Ireland’s cricket fortunes continue to rise

Ireland’s cricket fortunes continue to rise

Irish positives aplenty as ODI series drawn

After losing the T20I series and with rain playing spoilsport in the third one-day international, Ireland had to settle for a series draw against Zimbabwe at the Harare Sports Club last month.

Zimbabwe won a rain-affected, last-ball thriller to win the first match on January 18 before Josh Little’s four-fer and half-centuries from Stephen Doheny and Harry Tector helped Ireland level the series three days later.

Having missed the T20I series due to franchise commitments, Ireland were boosted by the return of its senior players Little, Paul Stirling and Lorcan Tucker.

However, none of the three men could prevent the dramatic first ODI defeat at the hands of Ryan Burl. The Zimbabwean all-rounder once again rose to the occasion after delivering a player-of-the-series performance in the T20Is.

Chasing 288, the hosts were comfortably placed in the 27th over at 127 for four, 37 runs short of the DLS par score. With the possibility of rain around, Burl and Sikandar Raza took the aerial route, scoring 33 off the next four overs, to ensure Zimbabwe stayed ahead of the par score. Ultimately, when the players went off after a steady drizzle, Ireland were in front by a mere two-run margin.

The drama wasn’t over yet. When the rain subsided, Zimbabwe’s adjusted target of 214 meant they required 39 off 22 deliveries. Mark Adair struck second ball after the delay to snuff out Raza but Burl (59) continued to fetch boundaries and brought up his half-century.

Needing 13 off the last over, Curtis Campher ran out Burl but Graham Hume conceded a six off the first ball Brad Evans faced. A ball later, Hume struck back with an LBW but failed to defend four off the final ball as wicketkeeper-batter, Clive Madande, swiped a full ball to the long-on boundary to seal the game in Zimbabwe’s favour.

Earlier in the day, Balbirnie, in his 200th appearance for Ireland, scored his eighth century (121) in the format and was involved in a record 212-run partnership with Harry Tector before a top-edge off a full-toss ricocheted onto his grill to force him off the field.

Tector, who continued his sublime form as he notched up his third century in the last four ODIs, struck eight fours and a six in his unbeaten 109-ball stay at the crease. Adair and Hume took two wickets apiece but it wasn't enough on the day.

Ahead of the second match, Balbirnie was ruled out of the series due to a concussion and Murray Commins, the Munster Reds batter, was flown in to replace him.

The 26-year-old left-hander, who qualified through residency a year ago, went from playing club cricket in South Africa to being handed his ODI debut in the space of 24 hours going into the second game captained by Paul Stirling.

Being inserted to bat, Ireland cruised to their highest total against Zimbabwe riding on Stephen Doheny’s 84 and Tector’s 75. George Dockrell provided the finishing fireworks with a 19-ball 30.

Asked to chase 295, Zimbabwe were placed comfortably at 207 for four before collapsing to lose the remaining six wickets for just 41 runs. Campher’s run-out of Burl, for 41 in the 40th over, turned the game on its head as the Irish quicks closed out a 46-run win.

Little returned his career-best haul of 4-38 to force a series decider but only 13 overs of play were possible in the final ODI before rain intervened.

“It’s a fair result,” Stirling, who stood in for Balbirnie, said with the series level at 1-1.

“[It was] another close series. We enjoy a close relationship with the Zimbabwe team, it’s brilliant cricket and both teams go hard at each other. Disappointed not to get back out there again.”

While neither side would have minded the draw, Ireland would have walked away with a feeling of contentment. The likes of Ross Adair, in the T20I series, and Stephen Doheny had stepped up, after making their debuts, to score valuable runs alongside Balbirnie and Tector to complement the depth in bowling.

“We have got the balance pretty well at the minute,” Stirling said.

“I think it takes a couple of years for you to get it right where the youngsters come through and we have seen that with Josh (Little), Harry (Tector) and the others. We are really looking forward to seeing them kick on and then you also need that experience at the top in the leadership group with Balbo (Andrew Balbirnie) not playing.

“It’s a good mix and hopefully we can use that to our strength in the coming months.”

Ireland are next in action in March and April when they tour Bangladesh for three ODIs and as many T20Is before concluding the visit with a Test match.

While the consequences of the three ODIs will have no bearing on Ireland’s World Cup qualification chances, all eyes will be on the one-off Test match in Dhaka for it will be the first time in four years Ireland will don the whites and face the red-ball.

Since being awarded the Test status in 2017, Ireland have lost all the three Tests against Pakistan in Malahide, Afghanistan in Dehradun and England at Lord’s.

The Men in Green will then play hosts to Bangladesh in May for three ODIs which will be a part of the World Cup Super League, the pathway to the ODI World Cup in India.

Ireland face stiff competition from South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies over the final spot left for automatic qualification. They need to win their last three games and hope for other results to go their way. If not, they will head to the World Cup Qualifier in June, incidentally, hosted by Zimbabwe.

“It’s exciting. We really want to go into that last series against Bangladesh with a chance and give it everything we have got,” Stirling said.

The last time the Irish made the trip in 2018 to the global qualifiers in Zimbabwe for a place in the 2019 showpiece event, also a ten-team affair, they fell at the final hurdle after being beaten by a resurgent Afghanistan team.

“We know how difficult it is to qualify for a World Cup especially when it is just ten teams so we want to put our best efforts and the best team to hopefully get through. On the flip side, if we don’t make it, we know we are back here [in Zimbabwe] in June for a month. Having played in these conditions before, we will give it another nudge.”