Ireland can’t count Blessings in Hobart cold

Zimbabwe have advance to the second round of a T20 World Cup for the first time

Sikandar Raza has suddenly become a bit of a household name in cricket. Before this year, he was a kind of pub quiz question – the interesting backstory, the journeyman-type stats, the fact that he does a bit of everything. But now, he’s a headline name. He gets tons against India and dedicated ICC rankings posts and IPL team speculation on twitter. And after a quiet series against Australia, he’s back on track with his career year.

By the time Andy Balbirnie won the toss, it was already past 8pm and frigid. Perhaps that played in his mind in deciding to bowl, as surely there aren’t too many Zimbabwean fielders at their best at 10pm on a cold, wet Monday night in Hobart. But within the opening few overs, perhaps it was his own fielders that were feeling the bite, as a firm line drive from Wessly Madhevere burst through Curtis Campher’s hands and to the rope, shortly before a skier from Craig Ervine fell barely metres from hand.

Having watched Scotland’s spinners turn the screws only hours beforehand, Ireland turned to Simi Singh, who immediately found the same kind of control and success, frustrating Craig Ervine into a simple stumping chance. And when Madhevere gave one chance too many immediately after, Ireland had roped back their errors and were well in front. But that brought in the man of the hour.

Sikandar Raza’s record flashed on the screen, and I took a moment to realise how unremarkable it was. Having just explained to the gentleman next to me that Raza averaged “eighty something” this year, I quickly had to caveat it with the fact that he was never really that good in the past and that must be why he only averaged 20.

But within just a handful of balls I avoided the egg on my face, as Raza looked a million bucks. Two violent flat sixes off Curtis Campher the next over and the price on his wicket inflated to at least two million. Someone just had to stay with him.

Milton Shumba, and later Luke Jongwe, took up the task, as Raza razed. The task was at times thankless, as hyperagressive running took hold, but the view was worth it. On a day where sixes seemed impossible, Raza sent five flying, on his way to a remarkable 82 from 48 balls. The sound from the bat rung throughout Blundstone Arena like a shotgun, drowned out only by the cheers from the throng of dancing Zimbabwean supporters at the fine leg boundary. Ireland would eventually get the two million dollar wicket, but only after it had lost any value, and Zimbabwe were propelled to an easily fortifiable 174. Raza with nearly four times the runs of anyone else.

Ireland’s bowling left much to be desired, without a backup plans for their hittable quicks like the one Scotland had used earlier. But in truth, they had found themselves up against an immovable object, and the efforts that they pulled out against all-but-him were in fact serviceable, and even good.

Now, if there were ever an Irishman to play that sort of knock, it would have to be Paul Stirling. He’s not had the best of years in 2022, but he feels like a kind of Irish Chris Gayle, who can show up form or not and bash fours just when they need it, at the biggest… oh he’s out. Plan B, then.

What is Plan B though? Lorcan Tucker tried swinging at everything, resulting in an over from Tendai Chatara in which the only scoring shot was a scoop for four between wafts at thin air. He then combined the tactics to scoop at thin air as he was bowled around his legs.

Andy Balbirnie tried not facing any balls for three overs in some kind of avoidance tactic. Harry Tector, the darling boy, tried to be the test match number 3 we know he longs to be, by test-match-number 3-ing the ball to first slip. Curtis Campher tried running out his captain, before his captain decided to show him what a test match number 3 really looks like, giving Blessing Muzarabani the record for most caught at first slip from a tentative back foot defense dismissals in a T20 over.

And suddenly we have George Dockrell, a reformed tailender, walking in at 22/4. The game suddenly fell into limbo. The life, and people, left the ground. Singles were nudged, balls were misfielded but for no consequence, and Ireland began to reckon with a reality in which they once again do not qualify for the main stage. It took the reintroduction of that man Raza again to put some life back into the game, first by breaking through Dockrell after a watchful 24, then by making a remarkable one-handed boundary stop on a ball going at pace, but by then the result had set in and Zimbabwe began to wind down the clock.

It would be fair to say that Sikandar Raza played a knock that could deflate any team, especially on a deck which many good batters earlier in the day struggled to work out. But Ireland’s lack of gameplan wasn’t just exposed by a great knock, it felt non-existent. T20 is a format that the Irish have not been cracking of late, and the absence of a gameplan forms a big part of that. After wins from Namibia and Scotland built around the idea of knowing roles in a side, Ireland were a stark contrast. Unless they can find a strategy that plays to their strengths, it’s looking like a longer road to the next cup.

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