A sizzling 71-run eighth-wicket partnership helped New Zealand shrug off a start-stop batting effort, enabling them to seal a comprehensive 129-run win against Ireland at the Providence Stadium in Guyana. With this victory, New Zealand were all but assured of a place in the semi-finals and just one win in the next three games - against South Africa, Australia and Sri Lanka - would gain their last-four spot.
Ireland turned in a sterling bowling performance on a pitch which was a good one for batting. Their medium-pacers nagged away before the offspinners continued the good work in the middle stages. It was only in the last three overs when the wheels came off, as Brendon McCullum and James Franklin clattered 45. Chasing 264, Ireland's batsmen began sluggishly and, barring a 75-run stand between the O'Brien brothers, couldn't put up much of a fight.
McCullum's 37-ball 47 was the knock that changed the complexion of the game. Entering at 172 for 5, after New Zealand lost Peter Fulton, he pinched singles and twos before launching into the boundaries. Franklin provided him good company, striking three fours and a six and Ireland's disciplined work for most of the innings went to pieces.
Fulton's was a cautious knock, and an essential one with the rest of the top order falling to poor shot selection. Standing upright and using his reach to full effect, he was decisive with his footwork: getting fully forward or fully back and effecting some meaty drives and pulls. He found the gaps easily and picked off singles between the boundaries. He wasn't frustrated into any errors, despite the bowlers maintaining a tight line.
Ireland indeed produced a superb bowling effort. Opening bowler Dave Langford-Smith bowled a fine spell of military medium, on a pitch tailor-made for attacking batting, while Kyle McCallan and Andrew White, the two offspinners, snared two wickets each. All of them were supported by athletic fielding, Eoin Morgan and wicketkeeper Niall O'Brien picking off sharp catches. Hamish Marshall and Scott Styris chased wide deliveries that were moving away. Stephen Fleming committed a similar error against Boyd Rankin while Craig McMillan, who entered in an aggressive frame of mind, paid for a loose slash against McCallan.
Even an aggressive batsman like Jacob Oram couldn't break away, nudging his way to 20 off 48 deliveries. He tried to be innovative, with reverse-paddles and cheeky deflections, but holed out trying to loft over long-on. Fulton fell a little earlier, trying to sweep one that was too full, but New Zealand showed their lower-order muscle with McCullum and Franklin making amends for the top-order showing.
Shane Bond's early double-strike set the tone for New Zealand's dominance with the ball. Ireland needed a rapid start if they harboured hopes of overhauling the target but Bond's incisive spell thwarted them early. Bond struck in his first over, striking the splice of Jeremy Bray's bat going for a drive. It was a lethal delivery, pitched on middle and shaping away and kissed the edge en route to the wicketkeeper. William Porterfield was rattled by a short one and his attempted pull was well collected by Styris, running back from the slip cordon.
The O'Brien brothers settled the nerves a bit. There were just three fours in the first 15 overs, with the batsmen trying to play out Bond, but Kevin O'Brien batted confidently as his innings progressed. He cracked three towering sixes in his 49 and appeared to be set to launch a determined counterattack. That's when a messy run-out undid Ireland. Niall, his brother, who has been in fine form throughout this tournament, pottered around for 75 deliveries for 30 but a crucial error of judgment ended Kevin's fine knock. Patting one to the off side in the 29th over, Niall took off for a single but stopped after taking a few strides. Kevin was too far down the track by then and an accurate throw from Marshall ended the steadying partnership.
None of the others crossed 20 and Daniel Vettori mopped up the tail in truly efficient fashion. He varied his speed delightfully and none of the tailenders had much of a clue against his speedy darts from around the wicket. He accounted for four of the last six wickets - his offspinning partner Jeetan Patel snared the other two - as Ireland collapsed from 110 for 3 to 134 all out. They will now prepare for the clash against Australia on Friday the 13th, which promises to be a stiffer challenge than this one.