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Ireland show better rain-smarts than England to stay ahead for just long enough

Rain was always going to be a factor and Ireland adapted their tactics better than England

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
All across the east coast of Australia, chat about the weather has dominated the opening salvos of this T20 World Cup, even if actual interruptions haven't been nearly as frequent as initially feared. Today's forecast for Melbourne was as variable and fluid as a political pledge during an election cycle, and England ended up treating it exactly as one: by not trusting it at all.
Even as DLS calculations showed the par score rising ominously in conjunction with cumulonimbus clouds hovering above the Melbourne Cricket Ground, England remained indifferent, keeping their eyes on the target of 158. Batting as deep as they do, they felt they had their bases covered in what they had determined this was - a game of 20 overs.
Alex Hales' early departure might have been suboptimal, but it was not unusual: in his last ten T20Is, only once has he scored more than 20. Jos Buttler's loss was a blow, but England weren't about to panic and Dawid Malan chose consolidation over attack. In its own way, there was a calculated logic to it all; there was little reason for England to fret against an Irish attack who had a weak link at the death to reckon with.
But while England had their head down, focused on the larger task at hand, the Irish kept one eye firmly on the sky. No one knew when the rain would come, but there was no point pretending it never would. Why bowl the two remaining Fionn Hand overs - a match-up England would relish - when they might not need them at all? Why bother keeping up with the over-rate (Ireland were two overs behind from early on) when any real consequences would only be felt in a 20-over game? Why not bowl that extra Josh Little over as early as the 12th - the earliest he has bowled three overs this tournament, and the only time he bowled successive overs in the Powerplay?
While Ireland were busy using up their best resources, England saved theirs for a back-end that never came. Moeen Ali had begun to take apart the spinner Gareth Delany, smashing 12 off the first three balls of the 15th over as the gap between the DLS par and England's score narrowed to five runs. The momentum was shifting England's way; Andrew Balbirnie all but admitted after the game that England would have been heavily fancied to run the target down.
But as Moeen carved Delany over extra cover for four, and England brought the DLS par score within touching distance, the skies finally opened, pouring cold water on their 20-over plans. In the right sort of form, it can feel like Moeen and Liam Livingstone can do just about anything, but they can't win a game that isn't being played. Moeen had faced 12 balls and raced to 24, comfortably the highest strike rate on either side, and Buttler rued not getting him involved earlier.
"With the benefit of hindsight, when the weather did come, to have [Moeen and Livingstone] face just 14 balls was a shame," Buttler said. "You were obviously hoping the game goes all the way and they hopefully see it home. But sat here now, with Livingstone and Ali only facing very few balls in the game, two guys with immense power and finishing ability, if we'd got them more involved in the game, maybe the game would have been shorter."
Ireland, however, did not require hindsight to know that was the way to go. With Andy Balbirnie saying Moeen's form meant this game might have been "one ball away" from England's reach, Ireland ended up being two overs behind the over rate. Buttler, whose soft-spoken demeanour did not detract from the hurt and anger the loss had caused, suggested it might have been "gamesmanship" on Ireland's part, even if he acknowledged England couldn't blame anyone but themselves.
Balbirnie laughed off the suggestion, but his response illustrated perfectly how well Ireland had understood the situation.
"It wasn't [gamesmanship]," he said. "Our lads are just very slow running around the pitch. It was a huge ground, there was a bit of noise. I was trying my best to go through the overs quickly. I didn't want to rely on the weather. I've seen enough games of cricket to know we can't rely on the weather. It coming in when it did and it's in the history books, so it worked out really well for us."
"If it was [gamesmanship], I would have slowed it down even more and we would have been down five or six overs."
As the MCG shimmered in late October rain, the Irish players, soaked to the bone, raced towards a corner of the Shane Warne stand, where families, friends and fans awaited to embrace them. Balbirnie said some of them had extended holidays to be there, and as Irish music blared through the stadium loudspeakers, it all seemed worth it.
England cricket has the financial security, quality and comfort of precedence to be able to ensconce itself in its own bubble, ever-confident in their ability to bend external circumstances to their will. It was perhaps inevitable that Ireland were more likely to recognise a situation out of their control, and adapt quickly. In a cricketing landscape where Associate Nations and so-called lesser Full Members seem to need to justify their existence at every turn, it felt like an appropriate metaphor.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000