The final of the sixth edition of the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the premier first-class tournament for non-Test nations, will be fittingly played between the two best Associate teams, namely Ireland and Afghanistan. The current tournament started in June 2011 and the defending champions are the Afghans, who defeated Scotland in the final of the 2009-10 edition in December 2010. The final will be 39 year-old Irish veteran Trent Johnston’s last game wearing the Shamrock.
The Match and the Ground
While all of the league fixtures in the tournament consisted of four days, the final has been given full five days. Thus, this is as close as it gets to playing a Test match for these two teams, who are without doubt the two most consistent teams in the multi-day format as far as non-Test nations are concerned. With the two nations, Ireland in particular, yearning to become Test nations in the near future, this final is probably the most significant Associate match-up in the calendar.
The match will be played from December 10-14 at the ICC Global Cricket Academy in Dubai. In the 2011-13/14 tournament, two matches have been played at this venue – Kenya defeating Canada by 4 wickets in March 2013 and Afghanistan defeating Kenya by 8 wickets in October 2013. Thus, Ireland will be playing their first first-class game here. In the two matches mentioned above, Kenya’s 406 against Canada is the highest total at the ground, while their own 140 against Afghanistan is the lowest.
Afghanistan squad – Mohammed Nabi (captain), Mirwais Ashraf, Izzatullah Dawlatzai, Nawroz Mangal, Gulbadin Naib, Shabir Ahmed Noori, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Shahzad, Samiullah Shenwari, Sayed Ahmed Shirzad, Asghar Stanikzai, Dollat Zadran, Afsar Khan Zazai, Rahmat Shah Zurmati.
Afghanistan have been unbeaten in the league stage – winning five and drawing two out of their seven games – and have finished second on the eight-team table with 104 points. They achieved a memorable victory in their very first appearance in the tournament in 2009-10, when they lifted the title by beating Scotland by 7 wickets in the final at the Dubai International Stadium in December 2010, and thus will enter the upcoming final as defending champions. The services of their star all-rounder Hamid Hassan ill be missed, as he is out with injury. However, their bowling attack is still a very formidable with one, and they showed their bench strength when virtually a second eleven trounced Kenya in the final league match.
Afghanistan’s Road to the Final
Beat Canada by 9 wickets at Ontario, 2-5 August 2011 (20 points)
Drew with UAE at Sharjah, 5-8 October 2011 (3 points)
Beat Netherlands by 3 wickets at Sharjah, 2-5 April 2012 (14 points)
Drew with Ireland at Dublin, 9-12 July 2012 (7 points)
Beat Scotland by an innings and 5 runs at Abu Dhabi, 12-15 March 2013 (20)
Beat Namibia by 10 wickets at Windhoek, 4-6 August 2013 (20 points)
Beat Kenya by 8 wickets at Dubai, 6-9 October 2013 (20 points)
Ireland squad – William Porterfield (captain), John Anderson, George Dockrell, Trent Johnston, Ed Joyce, John Mooney, Tim Murtagh, Kevin O’Brien, Niall O’Brien, Max Sorensen, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson, Andrew White, Gary Wilson.
Like their fellow finalists, Ireland also ended the league stage unbeaten, winning five and drawing two. Their points tally was 116, which meant that they topped the table, underlining their reputation as the world’s best Associate team. In the previous tournament in 2009-10, the Irishmen were not up to the mark and finished fourth out of seven teams, which was a setback after winning three successive titles in 2005, 2006-07 and 2007-08. However, the current Irish squad is at its strongest, and William Porterfield’s men will chase their fourth title. Ireland have indeed widened the gap between themselves and the rest of the non-Test pack in all three formats of the game in recent times. Multi-day specialists Andrew White and John Anderson are additions to the almost all of the squad that recently won the World T20 qualifiers. Like the Afghans, they have a powerful bench strength, as proved by the last-round thrashing of Scotland.
Ireland’s Road to the Final
Beat Namibia by 5 wickets at Belfast, 6-9 September 2011 (20 points)
Beat Canada by an innings and 11 runs at Dublin, 13-16 September 2011 (20)
Beat Kenya by 10 runs at Mombasa, 12-15 February 2012 (14 points)
Drew with Afghanistan at Dublin, 9-12 July 2012 (13 points)
Drew with UAE at Sharjah, 12-15 March 2013 (9 points)
Beat Netherlands by 279 runs at Deventer, 1-4 July 2013 (20 points)
Beat Scotland by an inns and 44 runs at Dublin, 11-14 September 2013 (20)
Head to Head and Recent Form
The two teams have developed quite a rivalry, but they have faced each other only twice in the first-class format, both of course in the Intercontinental Cup. Their first meeting came in January 2010, when Ireland (405 and 202) lost to eventual champions Afghanistan (474 and 137/3) by 7 wickets at Dambulla in Sri Lanka. The second instance was in July 2012, where Afghanistan (84 and 208/7) were found wanting at Rathmines in Dublin, and averted defeat to Ireland (251/4d) only because the first two days were washed out due to rain.
Both the teams peaked at the right time as the league stage neared its end. In the final two rounds, Afghanistan brushed aside Namibia and Kenya by 10 wickets and 8 wickets respectively, while Ireland crushed their European rivals Netherlands by 279 runs and Scotland by an innings and 44 runs to storm into the final. The domination of the two sides is evident by the fact that third-placed Scotland collected a distant 66 points. Though achieved in a completely different format, Ireland have had the satisfaction of beating Afghanistan in the World T20 qualifiers final a week ago.
Players To Watch Out For
Conditions in the UAE have usually suited the batsmen, thus making the role of the bowlers all the more important. While Afghanistan are generally known for their spin prowess, it has been the repeated exploits of 22 year-old right-arm fast-medium bowler Izatullah Dawlatzai that have played a major part in his side’s entry into the final. Currently he is the third highest wicket-taker in the 2011-13/14 tournament, with 30 wickets in 5 matches at a stunning average of 13.36. Not a permanent part of the limited-overs set-up, he seems to reserve his best for the Intercontinental. He was unstoppable in the game against Scotland, taking 6/57 and 5/37 to guide his side to an innings win. With the Irish batsmen having a penchant for big scores, Afghanistan will be expecting a lot from this talented youngster.
Similarly, the Irishmen too will depend a lot on one of their young bowlers – 21 year-old slow-left armer George Dockrell, who is probably the best spin bowler in the non-Test world today. With a five day Dubai pitch on offer, Dockrell could have a significant impact in the final. He is currently the second highest wicket-taker in this edition, with 33 scalps in 5 games at 16.57. The young lad has valuable first-class experience while playing for Somerset, and he will be using all this experience to counter the batting line-up of the defending champions. His best performance has been a haul of 9/71 (3/32 and 6/39) in the game against the Netherlands, while against Kenya, he took 9/87 to steer the boys in green to a heart-stopping 10-run win.
Afghanistan are the defending champions, and they will certainly not surrender their title easily. However, they will need an outright win whereas for Ireland, even a draw is enough as they were the table-toppers. But ever-improving Ireland themselves know that they are certainly the next Test nation in the making, and will have the double motivation of winning a treble of ICC trophies (following the World Cricket League and the World T20 qualifiers) and also of providing a perfect swansong to Johnston.
Thus, I foresee an outright victory for Ireland to culminate a memorable year for them.