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Series triumph will do Ireland a world of good

 

By Ian Callender in Sharjah

Ireland's dream of qualifying for the World Cup in England suddenly does not seem so far away after they completed the perfect comeback to beat Afghanistan for the first time in a one-day international series.

Bowled out for 100 in the first game, they bounced back in style with a 51-run victory on Thursday and yesterday's five-wicket success, with more than 12 overs to spare, has proven they have nothing to fear from Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Zadran and co when they turn up for the World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe in March.

West Indies and the hosts will be dangerous opponents and, as long-time Full Members taking part in their first qualifying tournament, will start as favourites to join the top eight in the world at the finals in 2019, but this Ireland team has shown before that on their day they can beat any of the lower-ranked Full Member nations. And Ed Joyce should be available to make the batting line-up even stronger.

In this series, it must be admitted, they have relied almost exclusively on Paul Stirling. But then he just loves playing against Afghanistan. His 82 was comfortably top score in the series-levelling victory and yesterday, after being dismissed for 95 and 99 in the last series between the teams in Greater Noida, he made sure he wasn't going to miss out this time.

Indeed, he raced through the 90s in just two shots, after reaching 91 with a six over long leg. The next ball went even further - out of the ground at deep backward point - for his fourth maximum of the innings and he went to his century with a third successive boundary, pulling the hapless Shapoor Zadran through mid-wicket for his 11th four.

The left arm bowler, replacing namesake Dawlat for this final game, proved cannon fodder to the Irish, and Stirling in particular who hit 10 of his boundaries off him, including all four sixes in his last two overs.

In contrast, the Irish bowlers were little short of magnificent. Led by the metronomic Tim Murtagh - the Middlesex professional conceded only 83 runs in his 29 overs in the series - he was wonderfully supported by Boyd Rankin, who always had the batsmen under pressure with his bounce and pace, and Barry McCarthy, who followed up his maiden five-wicket haul on Thursday with three more at a cost of just 32 as Ireland turned the screw.

But the big bonus yesterday was George Dockrell who, after a fairly barren couple of games on what should have been helpful pitches, finally turned the ball and was rewarded with his fourth four-wicket haul in ODIs and his best against Afghanistan. And Stirling had already improved his wicket-taking tally in his last seven spells for Ireland by one with the wicket of captain Ashgar Stanikzai.

As ever, the Afghans threatened to recover after losing six wickets for little more than 100 but in the end it was only Rashid who stood up to Ireland and after the fall of the eighth wicket in the 41st over, he was turning down singles to protect Shapoor and Mujeeb, who had to face only 16 of the last 44 deliveries.

McCarthy thought he had him caught at the start of the penultimate over but although Stuart Poynter got to the ball, running in from the deep square boundary, he just couldn't hold on. Never mind, he repeated the same pull shot next ball and this time it carried comfortably to deep mid-wicket and Dockrell was involved in his fifth wicket. As Stirling said in his post-match interview, "we would have taken 178 to chase all day long" - after Stanikzai had won his first toss of the series - and it was that confidence, given to them by the bowlers, which ultimately ensured such a comfortable reply.

The Ireland intent was there from the start; they were never going to use up 50 overs dawdling safely to victory.

Stirling nearly took Shapoor's head off, on the bowler's follow-through, as he thundered a drive back down the pitch for his fourth boundary in only the fifth over and although William Porterfield was bamboozled by Mujeeb just five balls later, Andrew Balbirnie finally joined the Irish party.

The Dubliner had faced only eight balls in the first two games, dismissed both times by Mujeeb, but he scored off four of his first seven balls from the 16-year-old this time and a reverse sweep for four gave him the confidence to help Stirling take Ireland halfway to their target in only the 18th over.

Indeed, he became so confident that he came down the pitch in Mohammad Nabi's second over and was stumped. Niall O'Brien was beaten by two successive googlies from Rashid and plumb in front to the leg spinner next ball but Gary Wilson hung around for an invaluable 11 overs, scoring just 11 runs in the 51 partnership, but allowing Stirling to continue his free-flowing effort.

Stirling's personal 50 came up in 56 balls but thanks to the return of Shapoor, twice, his next 50 came from just 37 balls and when he took off his helmet and raised his bat Ireland needed only nine to win.

The only sad part of the day was that Stirling was not there to hit the winning runs - that honour went to Kevin O'Brien - because he was given out leg before to a ball from Rashid that hit him above the pad.

It brought back memories of the umpiring howler in Noida when he was given out on 95 but at least this time he had reached his sixth ODI century and his 10th in all. His ninth was in coach John Bracewell's first match in June 2015 and there was no one more pleased than the Kiwi that he scored another in his last. It was the perfect send-off.

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