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

Record Book – Ireland’s first ODI victory

  In spite of their consistent exploits on the world stage, the Irish cricket team continues to get a raw deal from shortsighted administrators who fail to see beyond their own interests.

  Ireland may have been included in the ICC ODI table, but so far the move has proved to be an eyewash as there are simply no regular fixtures to allow them the scope of rising up the ladder.

  In the limited opportunities that they have received, the world’s leading Associate nation has time and again proved they are as good as most Test nations when it comes to ODI cricket.

  Their rise in recent years has been remarkable, especially when one considers the fact that it was only in 1993 that the national team – a combination of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – was inducted as a member of the ICC.

  The turning point came in 2005 when Ireland finished second behind Scotland in the ICC Trophy on home soil, thus securing ODI status for the first time. They also qualified for the 2007 World Cup where they announced their arrival as a team to reckon with. In the summer of 2006, they played their first ODI, against England at Belfast. Led by Trent Johnston, the hosts impressed in defeat as they went down by 38 runs.

  Ireland’s next ODI fixtures were two months later in the 2006 European Cricket Championship Division One played in Scotland. This was the sixth time that they were participating in the biennial tournament, but the first time as an official ODI nation.

  They had won the inaugural edition in Denmark in 1996. The 2006 edition’s Division One consisted of five teams of which three – Scotland, Ireland and Netherlands – had ODI status. Ireland began their campaign with a 99-run win over Denmark at Glasgow before travelling to Ayr the next day, 5th August, to face traditional rivals Scotland.

  In the ICC Trophy final a year ago, the Scots had defeated the Irish by 47 runs and thus there was a healthy tussle between the two nations for the title of the best European Associate side. Scotland were the more experienced outfit and started as favourites for this clash, having given Pakistan a scare earlier in the season in their first ODI since 1999.

zzeio     Eoin Morgan scored 99 on debut to help Ireland build a defendable total against Scotland (source – pa photos/espncricinfo.com)

  Both the sides were at full strength, the teams resembling almost the same as those they would field in the World Cup eight months later. However a notable absentee from the Irish eleven was star batsman Ed Joyce, who had been picked to play for England in Ireland’s inaugural ODI.

  Joyce would go on to represent England in the 2007 World Cup. The evergreen Johnston captained Ireland while his opposite number was ODI debutant Craig Wright. Among the Scottish ranks was Dougie Brown, who was playing for his country of birth in an ODI for the first time, eight years after last turning out for England.

  Scotland won the toss and elected to field. Brown marked his ODI return with an early scalp as he trapped Jeremy Bray leg before. Bray’s fellow opener William Porterfield, on ODI debut, too did not last long as he edged one off Paul Hoffman to the wicketkeeper Craig Smith.

  The score was a worrying 19/2 when when Niall O’Brien, also on debut, came out to join Eoin Morgan, Ireland’s third debutant, in the middle. The two repaired the innings with a third-wicket partnership of 80 before O’Brien was dismissed by Wright for a vital 32.

  Medium pacer Wright (3/32) bowled excellently in the middle overs as he soon followed O’Brien’s wicket with those of Andre Botha and Peter Gillespie in the space of three balls. Ireland slid back to 118/5, but the impressive Morgan held one end with maturity. However, slow left-armer Ross Lyons dismissed Johnston and Andrew White cheaply to reduce the score to 164/7.

  All-rounder Kyle McCallan joined Morgan at the fall of the seventh wicket and the duo forged a game-changing alliance. McCallan’s counterattack was the perfect foil for Morgan’s flair as they put on a rapid 73 runs to swing the momentum towards their team.

  Morgan looked well set for a debut hundred, but he was most unfortunate in getting run out for 99 in the final over when he failed to make his ground at the keeper’s end following a throw from Neil McCallum.

  The Middlesex left-hander – who to Ireland’s frustration, was destined to play for England within the next three years – became the first and remains the only man to be dismissed one short of a century on ODI debut. He blurt out a few profanities due to his disappointment, for which he was later reprimanded by the match referee.

  Morgan batted for more than three hours facing 134 balls and hit seven fours and a six in his innings, while McCallan remained unbeaten on a breezy 46 from 35 balls with five fours and a six to give much-needed impetus to the total, which was eventually boosted up to 240/8 in 50 overs.

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   Dave Langford-Smith gave an early setback to the Scottish chase by taking the first three wickets (source – reuters/eurosport.com)

  In reply, Sydney-born pace bowler Dave Langford-Smith came up with a first-rate spell to put the Scots on the back foot. With the score on 20, he removed Neil McRae courtesy a catch from Trent Johnston.

  Opener Navdeep Poonia, who was looking in good nick, was the next to perish as Langford-Smith disturbed his woodwork to make it 49/2. Three runs later, Johnston took another catch to get rid of Ryan Watson – scorer of 94 runs in the ICC Trophy final – and thus give Langford-Smith (3/32) his third victim.

  From thereon, Scotland were always playing catch-up as no two batsmen were able to stitch a decent partnership. Brown had a scratchy stay before John Mooney’s medium pace induced an edge from him to O’Brien behind the wicket. At the other end, Botha struck McCallum on the pads to reduce the score to 84/5.

  It was to become worse as McCallan (2/37) turned the screws with a double-strike within the space of three runs. The off-spinner first bowled Omer Hussain and later had Smith stumped to leave the hosts tottering at 91/7 with only the tail-enders remaining.

  Hoffman, who came in at 119/8, launched a last-gasp onslaught as he cracked 31 off 14 balls including four sixes – the innings’ top score. White (2/31) captured the final two wickets, those of Wright and Hoffman (both caught by Bray), with his off-spin to condemn Scotland to 155 all out in 41.3 overs. 

  Morgan was named man of the match for his innings that guided the Irish to an ultimately defendable total. This convincing 85-run win against the tournament favourites set Ireland on the right track to win the title.

  Their next ODI against Netherlands was rained off after being in a strong position, before which they had romped to an easy win over Denmark. By virtue of three wins and a no-result, Ireland won the tournament after ten years.

  This win no doubt served as a morale booster in the lead-up to the 2007 World Cup where wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh resulted in a massive change in Ireland’s cricketing landscape.

  Eight years later, the admirable levels of professionalism are there to see as the boys in green recently enjoyed their most productive World Cup campaign in the Antipodes, where they won three out of six matches and agonisingly fell short of a quarterfinal berth.

Match Scorecard – http://www.espncricinfo.com/scotland/engine/match/253010.html