Tuesday, September 3, 2013



Richard Bullick at Malahide

A world record fifth wicket partnership for one day internationals proved decisive in today’s RSA Challenge, which featured two cracking centuries by Irishmen but was won by the team which calls itself England.

A magnificent captain’s innings by William Porterfield wasn’t enough to take his team to what would have been a second ever victory over England on what at one stage seemed set to be the ultimate dream day for Irish cricket in their new Malahide home.

But ultimately he was upstaged by compatriot Eoin Morgan, whose clinical century in the adopted colours of England must be applauded and lamented in equal measure as Irish fans were force fed a stark reminder of the talent their nearest neighbours have plundered.

This contest produced plenty of excellent cricket to entertain a record crowd for a match in Ireland and in so many ways reflected the strides made by the game in this country, but also the unfair and unsatisfactory nature of international cricket.

It may sound like sour grapes but the only way for Irish fans to reflect on today without a degree of bitterness is to think of England as the threadbare team who turned up without enough players and had to be lent two of our own – who then proved to be their top performers.

Or if you think of this match as an exhibition between Ireland and the Rest of the World based on the origins of the players involved and recrunch the numbers accordingly, then the Irish would have won hands down.

Embarrassingly for England, their main wicket-taker and run-scorer respectively were Irishmen born and bred in Boyd Rankin and Morgan – the latter even captaining the visiting team – but they won’t lose any sleep over their modern day colonialism as they can keep plundering the smaller nation’s talents for the foreseeable future.

However, to the great credit of Cricket Ireland, they are ambitious rather than defeatist and have made massive strides towards sooner rather than later offering home-grown talent the ultimate outlet of Test cricket, never mind being competitive in limited overs World Cups. They understand there is no point crying over spilt milk and that sour grapes aren’t nourishing.

The team’s progress on the field in recent years has been matched off it by vision backed up by professionalism and persistence, and today’s exceptional event couldn’t even have been imagined a couple of decades ago.

But the collection of players in red loosely known as ‘England’ ultimately won the cricket match comfortably enough in the end, by six wickets with seven overs to spare, as both Morgan and Ravi Bopara rattled off unbeaten centuries to take the visitors home.

Their unbroken partnership of 226 was a record for the fifth wicket in one day internationals by any nation and completely took the match away from an Irish team that had been in the box seat when the pair came together.

The Irish spinners went for 109 in 15 overs between them on what had appeared likely to be a helpful pitch while back-up medium-pacers Kevin O’Brien and John Mooney proved little more than cannon-fodder as they went for nearly 10 an over between them.

In the end victory came quickly, with 22 taken from what proved to be the final over though it began with Morgan being dropped by Niall O’Brien at deep mid-wicket, the batsmen strolling a single to give Bopara a chance to hurry to his century with 14 from the next three balls before the honour of finishing the job with another big boundary clearance fittingly fell to the local lad.

Morgan’s man-of-the-match award was thoroughly deserved and sportingly acknowledged by the crowd, but rubbed salt in Irish wounds for it was his superb 124 not out which was the main difference between these teams.

A little earlier, when England were reduced to 48 for four chasing a testing 270, it looked like home captain Porterfield would be the hero and headline-maker for his own notable century.

The prolific Irish skipper has had the frustration of often falling early in these glamour games but really came to the party this time after Ireland were put in to bat – another sign of changed times from the old days – by their compatriot Morgan.

The presence of Ireland’s best batsman and bowler in the opposition line-up had cast an advance shadow over this fixture as did the composition of England’s unashamedly experimental line-up, featuring none of their Ashes-winning frontliners.

But there were only these metaphorical clouds on a glorious sunny day mercifully free from the inclement weather which has all too often blighted these showcase fixtures in recent years and a near capacity crowd of close to 10,000 went home with plenty to be proud of as Irish cricket fans.

Ireland’s most explosive batsman, Paul Stirling, and their most experienced, Ed Joyce, each fell cheaply in the early stages but Porterfield emphatically proved his worth with the willow and the lower middle order built upon the platform laid.

Putting 269 on the board on a wicket which was taking spin gave Ireland a serious chance and they got off to an excellent start in the field thanks to the typical probing of veteran Trent Johnston and an inspired spell by Middlesex man Tim Murtagh.

It was Johnston, in his final encounter with England having announced he will be retiring at the end of the year, who made the breakthrough by trapping Michael Carberry – completing a miserable day for the Hampshire man – leg before but Murtagh’s double-wicket maiden soon afterwards really put the Irish on the front foot for a period.

Back in the old days when Test teams visited these shores, the gentleman’s agreement was that they would bat first to ensure maximum entertainment for the crowd regardless of who won the toss but the rules of engagement are different now.

Porterfield turned the second ball of the innings through fine leg for four off Steve Finn and repeated the trick against his old North West buddy Rankin in the naturalised Englishman’s first over from the other end.

The crowd would have hoped for fireworks from the precocious Stirling but those filtering in late missed the brief entertainment, which amounted to successive cover driven fours in Rankin’s second over as he had perished before its completion.

That brought Joyce to the wicket with the ludicrous scenario of facing Rankin in a direct role reversal of the 2007 World Cup clash between the teams when both players were on opposite sides to today.

