CAPE TOWN-Needing 247 to win, not a really insurmountable task, Pakistan made a complete hash of its chase as its batting caved in for 134, with 19 out of the regulation 50 overs unconsumed, against a spirited albeit medium paced England attack, handing the match by 112 runs.
Had last man in, Shoaib Akhtar, not flayed 43 runs off just 16 deliveries (5 fours, three huge sixes) in a stand of 54 for the last wicket with Saqlain Mushtaq, the defeat would have been far heavier. Akhtar really laid into Craig White and Andrew Flintoff, but it was too good to last, and too late to provide any respite to the team's cause other than reducing the margin of what was even then a very heavy defeat.
The setback, and the manner in which it was contrived, is indeed too much to swallow.
The entire Pakistan top and middle order batted like a bunch of novices, and there could not possibly be any excuse for such a pathetic and shocking display. So inept, so clueless, so devoid of spirit or even a hint of fight was it that one could not even associate it with any of the minnows in this World Cup. It was not worthy of a frontline cricketing nation, absolutely not.
And the Pakistan think-tank, so good at finding excuses and making fresh promises, couldn't even blame it on this being just a rotten day. For one, such days are happening too often, the lack of thought and application, and also the absence of a game-plan is so conspicuous, especially among the senior lot - the vice-captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq and that slayer of modest attacks Yousuf Youhana being the worst culprits.
On a wicket so devoid of life, after the bowlers had delivered to a great extent by restricting England to 246, the batting needed to show some resolve and tried to make a fist of it.
It did not, and Pakistan's World Cup campaign again lies in tatters, with one big game remaining - the one against India on March 1. That is a needle game, and with their hopes of sneaking through now already hanging by not more than a thread, on the result of that encounter would depend their fate. But in this form, one would not be surprised if Zimbabwe made them bite the dust as well!
Pakistan badly needs to regroup itself, though whether they would be able to do so is a point of conjecture.
Three wickets in seven balls when the innings had barely gotten going, took the wind out of Pakistan's sails. Shahid Afridi clouted Andy Caddick for a six over long-on with the kind of imperious disdain that promised many more such strokes, but he edged the next one to the keeper. On the first delivery that he faced, Inzamam tamely guided a James Anderson delivery to Knight in the slips. Next ball, Youhana showed poor defence as he was clean bowled on a yorker, trying to force it to the onside. Surely with all his experience he should have been expecting one after a big wicket had fallen.
All credit to the young Anderson, already fired up after Inzamam's departure as he did produce a great one. In fact, England bowlers did so well that some diehard Pakistani supporters started whining and talked of the evening swing and wind rather than credit the magnificent effort of Anderson and company.
Pakistan was never to recover from these three swift blows. Once Flintoff induced Younis Khan into a false shot, Anderson again dealt two blows in one over, accounting for Saeed Anwar and Rashid Latif, and at 6 for 59 in the 18th over, it was already all over bar the shouting.
Earlier, Shoaib Akhtar was hit for a few runs at the death, and quite a few in his opening spell as well, but on a flat wicket, Pakistan generally bowled well and fielded with some degree of intensity to contain England.
Though denied his 500th wicket, Akram was the pick of the Pakistan bowlers, and the rest too with the exception of Akhtar mostly delivered. But Akhtar did have his share of limelight by improving his own fastest-ever record by bowling one at 161.3 kmh (100.23 mph) to become the only person to have broken the 100 mile barrier twice.
Akram got amongst the wickets straightaway, his inswinger finding the edge of Marcus Trescothick's bat with Rashid Latif safe and agile as ever doing the rest.
Economical till then, Akhtar went for 24 runs in two overs, and Waqar for once didn't allow things to drift. He brought himself on first change. Knight went after Waqar, charging down the wicket, was undone by bounce to be caught by Razzaq at wide mid-off. A few overs later, with England's 50 already on the board, Hussain creamed a four off him in the covers, but attempting to drive a lovely awayswinger was caught at the wicket.
With Younis and Saqlain operating in tandem, the run rate was initially pegged back, but then Stewart unleashed a slew of boundaries to speed things up. Stewart though may have been out had his lofted pull was not poorly anticipated by Saqlain at square leg.
Stewart (30, 34 balls, 4 fours) and Vaughan (51, 64 balls, 7 fours) by now were playing fluently and together made a rapidfire 50 off 56 deliveries for the fifth wicket. Waqar again made two changes, both producing wickets in successive overs. Vaughan was deceived by Shoaib's change of pace, to be caught by Younis while Afridi scalped Stewart.
Flintoff and Collingwood kept it going for England in another stand of 50-plus, until Saqlain got Flintoff stumped by Rashid with his straight one. Brought back on, perhaps to help Pakistan's perennial problem, the poor over-rate, Afridi had White caught at point off Saqlain in the 41st over to open up the tail from one end just as the slog overs began.
That wicket quite effectively kept the run-scoring in check, as from then runs mostly came in ones and twos, though Ashley Giles struck Shoaib's slower ball for a magnificent six over long-off. But Giles was magnificently caught by a jumping Afridi on the long-on fence off what would otherwise have been his second six.
A late flurry by unbeaten Collingwood (66 runs, 73 balls, 4 fours) still saw England finish under 250. Not a bad bowling job on a wicket offering next to nothing to the bowlers.
But when it was their turn, the Pakistan batting sank without trace to hand the match to England.