Specials – When a bunch of amateurs nearly capsized the table-toppers

  Ten years ago, a motley crew of amateurs from the Emerald Isle embarked upon a life-changing expedition to the Caribbean. They had among their ranks a teacher, an electrician, a postman, a fabric salesman and a handyman. Little did they know that over the next month and  half, they were to become the new darlings of international cricket.

  Clubbed with hosts West Indies, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, the Irish unknowns were naturally written off by pundits and laymen alike even before they had set foot. It did not matter that Ireland had beaten two of their group rivals on the 50-over scene earlier. They had come off a poor World Cricket League outing in Nairobi and were just not meant to make it to the second round.

  However, a mere five days into the tournament, Ireland tore the form book and awakened the ignorant from their slumber. Back home, few were even aware that the national team was at the World Cup. The men in green first tied with Zimbabwe and then memorably dispatched Pakistan on St. Patrick’s Day. Not only did they enter the second round, they did it with a game to spare.

  On 5th March, 2007, 12 days before they knocked Pakistan out, Ireland took on mighty South Africa in the first of two warm-up fixtures. The Proteas had been freshly crowned as the world’s top-ranked ODI side, toppling defending World Cup champions Australia off their perch, if only briefly. Incidentally, South Africa were the first Test nation that Ireland ever beat, back in 1904.

  The scene for this warm-up match was the nondescript Sir Frank Worrell Memorial Ground in the town of Saint Augustine – having a population of less than 5,000 – in north-western Trinidad and Tobago. Each side had the liberty to play up to 13 players, of which 11 could bat and field. South Africa were at full strength, and were widely expected to win in a canter.

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        Irish pace bowler Dave Langford-Smith celebrates after dismissing South Africa’s A.B de Villiers in a 2007 World Cup warm-up match (source – gettyimages)

  After Graeme Smith elected to bat first, Irish pluck came to the fore in the form of Sydney-born fast bowler David Langford-Smith, who had become the first Irishman to take an ODI wicket nine months before, when he dismissed a certain Ed Joyce at Belfast. He set the tone by removing Smith, caught behind by Niall O’Brien with the total at 15.

  Eleven runs later, Langford-Smith collected his second scalp, breaking through the defences of Abraham de Villiers, who was still a few years away from being christened as cricket’s ‘Mr. 360’. It got even better when the great Jacques Kallis too failed to read Langford-Smith’s medium pace, losing his woodwork in the process. The triple strike had reduced South Africa to 42/3.

  Herschelle Gibbs seemed to be in an attacking mood, having belted four boundaries in his 21, when the resolute Trent Johnston stopped him in his tracks by castling him to make it 57/4. Gibbs was the first of Johnston’s four victims, as the Wollongong-born Irish captain proceeded to make a mockery of the South African middle order with his tricky seam bowling.

  The wicket of Ashwell Prince ensured that the top five of the South African line-up were back in the hut with only 64 on the board. Ireland’s glee was soon escalated when the dangerous Shaun Pollock nicked one to the keeper and Loots Bosman got clean bowled in the same Johnston over. The number one ODI team had lost five for nine, and were now tottering at an unthinkable 66/7.

  As long as Mark Boucher was there in the middle, the innings had every chance of a revival. But John Mooney’s innocuous medium pace induced him to offer a catch to Kevin O’Brien, one of the better fielders in the Irish side. Ireland’s joy knew no bounds as South Africa were left gasping for breath at 91/8. Was an upset on the cards even before the tournament started?

  Andrew Hall thought otherwise though. The all-rounder, who came in at the fall of the seventh wicket, calmly rebuilt from the rubble with an unbeaten 67 off 98 balls. He found support from Robin Peterson, and together they frustrated the Irish with a ninth-wicket stand worth 85. South Africa-born Andre Botha, who played first-class cricket for Griqualand West, took the last two wickets.

