Ireland cricket team can make it a glorious treble
It's now two down and one to go for Ireland in what is turning out to be their most successful ever year.
The stunningly emphatic victory in the World Twenty20 Qualifying final in Abu Dhabi on Saturday over Afghanistan, the pretenders to Ireland's crown at Associate level, followed their World Cricket League success in the summer and after just five days at home the squad will fly out to the UAE again on Friday, favourites to complete a memorable treble in 2013.
The Afghans will again provide the opposition at the ICC Global Academy ground in Dubai in the five-day 'test' which is the Intercontinental Cup final.
This is the only trophy in Associate cricket which Ireland do not hold at the moment but there is a confidence about this squad that suggests that will be put right.
Andrew White and Ed Joyce, who missed the entire tournament while waiting for his second child to be born last Tuesday, will come into the starting line-up, to the exclusion of Alex Cusack and probably John Mooney – with Niall O'Brien returning for James Shannon – as Ireland look to regain the trophy surrendered to Afghanistan three years ago.
The extra incentive for the team is to ensure Trent Johnston goes out with his fourth I-Cup winners medal in his farewell game in an Ireland shirt and it will be a thank-you for his heroics with bat and ball in his final red ball game in the Zayed Stadium.
Johnston chose the grand occasion – played out in front of a worldwide television audience – to smash his highest Twenty20 score and then finish off the spirited Afghanistan reply with three wickets in eight balls, missing his second hat-trick for Ireland by the width of a stump.
His astonishing innings of 62, from 32 balls, which included five fours and four sixes, careered Ireland from an already remarkable 104 for two after nine overs to 211 for four from 18. Only nine runs came off the bat in the last two overs as the defending champions lost three wickets but their total of 225 for seven was the best of the tournament and the fourth highest in any T20 international.
Afghanistan replied with a defiant 74 for two from the first six overs but, as Johnston said afterwards, the key was they kept taking wickets and the final 68 runs margin was Ireland's third best of the tournament, which they played exclusively in the UAE capital where they are now unbeaten in 14 matches.
"We knew Afghanistan were going to come hard at us, chasing 225 they had to. But the best thing was we kept taking wickets. Stirlo (Paul Stirling, 76 from 43 balls) was outstanding up front and Porty (captain William Porterfield with 27 off 14) got off to that flyer," said the 39-year-old.
"It's exactly what we needed to do and those two guys have been a massive part of our success in this form of the game. For me to get in there and contribute to a game, with bat and ball this time, it's just a good way to go off.
"But we've got a massive, massive game in 10 days' time and we'll be keener than ever to get that trophy back and bring it home."
Immediately after the final was concluded, ICC announced the fixtures for the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh in March and Ireland will face Zimbabwe in their opening game on March 17, followed by the Netherlands two days later and the UAE on March 21.
The group winners go through to the second round where they will meet Sri Lanka, England, South Africa and New Zealand.
World Twenty20 Qualifier final: At Abu Dhabi, Ireland beat Afghanistan by 68 runs.
Ireland 225-7 (20 overs, P Stirling 76, T Johnston 62, W Porterfield 27; Amir Hamsa 3-39) Afghanistan 157 (18.5 overs, G Naib 43, Mohammad Shezad 38; T Johnston 3-34, A Cusack 2-18, T Murtagh 2-24, G Dockrell 2-37)