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June 8, 2009
Ireland did not come to Trent Bridge hoping to cause an upset against Bangladesh. Despite being an Associate member, they believed they were the better side and fully expected to win. They duly executed their skills, ousted Bangladesh, a Full Member country, from the competition and secured a place in the Super Eights.
Ireland had beaten Bangladesh during the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, and although Mohammad Ashraful said his players were not as anxious now as they were before that match, there was a remarkable difference in how both teams approached the game. While Bangladesh's batsmen forgot their batting plan, falling to shots that angered their coach Jamie Siddons, Ireland showed calm even when their chase got off to a less than ideal start. It appeared as though Bangladesh were playing nervously, to avoid errors on the field, while Ireland were having fun but always kept their eye on the ball.
Their success was heartening, for the struggles a cricket team like Ireland faces are different from those faced by the major nations. For instance, Ireland have only two centrally-contracted professional cricketers - Trent Johnston, who came out of retirement, and Alex Cusack - and only a handful of others that play county cricket.
"We don't have the funds to get the lads on full time contracts," said captain William Porterfield. "It's crucial for Ireland cricket to move forward that we get more lads on professional contracts, playing against better opposition, training day in and day out." And now that they've qualified for the next round, several members of their squad might have to organise more leave from their regular jobs, something that Porterfield said the players hadn't thought about yet.
The O'Brien brothers - Kevin and Niall - played a significant part in Ireland's success. While Kevin started the day poorly, dropping Mohammad Ashraful at first slip, Niall was excellent behind the stumps. His speed in getting to the ball forced indecision between the Bangladesh batsmen and led to the run out of the well-set Tamim Iqbal but it was his lightning stumping to dismiss Mahmudullah that left watchers gasping.
Niall O'Brien was standing up to the medium-pacer Alex Cusack when Mahmudullah was beaten by a full ball. The batsmen's back foot was always behind the line but he raised it for the briefest of moments. And during that smallest of openings, he whipped off the bails. He later revealed it was part luck but there was no denying the speed of his reflexes.
"I was happy enough just to catch it and I thought I might as well take the bails off for good measure," O'Brien said. "Nigel Llong and I, we just said 'not out'. I was pretty surprised when it was given out. It just shows that you never quite know, do you."
He made an even more important contribution to Ireland's victory with the bat. The innings had failed to pick up momentum after the early dismissal of Jeremy Bray and Ireland were 18 for 1 after four overs, chasing 138. O'Brien, who was struggling with an injury, attacked Mortaza, hitting the fast bowler for three leg-side sixes in an over. He scored 40 off 25 balls despite taking painkillers after hurting his ankle - Niall said he "heard a crack" - in the final over of Bangladesh's innings. It put Ireland's chase on track and they never lost course.
"In Twenty20 cricket you've got to take a bit of a gamble every now and then," he said. "Hitting towards that part of the ground, it was the shorter boundary for me. I hit him with the swing. It was a calculated risk, sometimes it got goes straight up in the air, fortunately for me today it went straight over the boundary."
O'Brien, however, only provided the acceleration. He didn't finish the job, falling in the 10th over with the score on 61. That responsibility was left to his brother Kevin, whom Niall described as one of the best hitters in the game. Kevin O'Brien lived up to that billing, scoring a 17-ball 39 and finishing the game with ten balls to spare.
"He [Kevin] came up to me yesterday and said, 'I'm playing really badly'. I said there's no point in worrying about how you are playing before the tournament started," he said. "Once the game starts and you cross the pitch, that's what counts. He's done it for us again today. He's as big a hitter as any."
Ireland's next match, against the world champions India, counts for little since the two sides have already made it past the first round. Ireland, however, are determined to enjoy every match on the world's biggest stage. "If you can't get up and enjoy a game against the World Champions, there's no point coming here. If you can't enjoy 20 overs in the field and hitting sixes while batting, what are you going to enjoy? We'll give it everything we've got on Wednesday."
Ireland may not be as skilled as the more reputed sides, as Bangladesh claim to be, but they've got belief. And sometimes that can make up for a lack of ability.