Thursday 19 April 2018

Johnston puts U-turn talk to bed as he bows out on a high

TRENT JOHNSTON bowed out of white-ball cricket with a man-of-the-match performance as Ireland swept aside Afghanistan by 68 runs in Abu Dhabi to retain their World Twenty20 Qualifiers title.

Some great players leave with a whimper but not Johnston, who produced the mightiest of bangs with his first T20 half-century to help Ireland to a massive 225-7 and then followed up with three wickets as Afghanistan were dismissed for 157.

Pushed up the order to No 4 after Ireland won the toss and batted first – as they have done in every match in the tournament – the 39-year-old former captain smashed four sixes in his 62 from 32 balls.

Despite his all-round heroics, Johnston insisted afterwards that he will stick to his retirement plan.

These teams were meeting in the final for the third successive time, with one win apiece previously, and had already secured their places in the first round of next year's ICC World T20 finals in Bangladesh, but there was no sign of Ireland easing off as they ran amok with the bat.

Paul Stirling gave Ireland the perfect platform. Man of the match in last year's final with a 38-ball 79, the Belfast-born opener was in similarly destructive mood on Saturday, top-scoring with 76 off 43 balls, including four sixes and eight fours.

He shared in a 68-run stand for the first wicket with captain William Porterfield (a lightning 27 off 14) to set the tone for the innings.

Kevin O'Brien, who clobbered his first three deliveries for 14 runs, also weighed in to help set a new T20 best for Ireland, comfortably surpassing their 216-3 against the USA earlier in the tournament – it was the fourth-highest total in T20 international history.

That left Afghanistan needing to produce something special to reclaim the title – they required more than 11 runs an over – although they looked capable of doing just that as they matched their opponents' blistering start.

They clubbed 14 runs off the first three balls of the innings, bowled by Max Sorensen, and were 36 without loss after three overs.

Left-arm spinner George Dockrell stemmed the onslaught with wickets in both of his opening two overs, including that of the dangerous-looking Mohammad Shahzad for 38 off only 18 balls, but at the end of their six powerplay overs Afghanistan were still in a threatening position on 76-2.

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They could not keep that run-rate up once the field spread, though, and they lost two more wickets in the seventh over, bowled by Alex Cusack.

The game was up when Johnston struck to remove Gulbadin Naib for 43 from 19 balls.

Another wicket next ball – thanks to Stirling's third catch – followed by a maiden and a wicket in his final over gave Johnston figures of 3-34. Cusack took 2-18 from three overs.

"Stirlo was outstanding up front, and Porty too, getting us off to a flyer which was exactly what we wanted to do," Johnston said. "Those two guys up front have been a massive part of our success in this form of the game.

"It was a hell of a good batting pitch and they bowled a couple of bad balls; we got after them and hit a few out of the middle of the bat and just kept going.

"We knew Afghanistan were going to come at us hard – they had to – but we kept taking wickets at important times and that was the key thing."

This victory was particularly important because it keeps Ireland away from hosts Bangladesh in the preliminary round of matches at the World T20 finals.

Even without Johnston, Ireland will fancy their chances of being the one team to progress to the 'Super 10s' from a group containing Zimbabwe, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

Afghanistan are in Group A alongside tournament hosts Bangladesh, Nepal and Hong Kong.

Johnston's final game for Ireland will be the five-day InterContinental Cup final against Afghanistan, starting on December 10 in Dubai.

Irish Independent

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