Monday 23 April 2018

Evergreen Johnston signs off with final flourish

Ger Siggins in Abu Dhabi

TRENT Johnston marked his last limited-overs game for Ireland with his finest innings and a bowling performance that rolled back most of his 39 years. The all-rounder's 62 and 3-34 helped Ireland retain the ICC World Twenty20 qualifier trophy in front of 4,000 raucous Afghans.

Ireland played dynamic cricket which blew away the only side that has been able to challenge them at this level for many years and were full value for their 68-run win.

As in every game in the tournament, Ireland batted first and, again, Paul Stirling (76) and William Porterfield (27) clicked – putting on 68 to average 52 for their partnerships here. Kevin O'Brien played a whirlwind cameo before Johnston was promoted to No 4. He responded with a stunning 32-ball innings which will have Phil Simmons pleading with him to reconsider the planned retirement in two weeks.

Ireland made their record score of 225-7 – more than 11 an over – but the Afghan top order gave it a good shot. Mohammad Shahzad has made 50s against Ireland in the last two finals, and made 38 off 18 balls before George Dockrell bowled him. It was like a highlights show as almost every ball produced a wicket or a boundary but, despite a dropped catch by James Shannon, Ireland kept to their plan and soon took control. Johnston came back to demolish the middle order as the over rate climbed and was the happiest man in the ground as he took off his green and blue shirt for the last time.

The main job was done last Sunday when a place at the World Twenty20 was secured, but Ireland need to keep asserting their dominance at this level to force the issue of promotion. It will probably be remembered as just another of a string of associate tournaments in which the only time they were overly stretched was on the training ground by their hard-driving coach. Some games were close, but at every crisis there was someone battled-hardened and mentally tough enough to withstand anything thrown at them.

Ireland's professionalism can be seen at every turn, from the depth of the video preparation which allows them to plan a line of attack for every opponent, to the sight of manager Roy Torrens wandering the electrical stores of Abu Dhabi late at night in search of a food thermometer. Upset stomachs are often a factor out here and Torrens wanted to remove any chance of a key player being laid low.

The tournament turned out to be fascinating, despite the predictable conclusion. There was a sense that the old guard of associate cricket was being changed, with three of the six well-funded High Performance countries failing to qualify for Bangladesh. The future looks bleak for Kenya and Canada with their ageing stars, and while Scotland have had an influx of 'granny rule' youngsters from England, they failed to gel. Should they fail at the 50-over World Cup qualifying in January then Ireland's oldest foe is in real trouble.

Upstarts like Hong Kong and Nepal played bright cricket at times, and will be tricky opponents in Bangladesh conditions. Although the UAE also made it through, they bring little to the party with their battery of spinners of dubious technique. The ICC clearly targeted the worst of the chuckers and at least two of the UAE players are unlikely to be seen in Dhaka.

Ireland took a while to find their range, but were helped by the temperature which generally hovered around a pleasant 25 rather than the usual 33.

Porterfield had a fairly miserable year in county cricket but is transformed with Ireland. Usually, the passive partner to Stirling's mayhem, he went on the attack from the start and smashed Ireland's first-ever T20 century, against USA. His captaincy has been creative, such as when he abandoned his usual plan of middle-overs spin to allow the seamers to exploit the dew under floodlights.

The rest of the batsmen all had their golden moment, although Niall O'Brien paid the price for a sluggish 35 against Uganda and was dropped. The Leicestershire man has fallen foul of the selectors in the past and the haste with which he was discarded goes against the coach's usual ethos of loyalty to the tried and trusted.

Before the final two games it was the spin and control of Stirling and Dockrell that carried them through, but the medium pacers came good with a bit of skid in the pitch. Max Sorensen has developed into a seriously good bowler at this level and his extra pace rattled many.

Last night was Johnston's 196th game for Ireland. Besides last night and one crucial last over against UAE, he didn't excel with the ball but played three match-winning innings that underlined just how vital he has been for a decade.

Ireland didn't even need a full squad – the delayed arrival of Sebastian Joyce meant father Ed missed the qualifying phase and was then granted paternity leave. With a settled side, the three youngsters, Stuart Thompson, Andy McBrine and Shannon, didn't get a look in until the latter replaced O'Brien. "They didn't play a game but it's like that sometimes," said Simmons. "I played a whole season with Leicestershire where we used only 12 players."

All three will have learned what it is like to be part of the most professional team outside Test cricket.

Sunday Independent

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