Zimbabwe v Ireland, World Cup, Group D, Jamaica March 15, 2007

A toast to the fighting Irish



It's a tie: Ireland celebrate a memorable World Cup debut © AFP

It didn't quite have the drama of the Edgbaston finish of 1999, but this was a tie that Irish cricket will savour for years to come. With some of the game's luminaries having questioned the role of the minnows at the World Cup, it needed a match like this to illustrate just what they can offer. Both the Irish players and their magnificent fans deserve enormous credit for making this a memorable occasion.

This was a contest between a side that needed to win, and another for whom victory would have been a bonus after the achievement of qualifying for their first World Cup. The gulf in experience should have been enough for Zimbabwe to prevail. After all, Stuart Matsikenyeri, Brendan Taylor and Vusi Sibanda had 166 caps between them, significantly more than the Irish team put together.

But numbers count for little at times, and the verve and enthusiasm of the Irish kept them in the game even when it appeared that Matsikenyeri and Taylor would apply the finishing touches. Taylor's unfortunate run-out, after a brisk 70-run partnership, changed everything, and Zimbabwe's dramatic wobble at the death only emphasised just how young and callow the side is.

On a day when the country's greatest-ever batsman, Andy Flower, called for sporting sanctions to be imposed, Zimbabwe's performance was always going to be scrutinised closely. In many ways, it was hard not to feel sorry for Prosper Utseya's young side. Like the team from the Duvalier-ruled Haiti at the 1974 football World Cup, whatever they do on the field is likely to be overshadowed by the actions of the regime back home. But to target them for the acts of their government is as illogical as considering Ali Bacher and Mike Proctor racists merely because they played at a time when South Africa was ruled by oppressors like Hendrik Verwoerd and John Vorster.

And in the general euphoria over Ireland's achievement, it would be easy to forget that this result was largely made in Australia. Jeremy Bray, whose outstanding 115 fetched him Man-of-the-Match honours, is a New South Welshman, as are Trent Johnston, the captain, and Dave Langford-Smith, the opening bowler. With no other batsman going past 28, Bray was left to pilot the innings solo, a role he appeared to relish.

Tall and strongly built, there were echoes of Matthew Hayden at times as he creamed the ball through the covers or flicked it powerfully off the pads. Most impressive though was his temperament. Like every good opener should, he bided his time, mixing periods of circumspection with passages of belligerence. Right to the end, he ran hard, making sure that the innings finished with something of a flourish.

It was the sort of innings that Sibanda threatened to play for Zimbabwe, but slippery feet ended his beautifully compiled 67. Even then, Matsikenyeri and Taylor should have won it, but for Kyle McCallan's outstretched hand to apply a decisive twist. Johnston, Andre Botha and Andrew White then showed off nerves of high-tensile fibre, but in truth, Zimbabwe scripted their own semi-demise.

No mention of the match would be complete without an allusion to the Irish fans. Right from the leprechaun who led the conga to the others who never stopped singing and dancing, they were a class apart, as good as anything seen on a big night at Anfield or Lansdowne Road.

Cotton Eye Joe may be a folk song from America's Deep South, but for one day in the Jamaican sun, the music piped out from the stadium speakers was adopted by these lobster-red folk. It might not have stirred the emotions quite like a rendition of Fields of Athenry or Molly Malone, but it certainly helped keep the spirits high - helped immeasurably by the Red Stripe of course.

We're often harsh on these teams that we see as interlopers at a fancy do, but watching the frenzied celebrations and the team's communion with the crowd at the end, you were reminded of the essence of sport, and the soul that it has irrevocably lost to the forces of commerce. There's no time like now then to take a bow in honour of those who'll be singing in the bars tonight of "Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty".

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo