John Mooney and Regan West walked off a sun-bathed outfield at Lord's to a rousing applause from a crowd that was appreciative and acknowledged the tenacity of Ireland's performance. They were beaten by a Sri Lankan team vastly superior in skill but Ireland's resolve held out until the end. Theirs' was a performance worthy of the praise Kumar Sangakkara showered on them.
Ireland were in the contest for the majority of the game. Their opening bowlers surprised everyone by restricting Sri Lanka to 28 for 2 during the Powerplay, the tournament's second-lowest score after six overs. Mahela Jayawardene revived the innings with a graceful yet damaging half-century but Ireland fought back during the final overs to keep Sri Lanka to 144 for 9.
Ireland's fight didn't end with their fielding and bowling effort. Their openers, William Porterfield and Niall O'Brien, added 59 and the rest of the batsmen kept Ireland within reach of the asking-rate for the bulk of the chase. It was only the relentless barrage of quality bowling from Lasith Malinga, Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis that ultimately undid them. The margin of defeat was a meagre nine runs.
"The way the Ireland team has played, I think it's encouraging for them," Sangakkara said. "They're going to get stronger and stronger as long as they get some good young cricketers playing the game."
There were two moments that best captured Ireland's attitude and both involved the brothers Kevin and Niall O'Brien. Sri Lanka were 140 for 9 when Mendis lofted the final ball of the innings towards long off. Kevin O'Brien could have easily settled to collect the ball on the bounce and concede only one run. The alternative was to attempt an improbable catch, a wicket that would have bowled Sri Lanka out and made Alex Cusack only the second bowler to take a five-wicket haul in Twenty20 internationals. From the way he charged in from the boundary, the thought of playing safe never crossed Kevin O'Brien's mind. He dived selflessly, at full length, but the ball dropped short of him and bounced towards the boundary.
His brother, Niall O'Brien, is showing the world what his team already knew: that he possesses deep reserves of toughness to complement his skill. Niall O'Brien was carrying an injury into this match - he had turned his ankle during the game against Bangladesh - but it didn't prevent him from taking a sharp catch and pulling off another reflex stumping while standing up to Cusack's medium-pace.
It was Niall O'Brien's batting, however, that won the hearts of all those watching at Lord's. Unfortunately for him, he damaged his ankle again when he decided against a quick single and tried to turn around quickly. He needed extensive treatment from the physio before resuming his innings. A runner was not an option, for he had come into the game carrying the injury, but he didn't even want one. He carried on, hobbling between the wickets, reverse-pulling Mendis and Murali, and while he was at the crease, Ireland had a chance.
"He's [Niall O'Brien] a tough character who soldiers on," Ireland captain William Porterfield said. "It wasn't easy when he went over on his ankle again. He is mentally tough and kept going. He didn't even ask for a runner. It was never in his head. He's got a great personality and he's good to have around in the changing room."
Ireland's performance today was better than the one they put in to beat Bangladesh and Porterfield acknowledged that. "I thought the lads gave everything, that's what we asked for before the game. To restrict Sri Lanka to 140 is a fantastic effort. We were really good in the field and with the ball. We batted well too, just came up short in the end. To run a side like Sri Lanka so close, we'll definitely take confidence from it."
Ireland came into the World Twenty20 with hopes of qualifying for the Super Eights and achieved that objective. Their realistic target for the second round was to win a game or two. Pakistan would do well to be on their guard at The Oval on Monday.