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      Irish captain Trent Johnston, who took 4/40, exults after taking the wicket of Ashwell Prince at St. Augustine (source – gettyimages)

  South Africa recovered to post 192 in exactly 50 overs, a total that was certainly within the realm of possibility for Ireland to chase. Johnston finished with 4/40 from ten overs while Langford-Smith collected 3/30 from eight. It was now up to the batsmen to deliver and supplement such a fine display by the bowlers, South Africa’s rearguard notwithstanding.

  Jeremy Bray perished early, caught behind off speedster Andre Nel for a single, but fellow opener William Porterfield held the innings together with a composed 37 despite losing Eoin Morgan and Niall O’Brien at the other end, both falling to Hall. It was Roger Telamachus who dislodged Porterfield, caught by Smith, to put Ireland in a dicey situation at 85/4.

  Kevin O’Brien then joined Botha in the middle, and the pair guided Ireland to a position of real strength with a fifth-wicket partnership of 54. Only 54 runs now separated the underdogs from an astonishing victory, and they still had six wickets in hand. Botha’s caught-behind dismissal to Nel for 40 however gave South Africa the opening they so desperately needed.

  The inexperience of the Irish batsmen proved to be their undoing and they suffered a meltdown, thus squandering their grip on the contest. The lower order failed to capitalise on the gains made thus far as pacemen Hall (3/30) and Charl Langeveldt (4/31) combined to dispose the last five wickets for just 11 runs. Kevin O’Brien tried his best to hang around, but was ninth out for 33.

  The Irish innings wound up at 157 in 44.2 overs, leaving South Africa relived victors by a narrow margin of 35 runs. Ireland’s bowlers, led by Langford-Smith (4/41) starred again in the second warm-up game against Canada three days later to help secure an easy seven-wicket win for their side.

  It may have just been a warm-up and Ireland may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but the spirit that emanated from their performance against a star-studded outfit that day was carried right into the tournament, during which they delighted their supporters and made the cricket world sit up and take notice of their exploits. Irish cricket was never the same again.

Match Scorecard

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In Focus – Ireland’s ODI journey completes ten years

  13th June marks a decade since Ireland played its first full One-Day International match. Led by Trent Johnston, the boys in green took on England at the scenic Civil Service Cricket Club in Belfast in 2006 and in spite of defeat, displayed spirit and enthusiasm that would typify their performances in the years to come.

  A sell-out crowd of close to 7,000 watched England win by 38 runs – the margin of victory being narrower than most people at the ground would have expected – as Ireland gave a creditable account of themselves. The best Irish batsman was however plying his trade for the opposite camp; Ed Joyce was one of three debutants fielded by England.

  Marcus Trescothick’s commanding 113 paved the way for England’s substantial total of 301/7. He shared in a stand of 143 for the fourth wicket with Ian Bell (80) after England were 92/3. Dave Langford-Smith, who would later have his moments at the 2007 World Cup, and John Mooney picked up three wickets apiece but were on the expensive side. Dominick Joyce, Ed’s younger brother, was out without scoring in the first over of the chase itself.

  Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha (who top-scored with 52) and Kyle McCallan batted grittily and at 118/2 in the 26th over, Ireland were making a good fist of it. However, Steve Harmison and Paul Collingwood put paid to any hopes of an upset as they engineered a collapse of 4 for 17 in three overs. Kevin O’Brien and Andrew White put on 74 for the seventh wicket before both fell to Bell, of all bowlers. Mooney hit around a bit from number ten as Ireland ended at a thoroughly respectable 263/9.

  Ireland had secured ODI status and World Cup qualification for the first time in 2005 when they finished second behind Scotland in the ICC Trophy at home. This was just a further confirmation of their recent exploits in the 50-over game, following famous wins over the touring Zimbabweans in 2003 and the West Indians in 2004. Lamentably, official international status was not accorded to either of these matches.

  Prior to these successes, Ireland’s most significant achievement was beating the West Indians at Sion Mills in 1969, where the tourists were shot out for a scarcely believable 25. But one would have to go even further back in time for Ireland’s first ever victory over a Test nation – this was against the South Africans at Dublin’s College Park back in 1904.

