Harare —Ireland roared back into contention in the World Cup qualifier with a statement victory over joint-leaders Scotland to close the gap between the two to just a single point yesterday.
With both teams still to play another game and the other four teams still to play two, the race for the final – and automatic qualification to the showpiece tournament in England next summer – is set to go right down to the wire.
They may have spluttered through much of the competition, but Ireland were irresistible yesterday.
Their marquee players – Andy Balbirnie, Tim Murtagh, Boyd Rankin, the O’Brien brothers – all proved their pedigree in this make-or-break fixture, ensuring that Ireland’s 25-run victory keeps their World Cup dream alive.
For Scotland, meanwhile, whose form coming into the match had, in Calum MacLeod’s words, been “one ball short of perfect”, will be cursing a middle-order collapse that set them back after such a rambunctious start to their run-chase.
At 112/2 after 24 overs, with the captain Kyle Coetzer rattling along and the in-form Richie Berrington settling in, Scotland would have fancied their chances of reeling in Ireland’s competitive but hardly insurmountable 271/9.
Desperate for a wicket, William Porterfield recalled Boyd Rankin into the attack, and the 6ft 8in quick immediately delivered, pinning Coetzer on the crease to take out his off-stump.
On such moments can whole tournaments rest, and Rankin sensed it, duly nicking off the left-handed George Munsey and then inducing an eccentric shot from Craig Wallace, who flat-batted an easy return catch to give Rankin three in the spell.
For Scotland, there was no coming back from such a gutting, and despite Berrington’s 44 and some sparky late-order hitting from Safyaan Sharif, Ireland’s target was never really under any sustained threat.
The consolation for the Scots is that this is a first defeat of the tournament; the concern for them is that the West Indies lie in wait in their next match.
Ireland enjoy playing cricket over St Patrick’s weekend. Though their innings started slowly – Paul Stirling unluckily chipping a return catch off bat-pad to Brad Wheal, who then powered through William Porterfield’s defences to leave Ireland 45/2 – it came to life when Niall O’Brien joined Balbirnie for the third wicket.
While Balbirnie was the more circumspect of the duo, taking up 78 deliveries to bring up his sixth one-day international (ODI) half-century, and crossing 1 000 runs in the format during the course of his knock, O’Brien was much more fluent, reaching his 18th ODI half-century with a cracking straight drive.