On the 31st of December 2018, the cut-off date passed for automatic qualification for the final World Cup qualifier. At the time Ireland sat in a lowly 17th place in the ICC T20I rankings and were the lowest ranked side to qualify directly for the tournament.
It was a sorry state of affairs for one of cricket’s newest Full Members, who had sunk to unprecedented depths playing a style of cricket that seemed ten years out of date, left behind by the rapidly evolving modern game.
The run up to the qualifiers saw some much-needed change in the Ireland line-up. Kevin O’Brien was promoted up the order in early 2019 to open the batting alongside Paul Stirling, and the impact was immediate. In just his second game in this new role, O’Brien scored his then highest ever T20I score and first T20I fifty with a 65 against Scotland. Two more fifties and Ireland’s first ever T20I century would follow that year as the change continued to reap rewards.
2019 would also see debuts for several younger players. Gareth Delany, Mark Adair, Harry Tector, David Delany and Shane Getkate all made their international debuts in the months before the qualifiers as Ireland injected some youthful energy into their side.
After an extensive series of warm up matches, including a pentangular tournament hosted by Oman, captain Gary Wilson lead Ireland out onto the field at Abu Dhabi for their opening match of the qualifiers against Hong Kong.
Hong Kong batted first and posted a competitive 153/5 from their 20 overs. Mark Adair was the pick of the Irish bowlers, finishing with 2/22 from his full spell. The Irish response never looked like falling short, as a 62 (36) from Paul Stirling and a 70* (53) from Andrew Balbirnie helped Ireland home with nearly 3 overs to spare.
Ireland (155/2 – 17.2ov) beat Hong Kong (153/5) by 8 wickets
Ireland’s second match was against the hosts, and in an all too familiar sight for Irish fans, Paul Stirling was left unsupported by his teammates as his 72 (58 balls) was the only notable score as Ireland were bowled out for 125 on the final ball of the final over. The UAE’s Rohan Mustafa put Ireland to the sword, taking four wickets, a catch, and being credited in three run outs before going on to top-score in the UAE’s response with 39 runs from just 16 balls.
UAE (129/5 – 17ov) beat Ireland (125) by 5 wickets
After their disappointing batting against the UAE, Ireland bounced back with a dominant victory over Oman. Gareth Delany was sensational, scoring an undefeated 89 from 49 balls and well supported by Kevin O’Brien (41 off 28) and Harry Tector (28 off 20) as Ireland finished on an impressive 183/3.
There were two wickets apiece for Gareth Delany, Mark Adair and George Dockrell in the chase, as Oman never got close, falling 35 runs short.
Ireland (183/3) beat Oman (148/9) by 35 runs
There was another bump in the road, as Ireland followed up their strong win with another lacklustre performance against Canada. The Irish bowlers were only able to take 5 wickets, but Canada’s final total of 156/5 should still have been well within Ireland’s abilities to chase.
However, Ireland were unable to get going, as despite seven batters reaching double figures, none could go beyond Stuart Thompson’s 28*and Ireland limped to the end 10 runs shy. The result left Ireland on a 50% record after four games, but with easier fixtures against Jersey and Nigeria to come, progress from the group was still likely.
Canada (156/5) beat Ireland (146/7) by 10 runs
Gary Wilson won the toss and put Jersey into bat in their penultimate group game. The decision was rewarded as the Irish bowlers proved too much for the Jersey batters. Mark Adair’s four overs saw him take 3 wickets for just 10 runs, and David Delany had two wickets from his 2.3 overs before having to leave the field with a niggle.
Needing just 106 to win, Ireland never looked like losing. Once again it was Stirling (58*) and Balbirnie (33) who scored the bulk of the runs, as Ireland finished in style, with Stirling smacking two sixes in a row to finish off the chase.
Ireland (110/2- 14ov) beat Jersey (105) by 8 wickets
Ireland’s final group game against Nigeria, late entrants into the tournament to replace the suspended Zimbabwe, saw plenty to play for, as group positioning would factor hugely in Ireland’s route to the World Cup. The Nigerians batted first and managed to hang on for the full 20-overs against the far more experienced attack, but could only post 66 runs, losing 9 wickets in the process.
Craig Young led the attack, with career best T20I figures of 4/13, and Adair added two more wickets to his impressive tally for the tournament.
It took Ireland just 6 overs and one ball to chase the target, Kevin O’Brien top scoring with a 17-ball 32.
Ireland (67/2- 6.1ov) beat Nigeria (66/9) by 8 wickets
Ireland’s final two heavy victories would prove crucial, as when all was done and dusted, Ireland topped Group B on net run rate, therefore guaranteeing World Cup qualification, regardless of what would happen in the knockout stage.
Electing to field first in their semi-final against the Netherlands, Ireland started strongly, restricting the Dutch to run-a-ball pace for the majority of their innings. Late fireworks from Ryan ten Doeschate and Roelof van der Merwe, however, took the Netherlands to a more challenging 158/4.
Ireland’s response once again failed to find any momentum. Stirling, O’Brien, Delany and Dockrell all reached scores in the twenties, while every other batter was dismissed in single figures as Ireland could only manage 137. The Dutch marched on to the final, where they would end up eventual tournament winners, while Ireland had to settle for the third place play off. The result is one Ireland will be keen not to repeat when they meet in Group A of the World Cup.
The Netherlands (158/4) beat Ireland (137/9) by 21 runs
The battle for 3rd place was a low-scoring affair, as Ireland were bowled out for 135, with Andrew Balbirnie’s 46 the only real score of note.
Ireland’s bowlers were up to the task however, as the Namibian batters struggled in the conditions, with the exception of Gerhard Erasmus (51 off 34), and were all out for just 108. Simi Singh starred with the ball, taking 3 wickets and 2 catches, while Adair, Gareth Delany and Boyd Rankin picked up a pair of wickets each.
Ireland (135) beat Namibia (108) by 27 runs
The boys in green headed home from the UAE with their mission accomplished, on the back of some strong individual performances. Paul Stirling was the tournament’s highest run scorer – notching 291 runs and three half centuries in his eight appearances. Ireland’s best bowler was Mark Adair, who claimed 12 scalps, finishing 10th in the overall standings.
The failure of the lower order to step up when the likes of Stirling and Balbirnie fail has long been an issue for Ireland, and it was on display again in the qualifiers.
Ireland will return to the United Arab Emirates this October, hoping their young squad can iron out this issue and earn their spot in the later stages.
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