Brief flicker of what have been
The crowd got a tantalising glimpse of what might have been before rain frustratingly, if inevitably, ruined the eagerly-awaited visit of Australia to Stormont with only 10.4 overs of play possible.
When the match was finally abandoned at 4pm, it put spectators out of their misery after four hours watching heavy rain punctuated by a couple of prolonged dry spells that held out false hope of a resumption.
With a threatening sky above and sodden conditions underfoot, the best efforts of the groundstaff were doomed to failure and it was spitting with rain when the announcement came on a grey, gusty and far from pleasant afternoon.
Unfortunately for the crowd, they narrowly missed out on a refund thanks to 10 overs – just about – being completed, but Cricket Ireland responded with an offer in relation to tickets for forthcoming internationals.
And, albeit much too briefly, the reduced crowd who did travel to Stormont maybe more in hope than expectation were treated to some fascinating cricket on a day when it was something of a miracle that there was any play at all.
Considering Friday’s deluge and the forecast, some ticket holders understandably didn’t make the trip to Belfast but those who did at least saw some play thanks to the tireless work of Philip McCormick and his groundstaff.
The scheduled start was delayed by only 45 minutes and it was just as well that spectators had extra time to find their seats as there was no shortage of drama in the opening over bowled by Brett Lee.
The veteran Aussie speed merchant fired out Ireland’s captain William Porterfield and most experienced batsman Ed Joyce inside the first three balls of an explosive opening over and had a big shout for leg before in between turned down.
But after the old campaigner’s blows struck on behalf of the established order, young upstart Paul Stirling responded with some magnificent shots to take the game back to the Aussies who had won the toss and elected to field first.
It was a predictable decision based on conditions and a forecast which made a later reduction in overs appear inevitable but still significant as a reminder that the tradition of the touring team always batting first in these fixtures to give the crowd value for money is now a thing of the past.
This was a fully-fledged ODI and Ireland have proved themselves a serious side, though at 0 for two in the first over, a few watchers may have had unworthy thoughts along the lines that the tourists used to go in first for a reason.
But, as the Sky commentators made clear, Lee’s opening burst would have troubled any top order, his mix of express pace and control right from the first ball being an impressive reminder of his world-class credentials.
Bowling from the City End, he hit his straps right away, ripping through Porterfield’s defences with the very first ball which appeared to – understandably – surprise the Ireland captain who might have expected a loosener of sorts on a murky morning at the start of Australia’s tour.
Ed Joyce, back to his traditional spot of first wicket down after a spell opening for Ireland due to his hip problem, was hit on the pads right away and then had his stumps shattered by Lee who was consistently topping 90mph with his deliveries.
The ever-gutsy Niall O’Brien, who has dug Ireland out of many a crisis, saw out the double wicket maiden with a push into the covers between two leaves before Ben Hilfenhaus took the other new ball at the Dundonald End.
The naturally explosive Stirling was watchful, content to get the feel of bat on ball and the early wide which opened Ireland’s account was the only run off the over.
O’Brien scored the first run off the bat by flicking Lee to fine leg, bringing Stirling onto strike against him for the first time and the Middlesex player immediately whacked a slightly wider delivery over point to the boundary.
A two through square leg followed and after an O’Brien single off the first ball of the fourth over, the precocious Stirling tucked into Hilfenhaus with consecutive boundaries, the first nicely placed through mid-wicket and the second a glorious shot through the covers.
The Irish pair took three off what proved to be Lee’s last over with promising paceman Pat Cummings coming on and Hilfenhaus switching to the City End. Stirling and O’Brien took a single apiece from the new man’s opening over and four from the Hilfenhaus one.
O’Brien registered his first boundary, through the leg-side off Cummings, in the eighth over before he played out a maiden from Hilfenhaus but there was to be more drama in the 10th as the weather started threatening.
Stirling slashed Cummings down to the boundary in front of the scorebox but was brilliantly caught by Aussie skipper Michael Clarke, one handed to his right, attempting something similar to the next delivery and the rain started as the umpires checked for a no-ball.
New batsman Gary Wilson, on his old home ground, got a full toss first up from Cummings but he hadn’t got off the mark when heavier rain drove the players to the pavilion after four balls of the next over – the refund cut-off having been passed, doubtless to the relief of Cricket Ireland.
There were two relatively brief but heavy downpours and after that enough dry weather to trigger inspections by the umpires after an early lunch but lighter rain returned to end lingering hopes of a resumption.
Naturally there was no man-of-the-match award but thanks to Lee and Stirling the spectators at least got some value for their tickets on a day when Tim Murtagh belatedly won his first cap for Ireland, with Andrew White and Max Sorenson the players omitted from the 13-man squad.
The loss of Stirling shortly before the rain break on top of the two early wickets would have left Ireland facing an uphill struggle to post a competitive total but, as Porterfield said afterwards, it would have been a good challenge and with Kevin O’Brien next in and a long batting line-up the crowd would have had plenty more to look forward to in the first innings alone.
Although relatively restrained by his standards – that he still scored 24 from 27 balls shows what we’ve come to expect – and out before the rain came, Stirling again underlined what a talent he is in the face of Lee’s hostility and class and the loss of experienced players at the other end.
Bad weather will always be with us in Irish cricket, but the thought of England stealing Ireland’s brightest star is a much more depressing prospect altogether.