Sunday 18 March 2018

Lacklustre hosts fail to halt power shift

Worrying signs as another collapse ends Irish hopes

Kevin O’Brien provided some rare highlights for Ireland
Kevin O’Brien provided some rare highlights for Ireland

Ger Siggins

There are still eight months before Ireland travel to India to play the final qualifier in the 2016 World Twenty20, and you can be sure John Bracewell will spend quite a few of them at what coaches call "the drawing board".

Yesterday, Ireland crashed out of the ICC tournament which has been running here for the last fortnight at the semi-final stage. Another poor batting display led to a five-wicket defeat with 11 balls remaining, but even more than the result the performance was limp and lacked the high intensity for which William Porterfield's team is feared.

In front of a packed ground at Malahide, Ireland collapsed to 128 all out, a total which didn't daunt the Dutch, who had chased more than 60 more against them in Bangladesh last year. The captain said that his batters had struggled to adapt to Irish conditions from the harder pitches of English county cricket, but the shots played by some who have never left the oul' sod had no such excuse.

As a unit, Ireland's batsmen haven't come to the party at all, with only three 50s and the best of those, by Porterfield, ranking just 22nd and 25th in the tournament. He was out yesterday for his first single-figure score in 17 competitive games.

Paul Stirling had shown signs of a return to form but although he passed a pre-game fitness test he didn't look 100 per cent and he had made 18 when a chip to long-on failed to clear the tallest man on the field, Ben Cooper. He never returned to field, and the skipper identified losing his overs as a key setback.

Kevin O'Brien got the crowd roaring with a trio of sixes - one of which nearly hit ICC bigwig Giles Clarke - but trying to hit a fourth over the longest boundary he caught the ball high on the bat and holed out. The batsmen continued to struggle to find gaps - they failed to score off 54 balls in all - and besides O'Brien only Stirling and Dockrell got above a run a ball. At 90-3 in the 15th over there was a platform to reach 150 but the innings collapsed as a blaze of rash shots picked out the boundary riders. Four wickets fell for seven runs in a nightmare 10 balls.

There is little common ground between cricket and cage-fighting, but it looks as if Conor McGregor has developed his whole persona in the image of John Mooney. The fiery temper, tattoos, shaved head and wild red beard suggest warrior twins from Celtic mythology. The cricketing brother has been one of Ireland's few standouts but he played a loose shot yesterday to be caught at third man.

Porterfield said afterwards that Niall O'Brien - coming back from injury - was fit but not been selected, and insisted the top six was the best Ireland could have fielded.

With memories of his assault on Irish bowling in Sylhet still fresh, there was a huge roar when Craig Young induced Stephan Myburgh to chop on with his second ball. Young was less thrilled next over when he dropped a sitter off Wesley Barresi, but to his relief, the batsman was out next ball.

At 16-2 Holland were on the rack, but Cooper and Michael Swart steadied the ship and by the time they were parted the end was in sight. Kevin O'Brien took three wickets to give the crowd something to cheer but the result was never in doubt.

It has been a salutary tournament for the host nation, and indicative of a shift in the Associate world. Defeats on home turf to Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and Netherlands were not part of the pre-tournament expectations. For while Ireland fight for promotion on three fronts, retaining top-dog status in four-day, 50-over and 20-over (until yesterday) formats, many of the smaller countries have been putting all resources and efforts into T20. This is ICC's attitude too, reckoning the shorter format is a better way to attract viewers and develop the sport in prime markets such as China and the United States.

Cricket Ireland's progress in the last decade has been driven by 50-over success and it only focuses on T20 when it has to. From its first international in 2008 to the run-in to this tournament, Ireland had played only seven T20s at home in seven years. It is astonishing that the national side had never played a T20 in Dublin until ten days ago.

Cricket Ireland will surely do something about that, and soon. Porterfield acknowledged regret that his team had not played to its potential in front of such a huge crowd, which was easily the biggest ever seen here for a game against a side outside the top eight.

The tournament finishes today with a third-place play-off between Ireland and Hong Kong (10.0) and final between Scotland and Netherlands (2.15). It has been a well-run event and gloriously showcased the Malahide ground.

But even the sleepy Fingal village hasn't been immune to the poison of illegal betting, with the Afghanistan v Hong Kong game coming under scrutiny.

The ICC's anti-corruption unit is studying "unusual betting patterns", while its officer was also interested in a gentleman sitting in the bleachers who was spied sending texts after every ball. The TV coverage was three balls behind the live action, which might give someone a useful advantage over the bookies.

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