Cricket: Feisty Irish put it up to Ponting
Australian megastars forced to dig deep
As Ricky Ponting surveyed the dank early morning clouds after the toss in Castle Avenue, one presumed he would have a bowl. That he didn't betrayed a player and a side in need of some much-needed practice ahead of sterner tests to come.
Nobody told the home side though. They sensed victory well into the afternoon, set fair at 136/3 just halfway through their response and needing just 96 to win until a dramatic collapse punctured hopes of sealing a famous win. A beautiful day had demanded a script brimming with much more romance than this.
As welcoming as the searing sun which kissed the sell-out 4,500 crowd was, from the morning segue into midday and well beyond, it could not match the complete absence of the sonorous vuvuzuelas which have emanated from our TV screens for a week now.
Instead, complete calm accompanied the opening, tentative blows from the visiting Australians only occasionally interrupted by the violent swish of willow on leather thanks to the economical home bowlers.
Ripples of polite applause flowed through the audience, enthusiastically greeting the all too rare Australian swipes as one might a particularly vibrant flourish from an orchestra conductor. The feisty bowling of an opening partnership of Boyd Rankin and Trent Johnston, the latter of Australian stock, tied the visitors down to a respectable 40 runs from their shared 10-over spell.
Johnston had spoken before this game of how the Irish public still possessed a naivete about the ancient game, one still overshadowed in many respects by the odyssey during the 2007 World Cup.
Building upon that respect has been the key for the Irish cricketers since that 2007 breakthrough, marshalled by their leading six professionals who would be lucky to earn around €40,000 per annum. In stark contrast, someone like the revered Australian cricket captain could bank €700,000 a year before bonuses and endorsements.
Hence, to see the occasional off-spin of Paul Stirling dismiss Ponting after the captain seemed set to offset his 10-week lay-off with some haymaking, was another in a series of significant blows for Irish cricket's ever-growing quest for respect.
There is a tendency to dismiss this country's cricketers as frivolous interlopers into our sporting life; yet their professionalism and dedication, not to mention the vast reserves of natural skill innate to players like Niall O'Brien or the exam-tied emerging genius that is 17-year-old George Dockrell, deserve more than the type of condescension usually gifted from elsewhere -- as does the fine work by cricket development officer Brian O'Rourke, for one, in the country's schools and underage systems, as Ireland seek to maximise the most from limited resources.
As DJ Carey admitted during the week: "Hurling may not be for all children because it may be too rough and their parents might agree."
Cricket can often be a more prudent pathway for certain youngsters. However, one should not be fooled that there is a lack of physicality involved. The inimitable Johnston almost had his thumb smashed by a severe overthrow from one of his own team-mates.
Aside from superb opener Tim Paine, who glued the Aussie innings together, Ireland maintained a decent hold on the world's leading one-day side, with redoubtable fielding and accurate bowling offsetting the occasional attempts at characteristic Australian swagger. The regular fall of wickets towards the death was a tribute to the Irish concentration.
Ireland's response belied any pretence to caution, with openers William Porterfield and Stirling smashing the Aussie quicks to all corners of the sun-decked ground as they punished the visitors' early indiscipline.
"Easy, easy," chanted the home support, now sated by lunch and their thirst suitably quenched as Ireland reached 76 without loss; Australia had managed a mere 40/1 in that time. Thirteen boundaries, including a six, from the openers packed the opening powerplay with punch, but once the Australians pierced Ireland's top order, they gradually increased the required run rate and suffocated the batsmen in the midday heat.
By halfway, they were merely 95 short of their target. If they survived to the end with their remaining six wickets, the game was surely theirs.
But with their big men gone and conservatism struggling against an unrelenting attack, it was a near impossible target. Acquiring even greater respect on the global circuit should hopefully prove less demanding.