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      England’s Marcus Trescothick scored 113 as Ireland went down by 38 runs in their first ODI match at Belfast in 2006 (source – skysports.com)

  Ireland have seldom looked back after having attained ODI status. It did not take them long to record their first ODI win, which came in their second match against hosts Scotland in the European Championship Division One, a tournament which they went on to win. The ICC World Cricket League in Kenya at the start of 2007 was forgettable as Ireland managed only a solitary win in five matches.

  Few would have predicted that the watershed moment of Irish cricket was to arrive in the coming month. Clubbed with Pakistan, West Indies and Zimbabwe in Group D of the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, Ireland stunned all and sundry by storming into the Super Eight round after a tie with Zimbabwe and a defeat of Pakistan at Kingston’s Sabina Park on St. Patrick’s Day.

  The discipline and accuracy of the Irish bowlers, helped by the green-tinged wicket, was too much for the Pakistani batsmen to handle as they crumbled for a measly 132. Boyd Rankin and Botha in particular were excellent, with the latter’s remarkably stingy analysis of 8-4-5-2 being the stuff of legend. Yet, the inexperience of the batsmen could have nearly wasted a golden opportunity had it not been for Niall O’Brien.

  The older of the O’Brien brothers scored 72 and single-handedly anchored the chase. No other batsman crossed 16. It was captain Johnston who fittingly hit the winning six, sealing Ireland’s place in World Cup history. A second win against Bangladesh in the next round ensured that Ireland found a place on the ICC ODI table. A bunch of amateurs who were written off as cannon fodder for the stronger teams were the toast of the tournament.

  Ireland’s World Cup success garnered the attention of the cricketing world and as many as three top teams – India, South Africa and West Indies – travelled to the Emerald Isle to play ODIs in 2007. Early in 2008, Ireland played their first overseas bilateral series, losing all three ODIs in Bangladesh. However in the ensuing years, fixtures against full members frustratingly reduced to a trickle.

  2009 saw Ireland qualify for the World Cup again, this time by virtue of winning the qualifying tournament in South Africa. In the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, Ireland steadily became the world’s leading Associate nation by winning the WCL undefeated. Wins over Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the 2010/11 season proved that they were in for the long run. There was a massive opportunity squandered though when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against mighty Australia in Dublin.

  Ireland entered the 2011 World Cup with a point to prove. The ICC had callously decided to shut the door on the Associates for the 2015 World Cup and the onus was on the Irish, now led by William Porterfield, to be the torchbearers for the ‘have-nots’ of the cricket world. The non-Test playing nations were derided as ‘minnows’ and their very presence in the tournament was being questioned.

  Canada, Kenya and Netherlands had done little to change that opinion, so Ireland decided to take matters in their own hands. On a balmy night in Bangalore, red-haired Kevin O’Brien rampaged against old enemy England to provide the World Cup with its most astonishing spectacle. Ireland came into this game on the back of a narrow defeat to Bangladesh and needed something special to turn the tide.

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         Underdogs Ireland were the story of the 2007 World Cup as they notched famous wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh (source – icc-cricket.com) 

  The English batsmen filled their boots on a flat wicket and piled 327/8. Never before had this big a total been chased down successfully in a World Cup match. Ireland lost Porterfield off the very first ball, and despite positive intent from Paul Stirling and Ed Joyce – back with his native team four years after he last played for England – the writing was on the wall at 111/5 in the 25th over. Or so it seemed.

  With the assured presence of Alex Cusack at the other end, O’Brien unleashed himself on the English bowlers and into the record books. He blitzed the fastest World Cup hundred of all time – from just 50 balls – and ended up with 113 from 63 balls with 13 fours and six of the cleanest sixes one would ever see. By the time he was out in the 49th over, a lost cause had been turned into certain victory, which was duly achieved with five balls to spare. It was a script straight out of a fairytale.

