Australia take charge against Ireland, but fail to take control of destiny
Seemingly comfortable win undermined by injury concerns and negative net run rate
Anyone who watched Monday night's game at the Gabba in bits and pieces, and then allowed the scorecard to fill them in on the rest, would wonder why there was any cause for negativity. Australia beat Ireland by 42 runs. Aaron Finch - whose notoriously scratchy innings against Sri Lanka has dogged him for the past week - was the Player of the Match, smashing eight boundaries, including three sixes, in a 44-ball 63. Mitchell Starc, despite operating as a second-change bowler, found prodigious swing and frightening accuracy in the fourth over, a wicket maiden that saw both the stumps of both Curtis Campher and George Dockrell knocked back, gutting the Irish chase before it could even begin.
And yet as the players shook hands, this felt anything like an unequivocally positive day for the hosts and defending champions. Finch, in truth, had struggled for the best part of that innings, which was characterised by lack of timing and some questionable shot selection, particularly in the powerplay. By the end of the 14th over, Finch had managed just 40 off 36 deliveries; his team-mates had scored 68 off 48 in that time. It was only when Mark Adair sent down a horror 11-ball 15th over that Finch finally broke free; the question around whether that had more to do with ordinary bowling than a batter who has truly returned to form seems pertinent.
In addition, he was off the field for much of the Ireland innings, nursing a hamstring injury that a scan will reveal more of. It was the other overriding concern that coloured Australia's view of the win, with Tim David and Marcus Stoinis also going off the field at various points of the second innings, each with hamstring issues.
And Starc, who had begun so brightly, ended up conceding 43 off his next three overs, the fourth most expensive figures in his T20I career. The lower-order recovery from Ireland, spearheaded by Lorcan Tucker, who blitzed his way to a 48-ball 71, also extinguished any hopes Australia had of getting close to England - their likely rivals for second place in this group - on net run rate, at least for now. From 25 for 5, Ireland fought their way to 137, meaning even a win against Afghanistan in their final group game might not be enough for Australia to qualify.
Starc, speaking afterwards, was keen to draw on the positives for Australia, even as he acknowledged the back end of the Ireland innings didn't go according to plan for the hosts. "It was obviously different," he said. "I mean, better to experience it now than in the finals.
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"It was still I guess a little bit frantic while they were still striking the ball quite nicely. Probably changed a bit with having Aaron off the field and probably what he was planning to do [might have been different], and I'm not part of the messages or the conversations coming on and off the field. I couldn't tell you how that affected the guys who ran the show there. We'll regroup and see where we place when we get to Adelaide."
In effect, Australia's imperfect victory only shines a further spotlight on the game to follow in Brisbane, with England aware any sort of win against New Zealand puts them in pole position to qualify for the semi-finals. New Zealand's thumping win over Australia, and the subsequent washout against England, meant Finch's side could ill-afford to lose any opening to take matters into their own hands. Yet, presented with a golden opportunity after getting rid of the Ireland top order for a pittance, Australia watched as control, if not the two points, slipped out of their grasp.
"I guess you could look at that [the net run rate situation]," Starc said. "First and foremost, we need to win these games, so we tick that box. I think we bowled quite well, and generally here at the Gabba in night games when it gets dry, it's generally a good chasing wicket. Our powerplay was excellent, and we certainly put them on the back foot. I think they tried to stay aggressive and batted quite well throughout the innings.
"We won the game, and we move on to Adelaide now. We'll wait and see what the result is tomorrow and then we could be not having to worry about talking about net run rate."
It was a night on which Australia won, and won fairly comfortably. But how good that victory looks will only become apparent in the next 24 hours, after New Zealand's game against England on this ground. And for Australia, it's the loss of that chance to control their own destiny, rather than the win itself, which might end up being the defining characteristic of Monday night's game at the Gabba.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000