IRELAND contrived to lose to Afghanistan by seven wickets in Dambulla yesterday -- a defeat which all but ended their hopes of winning the Inter-Continental Cup for a fourth successive time.
After conceding first-innings points to the new boys of world cricket on Saturday, William Porterfield's side were unable to bat out for a draw that would have earned them three points and, more importantly, deny the Afghans a maximum 20.
Beaten in a multi-day match for the first time since Scotland won at Clontarf in 2004, Ireland are sixth of seven teams at the halfway stage of qualifying with a meagre 12 points from a possible 60.
Maximum-point victories over the Netherlands, Canada and Zimbabwe later this year may now not be enough to earn the defending champions one of the top two places on the IC Cup ladder and a place in November's final.
A fourth day of struggle was on the cards for Ireland after three wickets fell in the first hour at the neutral Sri Lankan ground and defeat would have come much sooner, but for a heroic last-wicket stand of 59 between Trent Johnston and Peter Connell.
Johnston struck a defiant 63 not out and, if Connell could have stayed with him for just two or three more overs, Afghanistan would have had a more challenging target than 134 from 34 overs.
Ireland fought hard to save their record but with the pitch still easy Afghanistan were able to pace the chase and began their joyous celebrations with 15 balls to spare.
For a team that didn't exist 10 years ago, they really are making rapid progress.
There was better news for Irish cricket at the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, where Craig Young grabbed four wickets and Paul Stirling smashed 65 from 50 balls to dispose of Zimbabwe by seven wickets in a rain-affected Plate quarter-final at Napier on Saturday.
Matt Dwyer's charges will play Canada in Palmerston North today for a place in the Plate final.
Meanwhile Australia produced arguably their best performance of the summer to record a crushing 140-run victory over Pakistan in the second one-day international at the SCG. Having posted an imposing 267 for six on the back of half-centuries from Shane Watson and Cameron White, Doug Bollinger (two for 19) and Peter Siddle (one for 23) produced fearsome opening spells to leave the tourists' pursuit in tatters.
Skipper Mohammad Yousuf top scored with a defiant 58 off 94 balls, but it was not enough to prevent an embarrassing defeat as Pakistan were all out for 127 inside 38 overs.