Stirling and Balbirnie underline importance as Ireland benefit from positive approach
Aggression against spin and a calculated approach to the chase set up a famous Ireland win
A partnership of 214 in 32.4 overs in any run chase is pretty good, not least against the world champions in their own backyard. Both Andy Balbirnie and Paul Stirling had inked their names into Irish cricket's history books long ago, but they double-underlined them with thick marker pen at the Ageas Bowl.
Coming into this series, Stirling and Balbirnie had scored two-fifths of Ireland's ODI runs since the start of 2018. Stirling averaged 45 in wins and 36 in defeats; Balbirnie's disparity was even more stark, at 56 and 26 respectively.
In the first ODI, both were out within 2.1 overs batting first, and with them went their chances as Ireland slumped to 28 for 5. Things were little better in the second, with Stirling slashing to backward point and Balbirnie suffering what he labelled a "brain fade", steering behind as he pulled out of a cut shot to James Vince's medium pace.
Particularly crucial was their ability to attack against spin. In the first two ODIs, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid had come on against an exposed middle order who had little choice but to play tentatively, nudging them around at a paltry 3.26 runs per over.
But Balbirnie and Stirling, the experienced heads, are both exceptional players of spin bowling, averaging 48 and 102 against spinners in ODIs over the last two years. Both have had to overcome struggles against one Afghan spinner in particular - Stirling against Rashid Khan, Balbirnie against Mujeeb Ur Rahman - but constant exposure on difficult pitches has forced both to improve.
"That's one of the benefits of playing Afghanistan so often," Balbirnie said coming into the series. "You get the opportunity to play against world-class spinners on a regular basis, you learn different things and learn how to play them in different scenarios.
"We play a lot of cricket in those conditions," he added on Tuesday. "We have qualifiers in the UAE, and then wickets in Ireland tend to spin, so you need to learn to play them well. It's something that we've done quite well. As long as we continue to take the positive option, I'll be happy."
Where Rashid had previously eased into a rhythm, on this occasion Stirling heaved two of his first ten balls for leg-side sixes. Balbirnie swept hard either side of square, too, piercing the gap between the two sweepers off Ali time and again.
Ali brought back the seamers to stymie the flow of runs, and managed to dry up the boundaries. Stirling nudged Curran off the pads for one to bring up his hundred off 96 balls, barely celebrating with the job only half-done.
Balbirnie, meanwhile, rotated brilliantly. Only 48 of his 113 runs came in boundaries, and he was generally more than happy to push ones and twos to the four men out; Stirling pounded the empty stands, and got off strike when he could.
"Adil Rashid is such an important bowler to this England team," Balbirnie said. "He's a world-class operator. We knew that he was a threat, but we didn't want to see him off and sit back to him - we wanted to play positively.
"That's the way Paul plays his cricket, and I was happy to just play along with him and play to my strengths rather than playing out of my game. He's a great communicator out there. We always talk to each other and see where our options are."
Stirling has been a wild thing for much of his career; a top-order firestarter who burned bright, but rarely long. As he has grown older and wiser, he has reined in his attacking instincts and his returns have burgeoned as a result: until the end of 2016, he averaged 32.90 with a strike rate of 92; between then and the start of this series, those figures were 42.70 and 80.
While it would be wrong to paint this as a lesson in moderation - he was given two lives courtesy of James Vince, and scored the bulk of his runs through midwicket - Stirling clearly knew that the task lay on his shoulders. His hundred celebration was a picture of restraint, sheepishly raising his bat with Balbirnie encouraging him to acknowledge the dressing room's applause more than he had.
His record against England had never been particularly impressive - 195 runs in 10 ODI innings previously - and during lockdown had told ESPNcricinfo that he thought results would be secondary in this series. "It'll be almost trying to put on a show," he said.
With nine fours and six sixes to his name, there was no question that he did that. He hit Rashid for three of them, but reserved special treatment for Willey, carting him for 37 runs from the 26 balls he faced. The only criticism could be that both centurions fell within three overs of each other, but with Kevin O'Brien's cool head at No. 5, that proved not to be a problem.
"I love batting with Paul," Balbirnie said. "He's my favourite player to bat with. When he's in that sort of mood, you can go under the radar a bit. He's a huge asset."
Balbirnie himself deserves much of the credit for this win. He took the call to drop his predecessor, William Porterfield, ahead of the series, and stuck with his youth policy even after moderate returns in the first two games; in the field, he was attacking throughout, bringing men into catching positions whenever a wicket fell.
But with the bat, he has come into his own in the last two-and-a-half years. His average since the start of 2018 is now 41.4, with six hundreds to his name. Ireland could not ask for a better man to lead them forward into this new era.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98