On a day when Irish sporting fans’ priorities were divided between London and Malahide, shortly after 4:30pm, it quickly became apparent why it was to be firmly rooted 378 miles away eastward.
For the 560-odd spectators who had poured in at The Village to witness cricket return to these shores, they did not seem to be lured by the Euros or the Wimbledon. They had waited 660 days or nearly 22 months to be allowed back in to the cricket greens and all they were treated to was 40.2 overs of Ireland cricket.
It was certainly harsh on them but their loyalty did not go unrewarded. William Porterfield and Andrew Balbirnie put on an 87-run partnership, an Irish record against South Africa for any wicket, after losing Paul Stirling in the opening skirmishes. In their batting returns lay Ireland’s revival of batting form.
On a pitch expected to seam a little bit and assist the batsmen, glances were shot around in the crowd when the toss happened, albeit 45 minutes late. They wondered if the visitors had brought over some Caribbean flavour with them or whether it was the Afghans who had sprung them a surprise in South African colours. The reason for their intrigue lay in the team sheets.
Ireland had opted to field three spinners while South Africa played both, Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj. The decision to do so was vindicated as the tweakers extracted prodigious turn off the pitch, which had as much a hint of grass as brown rough patches.
After finding the going tough on sluggish pitches in Utrecht last month, much was made about how the Ireland batting needs to click more in unison than they have managed since their World Cup Super League fixtures began. There is some truth to it. Their over-reliance on Stirling and Balbirnie has shone through with the duo combining to score 43% of the runs scored by the team in the last three years.
While Porterfield hadn’t breached the 50-run milestone since May 2019, the home crowd that had gathered on a cloudy, overcast Sunday afternoon would have liked to believe he saved his best for them.
He batted with as much poise as elegance. In a knock of 63 off 87 deliveries were shades of vintage Porterfield. Having played a controlled edge past the slips off Rabada, he flicked comfortably through square leg and cut a good length ball through point.
If anyone thought his gentle cover drives were becoming too old-school, he unfurled a stylish reverse sweep and a sweep off Keshav Maharaj shortly before reaching his 18th ODI half-century. Balbirnie, too, played a composed hand in bringing his own fifty as two of Ireland’s finest joined forces to keep the South African bowlers, who erred little, at bay.
“It was brilliant to see William (Porterfield) in such good nick. I thought he played really well,” gushed a buoyant Balbirnie to the press.
“It was obviously quite dark with a bit of rain around so for the two openers, William and Paul (Stirling), to see off that opening spell set us up nicely for the way the innings went.”
“We’ll take confidence from it but all it is is a decent start to a long home summer. We didn’t win anything so we dig our five points but the guys are really keen to get back out on Tuesday and hopefully improve even more from today.”
Ireland have entered almost all the games and series they have featured in in the Super League with the tag of underdogs and even though it may reflect in their seven losses out of ten appearances so far, they have worn the tag gracefully. They have fought with the kind of pugnacity that stands out and it certainly stood out in their win against England in Southampton last year.
We now wait for Tuesday to rumble but even on a chilly Sunday afternoon, the memories of Porterfield and Balbirnie re-establishing their batting allegiances would have warmed the crowd just enough.
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