Irish World Cup quest is on the ropes after defeat
Ireland's hopes of qualifying for next year's World Cup finals are hanging by the slimmest of threads after a horror batting display condemned them to a 107-run loss to hosts Zimbabwe.
The margin of defeat is not even their biggest in the last four months - Afghanistan won the first of three ODIs between the teams in December by 138 runs and Ireland responded by winning the next two matches.
William Porterfield's squad now face an identical scenario, with victory against Scotland tomorrow the only way of keeping their qualifying hopes alive, and then another win, against Afghanistan on Friday, could be enough to make England 2019.
At the lunch interval yesterday, defeat was the last thing on Porterfield's mind. Having won the toss and gone into the match with only Andy McBrine as a specialist spinner, the captain was happy to chase 212 for victory -and content that his four seamers had done a good job, despite Zimbabwe adding 72 runs after the fall of the seventh wicket.
But then it all went pear-shaped. Porterfield pulled his 11th ball straight to short mid-wicket, Andrew Balbirnie was caught behind from his 14th and when Ed Joyce was stumped off his second ball, Ireland found themselves 18 for three.
"We have played some good cricket until now but when we lost a few early wickets, they put the squeeze on and we never picked up any momentum. (Paul) Stirling threatened to, but nobody stayed long enough at the other end," said Porterfield.
"The situation gets exaggerated at 50 for five, and if it had been 80 for one or two, it would have been totally different, but Zimbabwe deserve credit."
All but nine of the 34.2 overs Ireland faced was trial by spin and the batsmen were found wanting. Gary Wilson was brought straight back into the team, 24 hours after returning from England following the birth of his son, with Simi Singh, who had taken 3-15 against UAE, the player to make way.
When Stirling was called on to bowl two overs, the question was "Where's Simi?" but Porterfield insisted: "I never envisaged bowling more than 15 overs of spin, we have taken wickets with seam and I was happy with our first half performance."
In the end, it could have been a good toss to lose as the Zimbabwe spinners may not have been as effective in the first innings, but figures of 8-68 from 25.2 overs of slow bowling was Ireland's downfall.
The nine overs of pace produced one wicket for 37 but it was the other Ireland wicket which was, arguably, the most crucial of all - the run out of Stirling. A horrible mix-up between him and Wilson allowed Sikander Raza to swoop from cover and Stirling, having changed his mind about three times, failed to make it back.
Wilson was trapped in front seven balls later to leave Ireland down and out at 89-7.
The Irish bowlers had done what was asked for 33 overs - reducing Zimbabwe to 139-7, with Tim Murtagh the pick, finishing with three wickets.
But in the remaining 17 overs, Ireland could manage only two more wickets as Raza started his match-winning performance, with 69 not out from 83 balls.
C Zhuwao c Rankin b McCarthy 20
S Mire st N O'Brien b McBrine 11
H Masakadza c N O'Brien b Rankin 18
B Taylor lbw b McBrine 25
S Williams c McCarthy b Murtagh 9
C Ervine run out 20
S Raza not out 69
G Cremer b K O'Brien 4
T Chisoro c N O'Brien b Murtagh 21
K Jarvis c Stirling b Murtagh 1
B Muzarabani not out 1
Extras (5lb 7w) 12
Total (9 wkts, 50 overs) 211
Fall: 1-21 2-50 3-50 4-80 5-87 6-112 7-139 8-181 9-184
Bowling: T Murtagh 10-2-36-3, B McCarthy 10-0-59-1, B Rankin 10-1-35-1, A McBrine 10-0-42-2, K O'Brien 8-1-22-1, P Stirling 2-0-12-0
W Porterfield c Raza b Chisoro 7
P Stirling run out 41
A Balbirnie c Taylor b Jarvis 2
E Joyce st Taylor b Chisoro 0
N O'Brien c Muzarabani b Chisoro 8
K O'Brien c Masakadza b Williams 7
G Wilson lbw b Cremer 15
A McBrine not out 9
B McCarthy c Williams v Cremer 2
B Rankin b Raza 1
T Murtagh c Mire b Cremer 4
Extras (7w 1lb) 8
Total (34.2 overs) 104
Fall: 1-12 2-17 3-18 4-34 5-54 6-86 7-89 8-95 9-97
Bowling: K Jarvis 5-1-20-1, T Chisoro 7-1-22-3, B Muzarabani 4-0-15-0, S Williams 6-1-17-1, G Cremer 8.2-1-18-3, S Raza 4-0-11-1
Zimbabwe beat Ireland by 107 runs