  O’Brien had overnight become the poster boy of Irish cricket. Ireland had well and truly arrived and were no longer pushovers. Even though they did not make the quarterfinals, their performance was enough to put pressure on the ICC to reconsider their decision and hence continue with the 14-team format for the 2015 edition. If the 2007 win over Pakistan was a watershed moment, the 2011 win over England opened the floodgates.

  The significance of defeating England created a deep impact on the Irish cricketing scene. Test cricket was now a realistic prospect, national cricketers had professional contracts, participation had increased manifold and Irish cricket now had a future to look forward to. Yet, between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, Ireland played just nine ODIs against Test nations. It was a damning indictment of the indifference with which non-Test nations have been treated over the years.

  Pakistan and England toured Ireland in 2011, Australia in 2012. But one or two sporadic fixtures were hardly what an emerging team needed to further spread its wings. 2013 marked the arrival of a new inter-provincial domestic system consisting of three teams and contested in all three formats. Pakistan, en route to England for the Champions Trophy, played two more ODIs in Dublin in what was a thrilling series.

  Kevin O’Brien was at it again as Ireland were faced with a challenging revised target of 276 in 47 overs in the first game. A breezy 103 from Stirling set the chase up nicely and it ultimately came down to 15 runs off the final over. O’Brien (84* from 47 balls) collected 6,2, 4 off the last three balls to help tie the game. In the second ODI, Ireland let Pakistan off the hook and lost the series in the process.

  Tim Murtagh and Johnston had Pakistan on the mat at 17/4 after Ed Joyce’s sublime 116* guided Ireland to 229/8. However, the hosts could not sustain that level and watched ruefully as the lower order took Pakistan home. Later in the season, England hopped across for their customary solitary ODI, in what was billed as the biggest game of cricket on Irish soil. 

  This game marked the international debut of Ireland’s new ground, The Village at Malahide in Dublin. Bright sunshine greeted a capacity crowd of more than 10,000 as Irish cricket gloriously showed itself off to the world. The cricket itself was of high quality, but Ireland had to endure the disappointment of an English win made possible by one of their own.

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        Ireland’s most memorable ODI win came against England in 2010-11, with Kevin O’Brien smashing the fastest World Cup century  (source – theguardian.com)

  Eoin Morgan, who shifted allegiance to England in 2009 with a desire to play Test cricket was now captain of his adopted team, and he produced a match-winning 124* to propel England to a victory which seemed a distant possibility when the score read 48/4 in reply to Ireland’s 269/7. The home captain Porterfield had earlier made a hundred of his own, striking 112 to delight the crowd. Two Irishmen had scored centuries, yet Ireland ended up on the losing side.

  It was not long after that the ICC proclaimed that the 2019 World Cup would consist of only team teams – and this time the decision was to stay. Come the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Ireland once again had to defy lack of opportunities and the injustice of the powers-that-be to prove that they belonged to the world stage. Direct qualification by winning the WCL was expected, and the next target was a quarterfinal berth down under.

  Ireland’s first opponents were the West Indies at Nelson. Their joy knew no bounds as the Windies slipped to 87/5 after being put in to bat. But a hundred from Lendl Simmons – nephew of Ireland’s long-time coach Phil Simmons – steered the eventual total to a sturdy 304/7. The wicket was however good to bat on, the ground was small and the West Indian attack pedestrian.

  The Irish top order cashed in gleefully and a chase which would have had most teams in a quandary instead turned out to be clinically straightforward. Stirling (92 from 84 balls), Joyce (84 from 67) and Niall O’Brien (79* from 60) all starred and a four-wicket win was achieved with as many as 25 balls unused. This was a match Ireland were expected to win and it was ample proof that they had simply outgrown the ‘Associate’ tag.

  With this win, Ireland became the first team to successfully chase down a total of more than 300 on three occassions in the World Cup. Two more wins were achieved in the group stage – both nail-biting affairs – against UAE and Zimbabwe respectively. But heavy defeats to South Africa and India meant that Ireland lost out to the West Indies for a place in the quarterfinals by virtue of net run rate.

