Pakistan v Ireland, Group D, Jamaica March 17, 2007

Niall's jewel lets Ireland sparkle



Niall O'Brien's double of two catches and 72 runs put Ireland in reach of the Super Eights © AFP

Niall O'Brien, the batting hero with a cultured 72 in a tense chase, reduced it to the basics when he spoke of how "they had the ball and I had the bat", but there was absolutely nothing perfunctory about this Irish win. Even after they skittled out Pakistan for 132 on a well-grassed pitch, they still had to withstand a ferocious spell from Mohammad Sami, and a late burst from Rao Iftikhar to seal victory.

O'Brien's dismissal, looking for an encore after slamming Shoaib Malik for six, started the wobble, but his brother Kevin and Trent Johnston, the injured captain, kept their nerve even as everyone else inside Sabina Park appeared to be losing theirs. "It was just a game of cricket for me," O'Brien, who also spent more than three hours wicketkeeping, said. "When you're in the middle, you don't think too much. But to beat a team like Pakistan is a fantastic achievement."

Johnston, who will head to hospital to be examined after the recurrence of a rotator-cuff injury, said the toss may have been critical, and found it hard to express what it felt like to pull off such an upset. "I didn't do too well in English at school," he said with a grin. "I can't think of a word for it really. It was just amazing. We bowled in some good areas, and some bad areas as well. Then Niall and Kevin batted fantastically well. And the support we got was magnificent."

It was an assessment echoed by Adrian Birrell, the coach who will now have to wait a while before handing over to Phil Simmons. "You don't really expect to beat a Test-playing country like that," he said. "We're a side capable of upsets, and I think we drew on that belief. We bowled very well, and very badly at times." Ireland's attack combined wicket-taking deliveries with 23 wides.

Johnston didn't think that Pakistan had made it easy for his side. "They had the quality bowlers, and we're not used to this kind of pressure," he said. "The way the O'Brien brothers batted, I can't praise them enough." As for his own role, including the winning six, Johnston merely said: "We just had to get back to basics and play as straight as we could. I know I came out swinging like a lunatic, but we knew we had enough overs in the bank."

After depressing days for the minnows that led to The Netherlands and Bermuda being slaughtered by Test opposition, Birrell reckoned his side had "landed a blow for the Associates". "There will be games where such teams do badly," he said. "But this will do a world of good for cricket in Ireland. You've got to have Associates playing. If you didn't, you wouldn't have had Bangladesh beating India today, or Sri Lanka winning the World Cup in 1996."

Thoughts of winning the Cup are still fanciful, but Birrell is now almost certainly guaranteed a few more weeks of pacing up and down the dressing room enclosure. "I'm not the greatest watcher, my team will tell you that," he said with a smile. "I get nervous, and I hope they don't see me because it might have a negative effect. But you can't change some things. I was nervous when I played, and I'm nervous now."

The Irish now head to Ocho Rios and what might be one of the biggest parties seen on the northern Jamaican shore. "I won't be drinking tonight," Johnston said ruefully. "I've got to go to hospital. But the rest of the boys have a license to party, I think," he said, looking in Birrell's direction. The enthusiastic nod in response summed up a day that even Lewis Carroll would have struggled to make sense of.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo