Super Stirling sets Ireland up nicely for World quest
Just 17 days out from Ireland's first match at the World Cup qualifying tournament, Paul Stirling posted his second highest score for the Irish as they enjoyed a convincing victory against a Northern/Easterns franchise in Pretoria.
His innings of 156 will not count in the record books as Ireland used 13 players in an uncapped match, but this was serious opposition and was the perfect start to their four-match South African tour.
In a rain-interrupted match, Ireland totalled 332 for eight in 44 overs and the bowlers rose to the occasion to dismiss the home side for 241, with Andy McBrine taking four of the wickets, continuing his fine form from last month's games in Dubai.
Kevin O'Brien finished 60 not out from just 33 balls and Ed Joyce was dismissed for the first time this year, in his third innings for 49, but it was Stirling who stole the show.
When the first shower arrived, after 13 overs, he had scored 52 of Ireland's 82 for one - captain William Porterfield was caught behind for 15 - but he picked up where he left off on his return and was only dismissed in the 39th over having hit 25 of his 103 deliveries to the boundaries, including four sixes.
Andrew Balbirnie went early for just five, also caught behind, but Joyce, as ever, was the perfect foil for Stirling, although he still managed to match his free-scoring partner run for run in a stand of 101 for the third wicket, hitting four fours and a six.
Joyce had said after the UAE trip that Stirling "is our best batsman and we need him to be that player", and on this evidence he is going to be as important at the qualifiers as Ireland's elder statesman.
This was the second time Stirling had passed 150 in an Ireland shirt, but falling short of his 177 in an ODI against Canada eight years ago.
Niall O'Brien hit two boundaries in his quick-fire 12 but, after Stirling's dismissal, Kevin O'Brien ensured the run-rate was even quicker in the last five overs, hitting four fours and three sixes as Ireland added 59 for the loss of Gary Wilson (11), George Dockrell and Boyd Rankin, both for a single.
Rankin ended wicketless from seven overs, but conceded just 26 runs, though it needed the introduction of McBrine to get the breakthrough in the 21st over after an opening stand of 109.
But the next best partnership was just 36 as all the bowlers enjoyed a work-out, with Simi Singh (2-37 from five overs), Tim Murtagh (1-37 from six) and George Dockrell (1-31 from 7.3) the other wicket-takers.
Meanwhile, Ireland's final group opponents at the qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe next month will be UAE, after the Emirates defeated Nepal in yesterday's World Cricket League 2 final in Windhoek.
It should be Ireland's easiest match of the tournament if recent form is maintained, having beaten UAE on their home pitch convincingly twice last month, but Ireland will hope to have already secured a top three qualification spot for the Super Sixes stage by the time the teams meet on March 12 after games against Netherlands, Papua New Guinea and West Indies.
Ireland will get their first sight of the dangerous Dutch on Sunday in their next match in Pretoria, with games against Scotland on Tuesday and Hong Kong on Friday to follow before they fly to Zimbabwe.
Scores: Ireland XIII 332-8 (44 overs, P Stirling 156, K O'Brien 60 not out, E Joyce 49; K Apea Adu 4-50) Northern/Easterns XI 241 (43.3 overs, E Kemm 104, T Bodibe 46; A McBrine 4-41, S Singh 2-37, P Chase 2-58). Ireland XIII won by 96 runs (DLS).