Monday 14 October 2019

Ireland staring down barrel as Afghans turn the screw


From a near-hopeless position at lunch on day one, Ireland have fought back twice but still find themselves 120 runs away from making their hosts bat again (stock photo)
From a near-hopeless position at lunch on day one, Ireland have fought back twice but still find themselves 120 runs away from making their hosts bat again (stock photo)

Ger Siggins

Today marks the 12th anniversary of Irish cricket's finest moment, the one that opened the door to all that has gone since, including this landmark first away Test match.

That St Patrick's Day 2007 win over Pakistan in Jamaica is half a world from this north Indian venue, but a similar feat of grit and passion will be required to secure a victory over Afghanistan.

From a near-hopeless position at lunch on day one, Ireland have fought back twice but still find themselves 120 runs away from making their hosts bat again and needing several career-defining performances to get something out of the game.

One of the two survivors from 2007, William Porterfield, won't be providing one of them, lasting just two deliveries at the start of the second innings. Ireland will hope that the other, Kevin O'Brien, can repeat his Malahide century against Pakistan but that may be unlikely on a slow, low pitch against high-quality spin.

Ireland's own bowlers toiled hard yesterday, but found nothing in the pitch and Afghanistan got to lunch without further loss. Andy McBrine made the breakthrough, beating Hashmatullah Shahidi (61) to end a stand of 130 with Rahmat Shah, who dragged Tim Murtagh onto his stumps soon after for 98.

Ashgar Afghan marshalled his lower order to extend the lead, but he and the dangerous Mohammed Nabi both fell to Stuart Thompson, who finished with 3-28 and said, "It was hard work out there, as the wicket didn't offer us very much, but we knew if we kept going with tight lines and good lengths we'd get our rewards eventually. Today was all about keeping their runs down - we didn't score enough in the first innings, and we were about keeping their run-rate down and then going bang, bang with the wickets."

George Dockrell took some stick from the aggressive Ashgar but picked up two deserved scalps as the spinners started to find purchase. His fellow left-armer, the much less experienced James Cameron-Dow, appeared nervous and bowled too short, costing over five an over and taking pressure off the batsmen.

Dehradun is nestled in a valley in the Shivalik mountain range, foothills of the Himalayas. Once upon a time it was on the hippie trail, and the Beatles passed through on their way to see the Maharishi in nearby Rishikesh. For decades it was home to the Afghan royal family in exile, and its link to that land has made it the temporary home of the Afghanistan cricketers.

The Irish have been here too, leaving a mark in place-names such as Connaught Place, Mullingar Hill and the village of Carbery Grant. The atmospheric but decaying Christian cemetery holds the remains of many who travelled here to work as part of the apparatus of empire in the days of the Raj. A stroll among its tombstones is a history lesson, familiar names cropping up all the time in the ancient record books such as Harry Francis Daly (42), who worked on the railways and died of a heart attack in 1913, Mary O'Donnell (63) who died of dropsy, and Thomas Walsh (72) a retired sergeant-major whose cause of death was given as "senility".

A couple of dozen of the Irishmen who came here were good enough to play first-class cricket in Indian state competitions, such as James McDonogh, a missionary from Killarney, and Henry Bond, an army officer from Ballymahon, Co Longford, both of whom played for Bombay Europeans against sides representing the city's Hindus, Parsees and Muslims.

There are fewer Irish in these hills nowadays, and besides the players' families the cadre of Irish supporters can be counted on one hand: Kevin Woods from the Naul, John Woods from Rathfarnham, Roger McCann from Belfast and two London Irishmen, Tom Feely and Mark McCoy. The latter pair had just arrived in the city and were a bit rattled by the taxi journey, which in India typically defies both the laws of the land, and those of physics.

It's been a long, at times uncomfortable posting in Uttarakand state for the Irish squad, winning just two of the eight white-ball games. Even their hotel stay was disrupted by a double-booking with a wedding party, which meant some of the side had to sleep on mattresses in team-mates' rooms.

They're all safely back in bed for this game, though, and Thompson remains upbeat about their prospects.

"There's still three days to play. If we can put on some big partnerships - the two lads tonight looked set - so if they can kick on and we bat for a long time then we can go past them and get a big lead."

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