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.

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