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September 5, 2010
At the end of a week in which cricket's name has once again been dragged through the gutter, England and Pakistan were left feeling grateful for small mercies in Cardiff, as attention was - albeit briefly - deflected from off-field matters of corruption to the old-fashioned concept of a sporting contest. For much of the day, while the rain hammered down on Sophia Gardens, a washout appeared to be the only logical conclusion, but thankfully the skies cleared sufficiently for some of the gloom that has gathered over the game to dissipate.
Paul Collingwood finished as the happier captain, having secured a victory in England's first Twenty20 since their triumph in the Caribbean four months ago - but not by much. Shahid Afridi's relief at getting his players out of their siege-like state in the team hotel and back onto the sanctity of the cricket field was palpable, and until Shoaib Akhtar dropped the sort of catch that - in the current climate - was unfortunate to say the least, they might even have celebrated their release with a victory.
"After what has been going on for a week or ten days, it's been very difficult," said Afridi. "But this is my job and the coach's job to lift the morale and keep the guys in high spirits. The way my boys played I am very happy. At one time it looked like we were going to win this game. But we missed some opportunities like catches and run-outs at the wrong time, and in this kind of cricket, fielding is a main weapon, if you want to win."
For Collingwood, the chance to put all the speculation on hold - even for as little as three hours - was invaluable. "I'm absolutely delighted," he said. "It has been a tough week but the guys have focussed 100% on their cricket, and we enjoyed our win today. A lot has gone on [off the field] in terms of strong decisions, but we just wanted our cricket to do the talking, because when you're not playing there's speculation and allegations, but when it starts again you can start talking about good performances."
All things considered, however, it was not the happy homecoming that Collingwood's all-conquering heroes might have envisaged, or indeed deserved. Four months between assignments is an eternity for an international cricket team, and for as many as 4000 tickets to remain unsold for a clash between the reigning and former World Twenty20 champions was a reflection both of the glut of contests that have already taken place this summer, and of course the scandalous allegations that have damaged the public's faith in the sport.
For Collingwood, however, the gathering-together of nine of the 11 men who swept to glory in Barbados back in May was enough to ensure that the entire dressing-room found instant focus. "It was so nice to get the guys together because it's been a few months since some very fond memories and that success in the Caribbean," he said. "It was one of them things where you don't have to say anything, you just look at each other and those smiles go on your faces.
"We've got great memories of that," he added. "But from a captain's point of view, you've got to try to tell the guys to restart, and the way we approached our strategies and communications, and everything we talk about off the pitch, we did it 100%. The bowlers were absolutely fantastic again, and though we had a little hiccup with the bat, Morgs and Yards put together a superb partnership."
The atmosphere within the ground wasn't exactly buzzing - despite the best efforts of a troupe of RAF parachutists and the obligatory dancing girls - but neither was it the cynical and cold reaction that had accompanied the original NOTW revelations at Lord's last week. The paradox was best summed up by a trio of Pakistan fans in green wigs and the obligatory replica shirts. They supported their nation, while at the same time expressing their disgust at the players - with a pair of banners.
"We're only here because we bought our tickets two months ago," read the first, while the second was confiscated before it could be unfurled in anger: "Floods killing people in Pakistan. Pakistan cricket team killing fans."
But Afridi was upbeat about the reaction, and confident of turning the public opinion back in favour of his men. "It was good," he said. "The people enjoyed the game. We got some good support as well. I told the coach yesterday that we must let it go in one ear and out the other. We have to play to cricket, we mustn't take these things with us [onto the field]. We are very confident and insh'allah you will see us play some good cricket."