It is very difficult for any team to maintain a clean sheet in a Twenty20 tournament, given the fickle nature of the shortest format of the game. The game can change in moments and a consistent team brimming with confidence can be easily beaten on a given day.
However, Ireland proved last week that if a team is playing well as a unit and is confident of grabbing the key opportunities in every game, it can master the art of consistency in T20 cricket over a considerable period of time. As it happened, the Irishmen went nine consecutive matches without defeat (one of them against Italy being washed out, but would have been a certain victory) in the recently-concluded ICC World Twenty20 2014 qualifying tournament in the UAE. By far the best Associate team, Ireland retained the trophy they won last year (for the 2012 edition) in style, thumping Afghanistan by 68 runs in the final at Abu Dhabi last Saturday.
This dominating win was yet another landmark for Irish cricket in 2013, a year which has proved to be immensely fruitful. In May, the inaugural domestic competition, the InterPros, was introduced with a round-robin tournament between three regional teams in all three formats (three-day, one-day and T20). This tournament underlined Cricket Ireland’s seriousness of becoming the game’s newest Test nation. Early in the season, Ireland almost won an ODI series against Pakistan. Their commitment towards the sport was further confirmed when England came to Dublin to play their one-off ODI fixture in September. The organising of the game at the new Malahide ground was a massive success, although the result would have been entirely different had two certain Irishmen played for their own country.
September also saw Ireland win the ICC World Cricket League with a round to spare, in the process becoming the first Associate to qualify for the 2015 50-overs World Cup. This was of course, followed by the Twenty20 victory last week, enabling Ireland to secure direct qualification into the first round of the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh. One more piece of silverware remains to be achieved this year, and that is the ICC Intercontinental Cup. Ireland will play Afghanistan in the final showdown from December 10-14.
Coming back to the T20 qualifiers, Ireland had actually suffered a shock warm-up defeat to a spirited Papua New Guinea outfit before the main tournament started, but that proved to be nothing but a minor blip. Once the tournament began, Ireland clearly showed their levels of professionalism and the fact that they are head and shoulders above other non-Test nations when it comes to crunch matches. Ireland saw off Namibia by 32 runs but they were truly tested in their next two fixtures. A lesser team might have succumbed to pressure, but the determined boys in green managed to eke out victories by 2 runs and 5 runs against Canada and UAE respectively. From then on, there was no looking back and they got better with each outing – they thrashed USA by 75 runs, Uganda by 48 runs and Hong Kong by 85 runs to book their ticket for Bangladesh.
But William Porterfield’s men, coached by the excellent Phil Simmons, were obviously not happy by just qualifying – there was a title to be defended after all. In the semi-finals, hosts UAE were routed by 62 runs, while familiar foes Afghanistan bore the brunt of the 68-run defeat in the final the very next day. Among the six teams which qualified, none were as convincing as Ireland, indeed, every other team in the tournament suffered at least two defeats each. Many felt Asian teams will have an advantage in the conditions of the UAE, and they were right to an extent – Afghanistan, Nepal, UAE and Hong Kong were among the six teams which qualified. However, trumping them all was Ireland, who showed that they are as potent in dry Dubai as they are in damp Dublin.
The most heartening fact was that every single player performed well. Whenever the chips were down, Ireland’s team spirit came to fore. Almost every member of the squad had his moment, and played a part in rescuing the team from situations which might have proved tough to handle. The openers Porterfield and Paul Stirling were outstanding – scoring 292 and 288 runs respectively to lead the tournament batting charts. Porterfield’s run included a brutal 127 off 69 balls against USA, while Stirling starred with 77 in 46 balls (not to mention a spell of 4/10!) against Hong Kong and reserved his best for the final – 76 from 43 balls as Ireland racked up a total of 225/7 – their highest and the fourth-highest overall in T20 internationals.
If the batsmen ran amok in the finals, it were the bowlers who shone in the semi-finals. Opening pace bowlers Max Sorensen (4/15) and Tim Murtagh (4/24) made Ireland’s 147/8 look like a mountain to climb for the UAE, who were skittled out for 85. The O’Brien brothers Kevin (251 runs in all) and Niall and the gutsy wicketkeeper Gary Wilson time and again added crucial runs in the middle order to boost up the totals. On the bowling front, Sorensen was Ireland’s best, picking up 14 wickets, followed by the spin twins Stirling (11) and George Dockrell (10). And how can we forget the legend of Irish cricket – the tireless Trent Johnston, who retired from international cricket in style with a masterly all-round showing in the final.
Johnston had had a quiet tournament by his standards – save for a crucial 39* off 24 balls at No.5 in the thrilling win over Canada – until he exploded in the final. Coming in at No.4, he smashed 62 off only 32 balls – his first T20 half-century – and then was Ireland’s leading performer with the ball with 3/34 as Afghanistan were bowled out for 157 in pursuit of the target of 226. The 39 year-old deserved this swansong, but he is certainly not done yet – the five-day Intercontinental final awaits this man, who has given his all to Irish cricket and guided them to the top, first as captain and then as senior statesman of the national side.
It must be remembered that this victory alone still does not guarantee a berth in the ‘proper’ World Twenty20 2014. Thanks to the ICC’s ridiculous schedule, firstly Ireland will have to top a four-team group (other teams being Zimbabwe, UAE and the Netherlands) to gain entry into the group consisting of England, Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand. UAE and Netherlands are expected to be beaten, which leaves us with the Zimbabwe clash as the key. The game against Zimbabwe will be the first for Ireland, and a win there will virtually seal a spot for them to face four of the ‘top eight’.
And the way they have been performing of late, I believe Ireland will not only beat Zimbabwe but also one or more of the Test nations come March 2014. Even though it is a T20 tournament, success will go a long way in giving momentum to Ireland’s push for Test status.