  Since the 2015 World Cup, Ireland along with Afghanistan have been permanently admitted into the ICC ODI Championship table. However, they have played only five ODIs in this period. This state of affairs is set to change slightly, as a clutch of matches have been scheduled over the next one year. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will all be touring Ireland this summer. Ireland will later travel to South Africa to play the hosts as well as Australia.

  Hopefully, this is a sign for an even more regular diet of fixtures against higher ranked teams. With Ireland all but certain to play its first Test match sooner than later, the next few years promise to be an exciting period for Irish cricket as it prepares to take yet another giant step foward.

Specials – Ireland’s best T20 wins

  Even though T20 is a fickle format and much dependent on luck, the forthcoming T20 World Cup in Bangladesh is as important a tournament as any for the six Associates who will have to undergo qualifying in order to reach the main round.

  For Ireland, this tournament assumes even more importance as they aim to attain more international fixtures against top opposition. The Irish get to play very few games against Test sides and provided they top a group also including Zimbabwe, the UAE and the Netherlands; they have a chance to take on Sri Lanka, South Africa, England and New Zealand in the tournament proper.

  Till date Ireland have played 34 T20 internationals since 2008, winning 18 and losing 13. As Ireland’s opening game against Zimbabawe on St. Patrick’s Day draws near, let us look at five of Ireland’s best Twenty20 wins, in chronological order: –

1) Beat Bangladesh by 6 wickets, Nottingham 2009

  After missing out on the inaugural edition in 2007,  Ireland qualified for the second T20 World Cup in England in 2009. Clubbed with India and Bangladesh in the group stage, Ireland’s only chance to progress to the Super 8 was by beating the latter.

  In a do-or-die clash at Trent Bridge, Ireland scored a six-wicket win in their very first T20I against a full member. William Porterfield put in Bangladesh and the Irish took wickets at regular intervals and never really allowed the Tigers to consolidate. The score was 66/5 in the eleventh over and then 94/7 in the 17th, before Mashrafe Mortaza (33*) clouted a few to take the total up to 137/8. Former captain Trent Johnston starred by ejecting the first three wickets for only 20 runs.

zir3   Kevin O’Brien and John Mooney celebrate after Ireland beat Bangladesh by 6 wickets in the 2009 World T20 at Trent Bridge (source – worldoft20.blogspot.com)

  Ireland lost Jeremy Bray with only six runs on the board, but Porterfield and Niall O’Brien combined for a breezy 55-run second wicket stand. O’Brien made a vital 40 off 25 balls (3×4, 3×6). Bangladesh fought back to reduce Ireland to 89/4 in 14.3 overs, the match hanging in balance.

  However, out came Kevin O’Brien at that stage and clubbed 39 from just 15 balls (4×4, 2×6) to stun the Bangladeshis. He put on an unbroken 49 with John Mooney in only four overs and struck the winning boundary off Rubel Hossain to help Ireland reach 138/4 in 18.2 overs and thus seal a spot in the next round. Niall O’Brien was named man of the match.

2) Beat Kenya by 10 wickets, Dubai 2011-12

  Ireland recovered from their upset opening defeat to Namibia in the 2012 World T20 Qualifiers in ruthless fashion, thumping Kenya by  ten wickets at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. Boyd Rankin (3/20) reduced Kenya to 13/3 in the third over itself, which later became 39/6. Except for Tanmay Mishra (28), no one managed double fugures as Kenya were shot out for 71 in 19 overs, the last four wickets falling for just seven runs. Alex Cusack, John Mooney and George Dockrell all chipped in with two wickets each.

  Captain William Porterfield was in blazing form in reply, as he blasted an unbeaten 56 from only 27 balls (8×4, 2×6). He added an unbroken 72 in just 7.2 overs with fellow opener Paul Stirling to inflict a massive defeat on the African nation. Ireland won all their following games  and went on to win the tournament by beating fellow qualifiers Afghanistan in the final. In terms of balls remaining (76), this is the biggest margin of victory in all T20 internationals.

