Ireland kept their World Cup hopes alive with a 25-run victory over Scotland at Harare Sports Club. They still have an outside chance of making the final if they win their final match against Afghanistan. Should Scotland and Zimbabwe both win their next games, however, the efforts of Andy Balbirnie, in particular, may have been in vain.
Put in by Scotland under grey, leaden skies, Ireland were carried to 271 for 9 by Balbirnie, who shared in a 138-run partnership with Niall O'Brien and went on to register his second one-day international century.
On a pitch that offered decent pace and bounce and played true throughout the day, Scotland had every chance of chasing down the runs, especially during Kyle Coetzer's early assault. Coetzer was particularly severe on Boyd Rankin, but the Irish seamer overcame a difficult start to take 4 for 63, securing the victory as the clouds parted and the ground was bathed in afternoon sunshine.
Ireland's day had begun in rather more overcast conditions, and in the knowledge that they had to win this game to keep their qualifying campaign alive. Balbirnie has opened the batting for Ireland before, and was virtually an opener today as Paul Stirling fell to Brad Wheal's pace, through a bat-pad caught and bowled, in the very first over.
He started nervously, playing and missing at a Safyaan Sharif outswinger, but also enjoyed the good fortune of a reprieve from Umpire Paul Wilson when it appeared Wheal had trapped him plumb in front with one that hooped in.
Overcoming the early wobble, Balbirnie began to find increasingly fluency through the off side, moving into the 30s with silken boundaries past point in consecutive overs. With Porterfield chopping Wheal on to give the Scotland quick his second scalp in his opening spell, Balbirnie forged an association with O'Brien, their contrasting styles complementing each other. O'Brien was quick to turn the strike over, while Balbirnie soaked up pressure and brought up a 78-ball fifty in the 22nd over.
While the pitch generally played true, there were spells during which it was very difficult to get Scotland's spinners away. Here, O'Brien's contribution was especially vital, and he collected swept boundaries off Michael Leask and Calum MacLeod's offspin to keep Ireland's run rate above four. He brought up his own fifty in the 32nd over, belting his sixth boundary down the ground to reach the mark at close to a run a ball.
The pair collected nine boundaries between the 30th and 37th overs, stretching their partnership to 138 (equalling the Irish record for the third wicket), before a confused, stop-start attempt at a single allowed Craig Wallace to run O'Brien out for 70.
One O'Brien then replaced another, and Kevin was quickly into his stride, lifting massive legside sixes off Wheal and Leask. Balbirnie reached his hundred - the second of his ODI career, and his second this year after his ton against UAE in January - in the 43rd over. The innings was an important one for the team, and for the man: his previous scores in the tournament were 7, 9, 7 and 2.
With two set batsmen at the crease, Ireland might have had eyes on a total close to 300, but Scotland's quicks returned to stall their charge. Balbirnie and O'Brien fell in consecutive overs, and after they were gone the lower order struggled to reach the boundary. In the last 10 overs, Ireland managed just 68, losing six wickets for 30 in the last five.
That finish seemed to shift the momentum Scotland's way, and it stayed with them even after Tim Murtagh's three maidens in his opening spell, and his early dismissal of Matthew Cross, thanks mainly to Coetzer's efforts. The Scotland captain has had a consistent tournament with the bat, registering scores of 2, 41*, 88*, 39 and 43 before today, and once again he got the innings off to a quick start.
Coetzer was particularly severe on Rankin, swiping three fours off his first over, and then three in a row in his second, striking the ball with ferocious power through - or over - the off side. To make matters worse, Rankin then dropped Coetzer at third man, an extremely difficult chance as the ball dipped well in front of him.
Coetzer ran to a 49-ball fifty in the 18th over, and though wickets had fallen at the other end, while he remained, Scotland seemed to have the chase under control. But in the 24th over, Rankin returned to devastating effect, quickly derailing Scotland with pace and bounce as he took three wickets in 11 balls.
First to go was Coetzer, bowled by one that nipped back. A flat-footed George Munsey then presented a regulation catch to the wicketkeeper, and Craig Wallace tapped back a simple caught and bowled chance to a short one that followed him. Richie Berrington and Sharif briefly rallied to put on 55 for the seventh wicket, but when Berrington was bowled swinging across the line at Murtagh for 44, Ireland took control.
They never lost it, even as Wheal and Mark Watt refused to surrender with a daring tenth wicket partnership that included five fours and two sixes. Fittingly, it was Rankin who snared the final scalp, Niall O'Brien flying to his right to hold a thick edge off Wheal's bat.