Stirling show secures World spot for Ireland
PAUL STIRLING yet again showed his big-match temperament as he produced a stunning all-round display to help Ireland reach the T20 World Cup finals in Bangladesh next March with a record 85-run win against Hong Kong.
The Middlesex opener was at his belligerent best, as he hit nine fours and three sixes in his 77 from just 46 balls, dominating an opening stand of 91 with skipper William Porterfield (38).
It was a case of normal service being resumed for the prolific duo, with Stirling unusually playing second fiddle to a rampant Porterfield during Ireland's successful start to the campaign over the past nine days.
"I'm pleased on a personal level to do so well with the bat and ball," said the 23-year-old Belfast prodigy. "Today was all about qualifying for the World Cup, and we did that.
"I've never seen 'Purdy' (Porterfield) strike the ball so cleanly as this week, so I suppose 'dovetailing' would be the word to describe our partnership, and hopefully that will continue." Stirling followed up his magnificent innings with bowling figures of 4-10 – the second best by an Irishman in T20 cricket, bettered only by Boyd Rankin's 4-9 against Uganda.
His dismissal of Hong Kong captain Jamie Atkinson (48), brilliantly caught one-handed at midwicket by Porterfield, derailed a spirited run chase by the Asian side, and proved the turning point of the contest.
At 92-2 in the 10th over, Hong Kong were actually one run ahead of the Irish at the comparative stage, but Atkinson's demise sparked a Hong Kong collapse as they lost their last eight wickets for just 30 runs.
Stirling's 'spin twin' George Dockrell continued his recent renaissance, claiming 2-18, as Hong Kong were skittled for 122 with 17 balls unused.
Ireland's fielding was of the highest calibre, with wicket-keeper Gary Wilson's stumping of the dangerous Irfan Ahmed a highlight, along with two stunning catches by James Shannon.
The Instonians all-rounder was the only change for the Irish, replacing Niall O'Brien, as Phil Simmons decided to tinker with the batting line-up. As it turned out, Shannon wasn't required to come to the crease, as Kevin O'Brien was yet again promoted up the order after the strong start, and he clubbed an Irish record five sixes in his unbeaten 62 from just 27 deliveries.
Ireland took the game out of Hong Kong's reach as they added 70 from the final five overs.
It's Ireland's 16th consecutive win in Twenty20 qualifying tournaments, as they continue to dominate cricket among their peers. For Simmons, a renowned strict taskmaster, there still room for improvement.
"It feels great to reach another World Cup, but there's still areas we can improve on," said the 50-year-old West Indian. "We fielded brilliantly today, and showed great intensity in the batting, but we conceded too many extras as they came out hard at us.
"We have a few days off now, and will prepare hard for the semi-finals. We like winning trophies, and have no intention of giving up our crown."
As group winners, Ireland and Afghanistan progress directly to the semi-finals, with the winners of the Netherlands v UAE game facing defending champions Ireland on Friday.