Thursday 30 March 2017

Miracle men stay ice cool in the heat of their moment

Tommy Conlon

A s Ireland started piling on the runs in Bangalore last Wednesday, the Six Nations match in Paris five years ago suddenly materialised in the memory.

Ireland had looked down and out that day, trailing 43-3 having conceded six tries to the French. It was a complete and utter rout. Some 30 minutes remained, but this would be garbage time: the match had to be finished but the contest was dead.

Then, with nothing to lose, Irish players shed their inhibitions and started to cut loose. They scored a try; then another and another and another. Now it was 43-31 and with ten minutes remaining the result was up for grabs again. France were on the rack, Ireland had all the momentum.

But suddenly they had everything to lose again. They could win it now. The pressure was on them to seal the deal. And having played with such freewheeling energy, they tensed up again. Mistakes mounted; their skills deteriorated; they turned the ball over repeatedly as they charged into the French defence. They were all fire and no ice. They didn't score again.

When Kevin O'Brien came to the crease Ireland were on 106 runs with four wickets down. Pretty soon it would be 111 for five. They needed another 227 runs with five wickets remaining. They needed a miracle. Ireland at this stage, said Nasser Hussain on commentary, "were gone". O'Brien admitted afterwards that he simply decided to have a go: there was nothing to lose, there was no point in being cautious, he would swing for everything and see where it got him. In other words, he would play without fear.

But as he bludgeoned the ball all over the ground, the nagging question remained: how would he and his colleagues react if they came within reach of actually winning the game?

At 258-5, England's total of 327 was in sight. "It's all mind games now," said Hussain, a former England captain. "The hardest thing to do is get over the line. The moment you think you can win a game, that's when the pressure changes. The moment they start believing they can win, that's when we'll have to watch what they can do. Up until this moment everything's been a bonus. All of a sudden someone thinks, 'crikey, we can beat England'."

Ireland now needed 70 runs from 63 balls. There was less need for fireworks now. A steady diet of singles and twos and occasional fours would keep them on target. The old pros in the commentary box wondered aloud how the Irish batsmen would handle the situation. "It's the hardest thing," said Michael Atherton, "when you're going as O'Brien is going and he wants to hit every ball for six, to just step back and calmly knock a single. Very, very difficult."

But, as it turned out, they knew what they were doing. Beneath the flamboyant shot-making, they were thinking their way through the innings. There was ice as well as fire. O'Brien was nicely complemented by the more conservative Alex Cusack at the other end. The pair made a crucial decision to take the batting Powerplay early, at the start of the 32nd over. In the rules of Powerplay only three fielders can be positioned outside a 30-yard circle around the wicket. It lasts for five overs and it enables batsmen to go for big shots with less danger of being caught. Having called the Powerplay, O'Brien in particular went to town on it. In those five overs (30 balls) they clocked up 62 runs. It changed the game.

With Ireland on 111-5, Andrew Strauss, the England captain, could be seen sharing a joke with his team-mate Paul Collingwood, both of them relaxed and smiling. An hour later he was visibly anxious and soon he was obviously troubled, questioning his bowlers, shuffling his players around the field.

O'Brien, meanwhile, was reading the England reaction and he was picking up clear distress signals. "They did not know what they were up to with their bowling plans," he said afterwards. Suitably encouraged, he continued to attack. "His heart is pounding, the gods are with him," remarked Atherton, "how far and how long can he go for?"

It looked like he was gone on 91 when he hoisted a shot that soared vertically into the night

sky and that would drop before reaching the boundary. Strauss was under it; he cupped his hands, the ball arrived and it spilled through his fingers; he snatched at it a second time and it got away again, hitting his knee before falling to the ground. O'Brien was reprieved. The gods truly were with him on this night.

With perfect symmetry, he made his 100 from 50 balls. A new record for the cricket World Cup. They said it will be a long time before it is beaten.

The stoical Cusack was run out on 47. John Mooney arrived and played smartly for 33 runs. Hussain remarked how "clever" the Irish batsmen were. When their talisman O'Brien departed on 113, there and then he entered cricket folklore.

But the team still had to seal the deal. Otherwise the night would enter the long ledger of heroic Irish failures. Eleven runs from 11 balls were needed, and calmly acquired amid the hysteria.

They got the job done, not just because they wanted to, but because they knew how.

thecouch@independent.ie

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