Like two welterweight boxers slugging it out toe to toe, the Netherlands and Ireland traded blows all the way to the final bell in Super League action at Maarschalkerweerd on Wednesday, and it was the Dutch who absorbed every counterpunch and clung on to win by a single run in a tense, pulsating finish.
The KNCB and broadcasters Ziggo will be delighted that it was this contest which was the first cricket match to be shown live on Dutch television, and it may even have breathed some life into a Super League competition which, despite being a World Cup qualifier, has so far struggled to achieve much recognition.
Looking, with its square, conical tents, for all the world like a medieval tournament field or a caravanserai, SV Kampong’s sun-drenched Utrecht ground was a picturesque venue for the match, a lightning-fast outfield balancing a pitch on which the bowlers largely called the shots and scoring runs was never easy.
Ireland’s heroes of the day were the pace men Josh Little and Craig Young, who picked up three wickets each; opener Paul Stirling, whose 69 gave his side a decent shot at victory but whose dismissal threw the game back into the balance; and allrounder Simi Singh, who bowled with excellent control and who took over the chase after Stirling’s departure, bringing his side to the brink of victory.
For the eventual winners it was Timm van der Gugten whose aggressive, 53-ball 49, including the only four sixes of the match, enabled his side to reach a just-about competitive total of 195 and who ultimately claimed the priceless wicket of Stirling; Logan van Beek and Fred Klaassen, who set Ireland back on their heels at 11 for three; and Pieter Seelaar, a calm and thoughtful captain in the field, who had the courage to bowl himself for a crucial 47th over in which he took two wickets and swung the game back the Netherlands’ way.
After Seelaar had won the toss and elected to bat, Stef Myburgh and Max O’Dowd gave their side a solid start, scoring at four and a half an over until, the total on 32, Myburgh was sucked into playing at a Craig Young delivery and was caught behind by Lorcan Tucker.
The end of the first powerplay saw the Dutch on 49 for one, but when Singh and Little came into the attack the innings was transformed, three wickets falling in the space of nine balls in five minutes of absolute mayhem.
Bowling fast, straight and full, Little was in complete command, and when he bowled Scott Edwards his figures of three for 2 were definitely not flattering; at this point, four wickets had fallen for the addition of four runs, and at 53 for five the Dutch innings was in tatters.
It took a dogged 49-run partnership between Bas de Leede and Saqib Zulfiqar to rescue the side from complete disaster, but soon after De Leede had fallen to Andrew McBrine a second moment of complete naivete – the first had been when O’Dowd failed to review an LBW decision which would certainly have been reversed, the ball clearly destined to clear the bails by a distance – put the Netherlands on the back foot again.
Zulfiqar, taking what should have been a sharp but safe single, was coasting towards the crease, his eye and mind anywhere but on the fielder, and was well beaten by McBrine’s throw to the bowler’s end.
102 for seven, and an undefendably low total again seemed on the cards.
Enter Van der Gugten, who immediately showed his intentions by depositing George Dockrell over cow and into the waste disposal plant next door, and proceeded to strike three more mighty blows, another off Dockrell and one apiece off Singh and McBrine.
Together with Van Beek he added 71 for the eighth wicket, before he was out, one short of a half-century, a second wicket for the persistent, parsimonious Young, who added a well-deserved third when he bowled Fred Klaassen in the penultimate over.
195 was on the lower margins of a reasonable score, and when the usually reliable keeper Edwards dropped William Porterfield off the second ball of the Irish reply and the next was edged through the slips for four, it seemed as if everything might be going the visitors’ way.
But then Van Beek trapped Porterfield in front with his first delivery, and when three balls later Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie cut head-high to O’Dowd in the gully, it all looked very different.
Klaassen had Harry Tector LBW in the following over, and at 11 for three Ireland were reeling – and not in a festive way.
Stirling, though subdued at first against a lively attack on a pitch which was quick to punish any liberties, was clearly the danger man, and he and Dockrell set about rebuilding the innings.
They had taken the total to 43 before Brandon Glover bowled Dockrell, and another 26 were added before Seelaar trapped Lorcan Tucker leg-before.
But Stirling was beginning to play with greater freedom, and he and Singh joined together in a sixth-wicket partnership worth 66 runs, Stirling reaching his half-century off 88 deliveries with six boundaries.
When he had made 69 came the moment which was perhaps the game’s greatest turning-point: reaching to punch a wideish delivery from Van der Gugten, he couldn’t get fully over it, and Seelaar grabbed an outstanding low catch at cover.
Now it was down to Singh and the tail, and he and McBrine imperturbably added another 43 as the target crept closer and Seelaar switched his bowlers in an attempt to find the breakthrough.
With just 19 needed he shouldered the burden himself, and his over not only yielded the wickets of McBrine and McCarthy but conceded only two runs.
Two wickets left, and 17 needed from 18 deliveries: Van Beek’s next went for just two as well, and when Klaassen conceded only three, 12 were required from Van Beek’s last.
The over began with a very harsh wide call (the replays showed the ball was passing over middle and leg as Singh stepped across his stumps), but then Singh, attempting a second run to get back on strike, was run out for 45 as his bat stayed in the air as he dived desperately for the crease.
10 off five, then five off three as Little managed to strike the ball to the boundary. But Little and Young could only manage three singles, and the Dutch, not for the first time, had pulled off a remarkable last-ball victory.
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