<
>

Stirling, Dockrell spearhead 2-1 series win for Ireland

Ireland 180 for 5 (Stirling 101) beat Afghanistan 177 (Rashid 44, Rahmat 44, Dockrell 4-28, McCarthy 3-32) by five wickets

In a coaching tenure pockmarked by a lack of victories over Full Members, John Bracewell signed off on his time as Ireland coach with two straight wins in Sharjah as Ireland took the series decider by five wickets on Sunday night. George Dockrell's first four-for in nearly three years was followed by a disdainful century from Paul Stirling, who finished as the leading run-scorer in the series.

Afghanistan's innings started in assured fashion with Dockrell being hit for six by Javed Ahmadi in the second over. In the sixth over, he carved Boyd Rankin through the off side for a series of boundaries. But the slightest pressure applied by Tim Murtagh resulted in the first mistake, Ahmadi forcing a pull in the seventh over to mid-off for 27. Rankin had Noor Ali Zadran dragging on in the next over and from there Ireland grew taller in the field.

Whereas most of the Irish damage came from pace in the first two games, Dockrell and Stirling stepped up to take half the wickets. Stirling struck first, getting Asghar Stanikzai to skew a drive to backward point for 5 in the 18th over. Rahmat Shah then got out in arrogant fashion to give Dockrell his first, attempting to bring up a fifty with a six and instead picked out the tallest man on the field, Rankin at long-off.

But it was the wicket of Mohammad Nabi that demonstrated Afghanistan's lack of respect for Irish fingerspin, falling in identical circumstances to Stanikzai as a sliced drive found its way to Kevin O'Brien at short third man. Nasir Jamal picked out square leg with a sweep he middled, to give Dockrell his third and put Afghanistan on 109 for 6 with nearly 20 overs left.

Rashid Khan fought gamely to keep Afghanistan in the match. He wound up finishing with a joint-top score of 44 and ended the series as Afghanistan's second-highest scorer, a major indictment of the recognised batsmen. While he played orthodox strokes, his frustration grew as his remaining partners showed little willingness to apply themselves as Barry McCarthy ran off three straight wickets, two of those in the 41st over. Rashid began turning singles down in the 42nd over and stretched the innings into the 49th, giving the crowd a rise with a huge six off McCarthy into Second Industrial Street, before he was caught in the deep off the same bowler to end the innings.

With Dawlat Zadran out nursing a niggling shoulder injury, Afghanistan made the curious call to bring in Shapoor Zadran, who had only played three ODIs since taking the new ball in the 2015 World Cup. Based on his performance on Sunday, he may have wrecked his chances of being in the touring party to Zimbabwe for the World Cup Qualifiers after he was dismantled single-handedly by Stirling. The bruising opener drove Shapoor through extra cover for the first of his 11 fours in the third over, and then nearly took Shapoor's head off with a searing straight drive in the fifth to knock him out of the attack.

Afghanistan's spinners made inroads in the interim with Mujeeb Zadran bowling William Porterfield for 4 in the next over to land a hopeful blow. Nabi was curiously held out of the attack until after drinks but struck in his second over, drawing Andy Balbirnie into a dance down the pitch for a stumping. Rashid had Niall O'Brien lbw to a legbreak that held its line to make it 96 for 3.

But Gary Wilson and Stirling teamed for a half-century stand to straighten Ireland's chase once more as Afghanistan went crooked with the return of Shapoor to the attack. Stirling hooked the first ball of the 29th over a statuesque Rahmat at long leg for a six that could have been a wicket. But Stirling showed his disdain for Shapoor's medium-pace two balls later, getting on a knee to slog sweep him over the square-leg rope for six more.

Stirling's hammering of Shapoor culminated in the 36th over. In the space of four balls, he moved from 81 to a century with hooks for four and six over long leg, then a tennis swat over cover for six more. A front-foot pull over midwicket finished the sequence to bring up his sixth ODI century, off 93 balls.

Stirling fell to a Rashid googly to end the next over and several of Afghanistan's players graciously shook his hand before he exited the field to more applause from the Afghanistan fans who remained. Two fours by Kevin O'Brien off Mujeeb in the following over sealed the win with 12 overs to spare.

For Ireland, the back-to-back wins after a humiliating loss in the series opener were a major confidence boost in their final scheduled series before the World Cup Qualifier. The series loss for Afghanistan, only their second in nine ODI series since the 2015 World Cup and first since a 2-1 defeat in Bangladesh in October 2016, may dent their standing as one of the pre-tournament favourites heading into Zimbabwe.