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March 17, 2007
For a few agonising moments, it appeared as though a St Patrick's Day that had promised so much might end up delivering nothing but heartbreak. In the morning, as Ireland's pace attack cleaved their way through a paper-thin Pakistani line-up, the nation's rugby players were pummelling Italy. Journalists and fans alike followed the score anxiously, but two late French tries against the Scots meant that the soul-destroying 22-year wait for a championship would continue. And when Rao Iftikhar picked up two wickets in two balls to reduce the cricket team to 113 for 7, you feared that "so near, and yet so very far" would be the theme of the day.
Ireland had blown winning opportunities in four games at the recent six-nation tournament in Nairobi. But with even the effervescent support reduced to nail-biting anxiety, Trent Johnston played as a captain should, overcoming a nervy swish-filled start to see it home. Years from now, folk back in Ireland may wax eloquent about the six that clinched victory, but just as priceless were the downward jabs of the bat that kept out lethal yorkers from Umar Gul.
Having batted like lemmings, Pakistan had given it their all on the field. Mohammad Sami, usually all bluster and no substance, was magnificent, working up searing pace while troubling every batsman. Gul and Iftikhar were a less fearsome prospect, but they too gave little away in disciplined spells. Even the spinners picked up a wicket apiece, as they strove to extricate themselves from a deep dark hole of the batsmen's making.
Bob Woolmer spoke later of how it was a good toss for the Irish to win, while admitting that it was no excuse for a depressingly familiar capitulation on a green-tinged pitch. The one batsman who had the skill and confidence to prevail in the testing conditions was Mohammad Yousuf, and his brain fade allowed Ireland a path back into the game after a period where they seemed intent on squandering the early advantage with a welter of wides.
The previous ball from Johnston had been ushered to the cover fence with the silken timing that exemplifies Yousuf's batting. What followed summed up his more infuriating qualities, with a full delivery outside off stump being slapped into the hands of point. Momentum regained, Ireland never squandered it and once Inzamam lapsed back to 2003's single-digit mode with 1, you could just about predict the rest of the script.
The shots that Azhar Mahmood and Kamran Akmal played may have been forgiven if they had come from Irish men overcome by stage fright. But for two established internationals to strike so recklessly with the game in the balance was inexplicable, and it may be weeks before the stunned supporters who watched this debacle unfold make any sense of what happened.
What is beyond dispute is that Pakistan are out, following up a wretched campaign in 2003 with an even more pathetic showing here. A generation of players, typified by the lost Imran Nazir, have produced nothing to cherish, and as Inzamam prepares to take his bow, the selectors may need to look anew at the under-19 boys who won the World Cup not so long ago. And while they're at it, a couple of fighters like Asim Kamal wouldn't go amiss either.
Fight was something that the Irish certainly didn't lack. It was the hulking figure of Jeremy Bray that caught the eye in the first game, pummelling a century with the authority of a man who knew he belonged at this level. This time, against far sterner opposition, it was left to the pint-sized Niall O'Brien to ensure that the sweat expended by the bowlers in the morning didn't go waste.
He did so with a fabulous innings. Having kept for more than 45 overs, he arrived at the crease with Ireland wobbling badly, and Sami bowling like the wind. A superb square-drive eased some nerves and when he then leant into a gorgeous off-drive off Gul, you knew he meant business. The 47-run partnership with William Porterfield, who rode his luck for 13, was invaluable, as was the 38-run stand with brother Kevin after Brian Jerling gave an appalling decision against Andrè Botha.
It's unlikely though that Botha will spend the evening sulking. After Dave Langford-Smith and Boyd Rankin had got a little carried away by the shamrock-green pitch, it was he who stepped in to apply the tourniquet, getting Inzamam with a beauty and then ending Nazir's kamikaze innings with a similar delivery.
Some of these players from far afield - like Botha, Bray and Langford-Smith - may have been stars had circumstances been different. As it is, few in their homelands remember them. After careers played out in the shade, this was their chance to reach out and grab sporting immortality. They seized it, and the sport of cricket will be the richer for it.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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