Saturday 18 November 2017

Muddled Ireland making heavy weather of shortest format

William Porterfield: A tendency to panic Photo: AP /Tsering Topgyal
William Porterfield: A tendency to panic Photo: AP /Tsering Topgyal

Ger Siggins

There was so much rain here yesterday that you couldn't see the Himalayas. And as the cold grey blanket settled over the town, something similar was being laid on Ireland's faint hopes of progress at the ICC World Twenty20.

The weather that ruined Friday night's game against Bangladesh can't be blamed for their departure, which rests entirely in their own hands. Defeat to Oman was never countenanced by John Bracewell and his squad, and they were shocked at the manner in which it came on Wednesday night.

Ireland have struggled with the shortest format in recent years, with rapid developments in technique and tactics passing them by. Cricket Ireland's main aim is to master the Associate world at four-day cricket, thus qualifying for a shot at Test cricket. That is still on track, but meanwhile Ireland's rivals have been concentrating on T20 and, apparently, overtaking them.

Last summer they struggled to qualify for this event despite home turf advantage, losing to Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and the Netherlands. Alex Cusack retired soon after, robbing the side of late-overs control, and hopes were further rocked when John Mooney was hurried into retirement after bungled contract negotiations and a timely offer to play in the Dubai Masters.

Mooney had been the one shining light in last summer's qualifiers and his absence cost the team not just runs and wickets but his intensity in the field. And that was sorely missing against Oman and Bangladesh.

A series of mistakes piled the pressure on Ireland from the start. The side has usually done best chasing a target rather than setting one, so the decision to bat first after winning the toss was surprising. Oman were playing their first game in the big-time, so this was a good chance to get their batsmen under early pressure. But instead, several successes with the ball allowed them build confidence. They walked off delighted to have kept Ireland to 155.

In their last 20 games Ireland have passed 150 on just four occasions, and each time they lost. William Porterfield was visibly frustrated at the wily spin of Ajay Lalcheta and played out a runless first over, and although Paul Stirling attacked in his usual fashion, he fell too soon. That opened up a glaring weakness in Ireland's approach: when Stirling goes first, the following overs are negotiated by Porterfield, Gary Wilson and Niall O'Brien. All fine batsmen in the longer game but unable to score at the rate top-order internationals achieve, especially with inventive shots such as the ramp and scoop frowned upon by the coach. The trio scampered and pushed well, but they used up far too many overs at a pedestrian run-rate, with just seven fours in nine overs.

It meant the T20 specialists had just 24 balls to rescue the innings. Kevin O'Brien is a dynamic hitter but needs an over to find his range, a luxury Ireland can't afford when he starts batting in the 16th.

The real blunders came with the juggling of the bowling. Porterfield has been a dynamic and often brilliant captain, and with almost eight years' experience in the job he is by far the most senior on the international scene. But the defeat to Netherlands in Sylhet two years ago exposed a tendency to panic when things are slipping away and it happened again in the Himachal Pradesh CA stadium.

The bald facts are that Ireland's three best bowlers on the night were used for eight of the 12 overs they could have bowled. Craig Young was nervous in his first global event outing, but should be happy with conceding just 11 off two power-play overs; Boyd Rankin bowled from the wrong end and had a loose first over but settled and took two wickets in his third; Andy McBrine was varied, economical and also dismissed two Omanis in his third.

However, as the dew settled in, it became harder to grip the ball. Tim Murtagh had a nightmare over, bowling a no-ball and two wides and then seeing the three extra balls each going for four. The dew probably took the spinner out of the equation, but it was a real surprise when Max Sorensen was handed the ball for the last over, which wasn't in the plans. The Hills man is the best T20 player in Leinster, but there are doubts about his mental fortitude under intense pressure. His three appearances at last year's World Cup saw him ship 200 runs in just 24 overs. Here, he opted to bowl yorkers, a high-risk move with a sodden ball, and it proved fatal.

The Irish dressing room after the game was as downcast as some players had ever seen, and it was only the arrival of Porterfield from a bruising press conference that stirred them with a powerful speech. Friday's abandonment meant today's fixture with Netherlands is meaningless, save as the last hurrah at T20 for perhaps half the side, with the next qualifiers three years away. There are other worlds to conquer.

Ireland v Netherlands, Sky Sports 2, 9.30am

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