimitri Mascarenhas have been exemplifying the “twit” in Twitter.)
But you'd have to be extraordinarily suspicious to find anything amiss with Friday's game. There were certainly fumbles and dropped catches by both sides, some batsmen got out to silly shots and some bowlers delivered some rubbish balls, but the same players also usually managed something approaching excellence on other plays. The no-balls were mainly by England, and Stuart Broad's irritation with being called was all too obvious, as is so often the case with England's nominee for Obnoxious Cricketer of the Year, an award which ICC should establish as soon as possible.
The game actually turned on one duel: Steve Davies had an exceptionally good game, largely because he was able to take full toll of Umar Gul having a very bad one. Gul was bowling the lengths and lines which have been very effective for him against most batsmen, but he didn't seem to notice that Davies is about as likely to come forward when batting as he is to volunteer to have his eyes poked with sharp sticks, and thus served up a menu which was entirely to Davies' taste.
Other than those two, though, what we got was ordinariness. In other circumstances, one might well complain about the flaws in both sides's performances, but on this occasion it was comforting to see little more than decency speckled with evidence of normal human frailty. It could quite easily have been a mid-season game between mid-table counties.
We can certainly hope that the remaining matches will be better exhibitions of international-class cricket, but Friday's routine mediocrity was just the sedative the game of cricket needed.