A typically spirited Irish performance saw off a tough challenge from defending champions Afghanistan in the final of the sixth ICC Intercontinental Cup, thereby enabling the boys in green to regain the trophy and achieve their dream of securing a historic treble of ICC titles in the year 2013.
There were euphoric scenes at Dubai’s Global Cricket Academy on Friday afternoon, moments after Ed Joyce caught Izatullah Dawlatzai off the amazing John Mooney to seal a 122 run victory. This win gave Ireland their fourth Intercontinental Cup trophy, following victories in 2005, 2006-07 and 2007-08. The win was made all the more special by the fact that it was the great Trent Johnston’s last game wearing the Irish cap. In a wonderful gesture, Ireland skipper William Porterfield made way for Johnston when it came to collecting the trophy.
However, it was not at all an easy ride for the world’s best Associate nation. Their nearest competitors Afghanistan, who had won the previous edition of the tournament in 2010-11, made it clear that they are an equally established side when it came to five-day cricket. There were moments when the Afghans had great scope of being in a dominating position, none more so after reducing Ireland to 67/5 in the very first session of play, courtesy a splendid spell by Dawlat Zadran. But in spite of that, I had great belief in the Irish side to turn the tide at key junctures, and they did prove me right. Whenever the going got tough during this intense match, there was always someone or the other to put things back on track for Ireland.
After the top-order collapse on the first day, it was Merrion’s John Anderson who enhanced his reputation of being a first-class specialist by scoring a vital 55 and putting on 54 for the 7th wicket with Mooney, helping the total to swell to 187. Thereafter, Mooney bowled like a man inspired, taking five of the first six Afghan wickets to bring Ireland right back in the contest. Then with Ireland leading by just 12 and four wickets still to be taken, Johnston got into the act for one last time, picking two quick wickets to condemn the Afghans to a five run deficit. It was evident that the better second-innings batting performance would decide the game.
Having come a cropper in the first innings, Ireland’s county stars could not afford to fail for a second time. And thankfully, the seasoned duo of Ed Joyce (78) and Niall O’Brien (87) calmed the nerves of Ireland’s fans by stitching a game-changing stand of 110 for the third wicket to lead the team into a dominating position at the end of the third day. The Afghans fought back with four quick wickets on the fourth day, but the other O’Brien – Kevin, who was named Associate Player of the Year on the same day – decided to show his worth by hitting some meaty blows to unsettle the opposing bowlers. The evergreen TJ, as always, made a little contribution of his own as well, thus helping set Afghanistan a target of 347.
Chasing this total was always going to be difficult, but George Dockrell hastened the top-order’s demise with a quality spell of spin bowling. Having already picked up three wickets in the first innings, he took three more to have Afghanistan reeling at 85/5. Game over on Day 3 itself? Far from it, as Afghan skipper Mohammed Nabi and the immensely talented all-rounder Rahmat Shah (who really showed great temperament) chipped away at the target, and their commendable sixth-wicket stand of 110 was unbroken until after lunch on Day 4. It was Max Sorensen, who had had an ordinary game so far, who got the breakthrough by getting rid of Nabi. From that point, Ireland’s talisman Mooney took over and prised out the last four wickets to finish with 5/36 to add to his 5/45 in the first innings.
If there was one man who did more than anyone else in the final, it was Mooney, and it was only fitting that he won the Player of the Match award. He had never taken more than three wickets in a first-class game until the final, but he gave undoubtedly the best performance of his career at the most crucial of times. His ten-wicket haul in humid conditions is testimony to the amount of hard work he put in throughout the game. He might not even have made the eleven had Tim Murtagh been available, but upon getting his chance, he grabbed it with both hands.
It was a bit unfortunate that Johnston was forced to watch the victory from the sidelines due to injury, but he had played his part. Even in his very last match, he gave his hundred percent to the team cause, and it is this commitment which has come to be associated with this evergreen giant of Irish cricket. Under his captaincy, Ireland embarked upon their journey into the intense world of international cricket and his legacy has been successfully passed on to the current and future squads. Upon these players is the onus to make Ireland a world-beating side one day, which I am sure will happen sooner than later.
Besides being Johnston’s swansong, this game also saw all-rounder Andrew White play his record-equalling 226th match (all included, sharing with Kyle McCallan) for Ireland. However unlike TJ, he has no intentions of retiring – he is only 33 after all, and one of the linchpins of the first-class game.
Having followed the Intercontinental final, it was great to see the top two Associates battle it out in a winner-takes-all encounter. Indeed, it was a ‘Test’ in all but name. It is frustrating that Test cricket continues to be an exclusive club of a few nations, with most of them failing to look beyond their own commercial motives and petty ego issues.
Will the ICC wake up from its slumber now and rightfully embrace Ireland into the full-members fold? It is important that the powers-that-be strike when the iron is hot – because more than Ireland needing Test cricket, it is Test cricket that needs Ireland.