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Balbirnie confident he can tame wonderkid Khan again

By Ian Callender

One down, two to go is the Ireland players' attitude as they prepare to back up their first win over Afghanistan with another tomorrow to set up a decider in the five-match one-day international series on Friday.

It has been a testing time for the squad as they, not unexpectedly, lost all three Twenty20 games but losing the first two ODIs was not part of the plan.

The difference in the first five games of Ireland's tour has been Rashid Khan, the 18-year-old leg spinner who has shown the tourists why he has been signed up for next month's lucrative Indian Premier League.

Rashid has taken one, three, four, five and six-wicket hauls on this trip and Ireland would have been satisfied with him completing the sequence with two (rather than seven!) on Sunday. Instead, it was a big fat zero and no one played him better than Andrew Balbirnie, the Pembroke batsman who, after a year out following a hip operation, returns to club cricket this season after losing his contract at Middlesex after five years.

So have they worked out how to play the Afghan protégé?

"He's obviously a top class bowler and has proved that for the last 12-18 months," said Balbirnie. "But I have a plan against spinners and back it 100 per cent. It worked on Sunday (he scored 28 off 27 balls, including four boundaries against the leg spinner), other days it might not work. But Rashid is going to come back and influence a game, so we just have to be ready and have good plans against him.

"As batters we have spoken about keeping Rashid Khan out of the game and if we can keep him quiet we will have a good day. It is difficult for a new batsman coming in and that was my job (on Sunday), not to get out and make numbers seven or eight come in when he is spinning it both ways."

Balbirnie did the job to perfection - with help from Gary Wilson in an unbroken fifth-wicket stand - scoring 85 not out from 84 balls and taking Ireland to their victory target of 265 with nine balls to spare.

It also showed Ireland how much they missed the 26-year-old last year but now it gives coach John Bracewell and captain William Porterfield a selection poser tomorrow when Ireland hope to level the series.

Balbirnie missed the first game and was only called in for the second ODI when Kevin O'Brien was ruled out with a slight hamstring niggle. But O'Brien is fit to return and while he is not knocking down the door to play as a batsman - he has a highest score of 13 in four innings - he has taken seven wickets in his last two games.

That could mean Stuart Thompson, the other pace all-rounder in the team, could be the one to lose out despite putting up lone resistance with 37 from 25 balls (and he failed to score off only one of seven balls he faced from Rashid) in last Friday's second defeat. On Sunday, though, he had figures of 0-45 in seven overs.

Peter Chase was due to go home yesterday, but instead enjoyed a trip to the Taj Mahal with the rest of the squad on their first day off in India, and it was Boyd Rankin who jetted home, after being ruled out of the rest of the tour with his recurring back problem.

Ireland have proven they can beat Afghanistan without Rankin, now they must do it again.

Belfast Telegraph

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