The Irish skipper’s response to his opening partner’s departure was to take two boundaries off Finn’s next over as the greens got to 33 for one after five. But disaster struck in the eighth over when Joyce’s heel squeezed into his stumps and the bail dropped off apologetically, confirmation of the unusual dismissal coming from the third umpire.

A bouncer from Finn struck a ducking Porterfield hard on the side of his helmet and in spite of a boundary just over square leg’s hands, Ireland only scored seven runs in their second five overs to have 40 up by the end of the 10th.

The introduction of all-rounder Bopara eased the pressure somewhat and Porterfield took him for two boundaries in his second over after Ireland’s 50 came up off the last ball of the 12th, prompting Morgan to introduce spinner James Tredwell.

Porterfield confidently reverse swept his third ball for four but Tredwell looked dangerous throughout his 10 overs which were reeled off in a single spell from the Castle End. He should have had a wicket in his third over but for a dreadful dropped catch by Carberry, but needed no help when bowling the same player, Niall O’Brien, with the final ball of his next.

That made it 95 for three, with the next highlights being Porterfield’s half-century (65 balls), Ireland reaching the 100 mark before the end of the same over and new batsman Gary Wilson getting off the mark for good measure.

At the mid-point of the innings the score was 115 for three with things capable of going either way and it didn’t look great for Ireland when Wilson, starved of the strike, was trapped in front by Tredwell for two in the 27th over with 121 on the board.

His dismissal facilitated the entrance of Kevin O’Brien, the hero of Ireland’s famous victory over England in Bangalore at the 2011 World Cup, to raucous cheers from the green army though the returning Finn – on this time at the Pavilion End – induced a false shot from him early on.

Finn only bowled a single over and was replaced by all-rounder Luke Wright, who Porterfield greeted with a savage pull through mid-on for four to bring Ireland’s total to 140 off 30 overs, though the home captain had a lucky let-off in the next over when nicking Tredwell past debutant Gary Ballance, who seemed to be taking evasive action at second slip.

O’Brien brought up the 150 by pushing Wright through third man but he didn’t last much longer, pulling a short ball from Bopara, already in his third spell, to his old team-mate Morgan at short mid-wicket.

The powerplay began with Ireland on 163 for five but was largely unproductive, yielding only 16 runs, though it would have been a worse return for Phil Simmons’ side had Carberry not dropped Porterfield this time, with the skipper in the 80s.

Rankin returned for the 40th over and Ireland were 179 for five entering the last 10, from which they were to score an impressive 90 runs, though the introduction of Carberry for an unimpressive single over which yielded 11 – including boundaries by Porterfield and a previously far from fluent John Mooney – helped set the greens on their way.

Skipper Porterfield reached his century in the grand manner, pulling Rankin into the Malahide equivalent of Headingley’s Western Terrace, and the team total ticked past 200 before the end of that 42nd over.

He was there until the start of the final five before edging Rankin – who finished with four for 47 – into his stumps to depart to a great ovation for 112 and Mooney followed lbw later in that 45th over, which brought Johnston and Max Sorensen together.

Sorensen was preferred to vastly-experienced all-rounder Andrew White as the replacement for regular Alex Cusack and, although the crowd may have hoped for some spectacular late hits from the legendary Johnston, it was the lesser-known name who really cut loose.

He hit Finn for sixes in successive overs to finish with a very valuable 24 from 17 deliveries while Johnston also finished with better than a run a ball by hammering the final one of the innings for a blistering straight boundary.

The inroads made by Johnston and Murtagh at the top of the English innings reduced the visitors to 25 for three and brought Morgan to the crease with plenty of pressure on the skipper’s shoulders on his old home ground, albeit it looked very different then.

Murtagh’s double-wicket maiden had included Wright playing onto his stumps and new batsman Ballance nicking to Wilson behind the stumps. Another tight over from Johnston left England on 27 for three after 10, 13 runs and one wicket worse off than Ireland had been.

Morgan has a great record of delivering match-winning innings for his adopted country in limited overs cricket, though he hadn’t made a half-century in his last 18 one-dayers. However you just sensed he would do something special here.

Sorensen took over from Johnston after five overs at the Castle End but Murtagh continued and claimed what seemed a highly significant fourth wicket for Ireland when clean bowling James Taylor for 25 in his eighth.

England were perilously placed at 48 for four but that was as good as it got for the boys in green as a now noisy, excited, expectant crowd were gradually reduced to an air of reserved resignation, their silences only punctuated by polite applause for milestones.

The 100 came up in the 24th over with the Irish spinners now bowling ineffectively in tandem, the next landmark was Morgan’s half-century and Bopara duly followed suit out of 170 for four in the 33rd over.

The team in red made inexorable progress towards an ever less daunting target and Morgan got a generous reception when he carved veteran Johnston over cover for six in the 38th over to emulate the means by which his former Rush clubmate Porterfield reached three figures earlier in the day.

That replicating hit seemed symbolic of England spoiling the Irish party, not only depriving them of victory through the efforts of exiled Irishmen but even denying the home captain sole ownership of the champagne moment through the visiting skipper, an Irishman, matching his most significant stroke.

But at the end of wonderful day, the sun was still shining on Irish cricket and the impressive progress that continue to be made is all the more commendable for being achieved in the face of these huge handicaps.

Although the match was ultimately lost – to the disappointment of this talented and ambitious team – and frustrations remain regarding factors outside its control, there is no doubt that Irish cricket can celebrate being a winner today.

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