|Twenty20 World Cup Qualifier, UAE 2012|
Stirling pure gold as Ireland take the title
The two best teams in the tournament turned on a magnificent final at the Dubai International Stadium on Saturday evening, full of drama and superb strokeplay, as Ireland beat Afghanistan by five wickets with seven balls to spare.
In a rerun of the final two years ago, which Afghanistan won by 8 wickets, the Irish gained their revenge for that defeat, but it was a tense and fluctuating battle between two evenly matched sides, illuminated by two great innings, one for each team.
Winning the toss and electing to bat, the Afghans had an outstanding start when Karim Sadiq smashed Boyd Rankin back over his head for six off the very first ball of the match, and he followed that up with successive boundaries off Trent Johnston.
Rankin had his revenge, however, when he bowled Karim with the first ball of his next, the ball deflecting off the opener’s helmet and into the stumps. This brought Mohammad Shahzad to the crease, and he dominated the rest of the innings, as he had in 2010.
In partnerships with Mirwais Ashraf, Nowroz Mangal and Samiullah Shenwari, none of them very substantial but all of them maintaining the momentum admirably, the Afghan wicketkeeper reached his half-century – his fourth of the tournament – off 39 deliveries, and when he was finally out, caught by William Porterfield off the bowling of Max Sorensen in the 19th over, he had made 77 from 57, with seven fours and two sixes.
Rankin’s four overs gave him one for 22, and Kevin O’Brien was even more miserly with two for 18, while Sorensen came back from an expensive first over to finish with two for 26 from three.
Together, they managed to get the Afghan run rate down to seven an over, and it took an eight-ball cameo knock of 17 not out from Gulbadin Naib to get the total up to a competitive 152 for seven.
Dramatically, Dawlat Zadran again struck with the first ball of the Irish reply, as he had against Namibia on Thursday. This time he uprooted Porterfield’s middle stump with a superb delivery, and for a moment it seemed as if Afghanistan were on course for the victory demanded by their couple of thousand partisan and vociferous supporters.
Paul Stirling, however, had other ideas. He has run into breathtaking form as the tournament reached its climax, and he hit back, quite literally, by hammering Mirwais Ashraf’s first three deliveries to the boundary.
That was just the prelude to a stunning innings, in which he raced to his half-century, his second of the day, in a mere 17 balls, beating the Irish record he set against Canada and posting the second-fastest Twenty20 fifty in history, behind only India’s Yuvraj Singh.
Despite losing Ed Joyce, caught by Mohammad Nabi at deep square leg off Aftab Alam with the total on 33, Stirling took the attack to all the bowlers, and despite trying a series of quick changes Nowroz was unable to staunch the flow of runs.
80 runs were added for the fourth wicket from 51 deliveries, Gary Wilson ably supporting Stirling and content to give him the strike as frequently as possible. His contribution to that stand was just 13, but his role was nevertheless vital.
By now the asking rate was below a run a ball, but when Nowroz brought the dangerous Dawlat back into the attack the game took another twist as the big fast bowler had Stirling caught at deep square leg for a superb 38-ball 79, with nine fours and three sixes, and Kevin O’Brien edged his next ball to Shahzad behind the stumps.
The Afghan supporters took new hope with Ireland suddenly on 113 for four, but Wilson now took over the leading role with Andrew Poynter providing the support.
The momentum of the innings quickly recovered, and once Dawlat was bowled out, finishing with three for 21, Ireland’s progress became irresistible. Only three were needed from twelve balls when Wilson, on 32, holed out to Mirwais at long off off Aftab, and four balls later Poynter struck the winning boundary through midwicket.
It was a final altogether worthy of a fascinating tournament, and both sides confirmed that they are worthy representatives of Associate and Affiliate cricket. If they play like this in Sri Lanka, some of the more established countries could be in for a surprise.