|Twenty20 World Cup Qualifier, UAE 2012|
Sublime Stirling destroys Afghanistan
Paul Stirling rocketed Ireland to the Twenty20 World Cup finals in Sri Lanka with as fine an exhibition of strokeplay ever produced by an Irish cricketer.
Indeed Ireland coach Phil Simmons went further, stating that the 21 year old now deserved to be ranked with the top one-day batsmen in world cricket. "He's really matured over the past few years and is now in terms of ability up there with the best - that includes the Chris Gayles and the Virender Sehwags. If he keeps improving at this rate, then there's no telling what he'll achieve for Irish cricket."
In the preliminary final on Saturday against Namibia, Stirling smashed an unbeaten 59 from just 32 balls (9 fours, 1 six) as Ireland chased a modest African total of just 94-6 to clinch the second qualification slot in Sri Lanka.
Ireland had lost the group game between the teams, but there was to be no repeat, as a clinical and decisive Irish attack bounced the Namibians out of their stride. Max Sorensen took 2 for 8 in a fine, hostile spell, after the ageless Trent Johnston had removed the dangerous Louis van der Westhuizen, and player of the tournament Raymond van Schoor.
Ireland knocked off the runs in just 10.1 overs with skipper William Porterfied (20) the only wicket to fall. That set up a repeat of the 2010 final against Afghanistan, with the winners going into the finals group alongside Australia and West Indies, while the runners up would have the consolation of pitting their wits against England and India.
Any thoughts that the final would be something of an anti-climax were soon dispelled, as Ireland and Afghanistan served up a high octane, and at terms volatile encounter. From the opening delivery when Afghan opener Karim Sadiq smashed Boyd Rankin for six, the tone was set. That only served to 'awaken the sleeping giant', and the Warwickshire paceman produced a fiery spell, including bowling the aforementioned Sadiq via his helmet.
Afghanistan's rotund wicket-keeper Mohammed Shehzad batted quite magnificently in scoring 77 from 57 balls (7 fours, 2 sixes) to help his side to 152 for 7, the total given a late boost by Gulbodin Naib, who hit Trent Johnston's last two balls for six.
Ireland's reply got off to the worst possible start, as Porterfield was bowled first ball of the innings by a pearler which seamed and straightened to knock back his middle stump. The Irish optimists pointed to the omen that the same had happened on that famous night in Bangalore when Kevin O'Brien put England to the sword.
For O'Brien, read Stirling, who was at his belligerent brilliant best as he raced to his fifty in just 17 balls - the second fastest in T20 internationals, bettered only by the mercurial Indian swashbuckler Yuvraj Singh.
In the same way soccer teams who are successful in Europe aim to silence the crowd in away fixtures, Stirling's brutal assault meant you could have heard a pin drop among the four thousand Afghan fans, as the ball kept disappearing to and over the boundary all around the ground.
He had reached 79 from just 38 balls (9 fours, 3 sixes), when his concentration was disturbed following a short delay after a crowd disturbance. On the resumption he pulled a short ball straight to deep square leg where Gulbodin Naib held on. Keven O'Brien went first ball, and at 113 for 4, Irish nerves were jangling with 40 still required when Andrew Poynter joined Gary Wilson.
Wilson has been the epitomy of consistency this tourmament and was able to settle the Irish camp with some excellent running and improvised shot selection. It was Poynter however who finally took the fight out of the Afghans with a quite superb six over long-off to take Ireland to the brink of victory. The Clontarf batsman had been drafted into the squad only on Monday, replacing John Mooney.
Wilson (32) went with only three needed, but Poynter (23*) finished the game with a boundary through midwicket with seven balls remaining to clinch the five wicket win.
The talk after the game was about the possibility of Paul Stirling joining the IPL merry-go-round, but the player himself was firmly focused on county cricket with Middlesex and Ireland's clash with Australia in the RSA Challenge at Stormont on June 23rd. "I've never thought about the IPL to be honest. I'll just keep on performing and the cricket will take care of itself. I'd like to play more of a role for Middlesex oin the four-day game this year, so that's where my immediate priorites will be. Ireland have also got the ODI with Australia and the two World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan in July."
The one slightly sour note for the Irish camp was the fact that Stirling missed out on the Player of the Tournament accolade to Raymond van Schoor of Namibia, despite scoring more runs and taking more wickets. Boyd Rankin and Kevin O'Brien both got honourable mentions, but a points based system saw all three edged out.
Ireland's win takes them to 8th place in the T20 rankings above West Indies, a fact ackowledged by Porterfield: "We knew we had four finals to play but after first loss we won 10 out of 10. It's not just that we won, but the manner in which we won them. Two by 10 wickets and two by nine wickets. We restricted teams and came hard at them to 110, 120 and even less which is great in this form of the game . We just have to build on that 8th place in the rankings and keep improving until the finals in September."