3) Beat Afghanistan by 5 wickets, Dubai 2011-12

  Ireland, who had lost the 2010 Qualifiers final to Afghanistan, beat the same opponents two years later at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium to win the title. Batting first, Afghanistan’s total of 152/7 was built around wicketkeeper Mohammed Shahzad’s 77 off 57 balls (7×4, 2×6) from number three. No one else crossed 17. He was the seventh wicket to fall in the 19th over, rescuing his side from 27/2. Max Sorensen and Kevin O’Brien bagged two wickets apiece, with the latter going for just 4.5 runs an over.

  Dawlat Zadran castled captain William Porterfield off the very first ball of the chase. But at the other end, Paul Stirling was in brutal form. He smashed 79 off 38 balls (9×4, 3×6) and added 80 for the third wicket with Gary Wilson (32). Zadran (3/21) came back to dismiss Stirling and K. O’Brien in successive balls, but Wilson and Andrew Poynter averted further hiccups. Ireland reached 156/5, winning with seven balls to spare.

4) Beat Afghanistan by 68 runs, Abu Dhabi 2013-14

  Ireland were unbeaten throughout the 2014 World T20 Qualifiers and reserved their blistering best for the final against familar foes Afghanistan. William Porterfield called correctly at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium and his team never looked back. Along with Paul Stirling, he shared a rollicking opening stand of 68 in just 5.3 overs to set the tone.

  Stirling, who smashed 76 in 43 balls (8×4, 4×6) then added a further 64 in 5.2 overs for the fourth wicket with the evergreen Trent Johnston, who was playing his last international for Ireland. ‘TJ’ helped himself to a cracking 32-ball 62 (5×4, 4×6) as the final total ballooned to a mammoth 225/7 – easily Ireland’s highest and the fourth-highest in all T20Is. Hamza Hotak (3/39) was the pick of the Afghan bowlers.

  Afghanistan too seemed to be hitting out from ball one itself, but regular wickets dented their chase. They reached 76 in just seven overs, but for the loss of four wickets. Johnston made his swansong even sweeter, claiming 3/34 to hasten Afghanistan’s end.

  Tim Murtagh, Alex Cusack and George Dockrell took wickets each as Afghanistan folded for 157 in 18.5 overs. The top-scorer was Gulbadin Naib with 43 in 19 balls (3×4, 4×6). Not suprisingly, Johnston was named man of the match. It was a commendable feat for Ireland to remain unbeaten throughout the entire tournament.

5) Beat West Indies by 6 wickets, Kingston 2013-14

zed-joyce-leaves-the-field-after-victory-1922014-390x285   Ed Joyce leaves the field after guiding Ireland to a convincing six-wicket win over the West Indies at Kingston in February 2014 (source – thescore.ie)

  This has to be Ireland’s best T20 win till date, since it came against a top team – in fact the defending World T20 champions – in their own backyard of Sabina Park, which was incidentally the scene of Ireland’s famous ODI win over Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup.

  After the West Indies elected to bat, none of the batsmen were able to stay on the crease for long enough to lay a solid base. Alex Cusack (2/17), Kevin O’Brien (2/17) and Tim Murtagh (2/28) all played a role as no batsmen crossed even 20, Chris Gayle’s 18 being the highest. The eventual total was 116/8, which could have been tricky to chase on the dead track.

  Ireland knew they were not going to have it easy when openers William Porterfield and Paul Stirling were both dismissed early to make the score 8/2 in the second over, which later became 37/3. But the reliable Ed Joyce, batting at number three, was looking confident and he found a willing ally in Andrew Poynter (32 off 30, 6×4). The two added a game-changing 58 in 9.1 overs for the fourth wicket to soothe Irish nerves. When Poynter got out, the required equation was a comfortable 23 off 25 balls.

  Joyce, later named man of the match, remained unbeaten on 40 (49 balls, 2×4) while Kevin O’Brien scored the winning couple of runs off Ravi Rampaul to help Ireland reach 117/4 in 19.1 overs. This was the first of a two-match series, and the hosts made things even with an 11-run win in the second game.