Ireland + Cricket = World Cup Magic

The Purple Haired Beast!

Just when one thought that the India-England game could not be bettered as the game of the tournament, Bangalore was treated to its second thriller in four days. England have taken part in both, and despite scoring in excess of 300 in both matches, they haven’t managed to secure a win in either. Its hard to see them regroup in this tournament, after two matches which must have exhausted them physically and mentally; then again, as Ireland showed, nothing is certain in this edition anymore.

Where to begin? One can carp on about England’s dismal bowling and fielding; or even the failed acceleration in the dying overs of their innings. Anderson’s rapid decline and England’s absent lower order are some of the topics which one can talk about; but to do so would be distracting from the main story. Ireland, in particular Kevin O’Brien, played out of their skins to secure one of the most famous upsets in World Cup history.

Most upsets have a common thread. They would all be low scoring thrillers, where a couple of bowlers and a bunch of charged up fielders ruthlessly exploit the opposition’s complacency to bowl them out for a low score. The team causing the upset would barely do better, with one or two key batsmen carrying their team across the line, just in time or with a few wickets to spare.

Here too, one batsman played the main role, supported by a couple of key contributions; and Ireland scraped through in the last over with 3 wickets to spare. This is where the similarities end. For, the magnitude of Ireland’s achievement on March 2, 2011 was much, much bigger than your usual upset.

For one, they played in the backdrop of the ongoing controversy over the ICC booting the Associate nations out of the next World cup. They were also coming to Bangalore on the back of a demoralizing defeat to Bangladesh, in a game which they should have won. They were facing off against an opponent who had just days previously tied, in a high scoring game with India.  When the game got underway, things got only worse.

They let England rack up 327 runs, and in reply stumbled to 111/5 at the halfway mark. This was supposed to be the cue for the Associate nation to get rolled over after a flurry of rash shots, or after gifting their wickets away to a hat-trick performance by the opposition’s strike bowler.

Instead, a 29 year old electrician/cricketer decided that this was the time to regale the few Irish supporters who had come to the ground, so that they may leave home with at least a few memories to cherish.

Sixes and fours started to rain from the bat of Kevin O’Brien, who reached his fifty in quick time; and in the company of Cusack, he began to build a partnership which the pair realized quickly, could turn their fortunes around. Cheered on by vociferous supporters (both Irish and Indian) and a hopeful dressing room, O’Brien, Cusack, and later Mooney and Johnston stole the most stunning victory from a shell shocked English camp.

Most impressive was O’Brien, who emulated his brother Niall (of 2007 Pakistan upset fame) in leading an upset over a full ICC member nation. Statistics will show that he broke the record for the fastest World Cup ton by a margin of 16 balls (!) and that his 113 runs consisted of 88 runs through boundaries alone. What they will not tell is the calm and clinical way he dismantled the bowling. Like Pollard and Pathan, he chose which deliveries to hit wisely, and once he committed to it, there was only one way the ball was heading. Calls for an IPL contract might be premature, but if he can sustain these kind of performances, he can turn out to be one of the most dangerous batsmen in the shorter format. After all John Davison announced himself with a 67 ball hundred in a World Cup match too, but since then, he doesn’t have much to show.

One cannot forget the contributions from Cusack, Mooney and Johnston. Cusack played the most mature innings under the circumstance, wisely feeding strike to O’Brien and making sure that the run rate wouldn’t flag. Mooney, and later Johnston ensured that all the hard work done by the 6th wicket pair was not wasted, by duly sealing the deal.

The Irish are known for their celebrations, and there is no doubt that the party would have lasted late into the night. For many of the supporters, it was not just any victory; an Irish victory over England in any sport is cherished, and to beat the English in a game which they are vastly superior made it Ireland’s greatest sporting moment. Now, the sport is sure to win new fans in the country for this reason alone! What a pity, that they might not feature in the next edition..

You sure can play cricket, Ireland..

(For my penny’s worth, I feel that the move to prune the number of teams in the next World Cup to be a step in the right direction. I don’t agree with it in entirety, as I feel Associate nations should be included; just that only the top two associates should feature. eg: Netherlands, Ireland. This will be incentive for other nations to improve their performance, and drastically reduce the number of mismatches like the ones involving Canada and Kenya. For, I long to see a World Cup one day, when Afghanistan will be competing for the World Cup with Ireland in the final!)

So, where to now, Ireland? A miraculous chase will not paper over their bowling. Rankin, Dockrell, Mooney, Johnston and Stirling will need to be consistent in every match of the group phase, to give their batsmen a decent chance of winning any game, and thereby progressing to the next phase.For that matter, the Irish top order has not exactly covered itself in glory over the last two matches, but in Porterfield, Joyce and the O’Brien brothers, they have quality batsmen who cannot fail for long. All in all, Ireland have served notice to the rest of their group, that they cannot be considered just ‘another’ Associate nation. If teams like India and West Indies take them lightly, they will do well to remember Strauss’ shocked expression at the end of another pulsating encounter at Bangalore.


Can the Irish make their own luck?

The World Cup is not even a week old, but the grumblings about bloated schedules and minnows devaluing the tournament are in full force. To an extent, they are fair given the performance of Kenya, Canada and Zimbabwe. So far, only the Dutch have done a terrific job of providing a contest; but I will reserve my judgment till Ireland get their campaign going.

If there is one ‘minnow’ team capable of putting up a contest in every game, it is Ireland. They made their World Cup debut in 2007 and had a dream run, starting off with a tie against Zimbabwe and in the biggest upset in World Cup history – knocked out Pakistan through a thrilling 3 wicket win.

While the subcontinent heavyweights returned home in shame, a bunch of amateur cricketers (who had the least experience in the tournament but made up for it with sheer joy and love of the game), entered the Super 8s, to face the big boys. Inevitably, they faced tougher games and bowed out before the knock-out stage; but not before defeating another Test playing nation in the form of Bangladesh. They returned home, much later than they would have imagined, but with a story to tell their grandkids in the future.

Four years on, lots has changed. The profile of cricket has changed in Ireland. All except two are professional cricketers, in the squad. Now, they come with expectations to not just compete, but to claim at least one big scalp. Considering that they have West Indies and Bangladesh in their group, it is not an unrealistic proposition.

Their recent form may have been patchy, but there is no doubt that in the likes of Botha, Dockrell, Johnston, Joyce, the O’Brien brothers, Porterfield and Rankin – they have the players to rise up to the occasion, and join the Dutch in giving the ICC something to think about.

To know more about Team Ireland, click here.