By R Kaushik in Sylhet
A scrambled bye off the last delivery seals the result as 7000-plus crowd soaks in first experience of international cricket
It was as if the teams too were roused into action by the infectious enthusiasm of the paying spectator. Zimbabwe did the early running in the opening Group B qualifying game of the ICC World Twenty20 2014, Ireland was stronger through the middle stages and Zimbabwe fought back right at the end through Tinashe Panyangara, sending this match all the way down to the wire.
It needed a scrambled bye off the last ball for Ireland to eventually complete a nervy three-wicket win when, for large parts of their chase, it was on course for a straightforward win. Zimbabwe kept coming hard even when everything seemed lost and almost found commensurate reward; this defeat will not just be a big blow to its Super 10 aspirations but also a bitter pill to swallow.
Ireland appeared headed for a hiding to nothing as Hamilton Masakadza and Brendan Taylor teed off during a second-wicket stand of 42 off 27 deliveries after being put in by William Porterfield. Zimbabwe kept the scoring rate up even when it lost wickets, and was primed for a brutal assault after having reached 85 for 3 in 10, but was pegged back by the three Irish spinners – Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Andy McBrine – who took 4 for 68 in 12 overs on a slowish pitch where a softer ball was difficult to put away.
From having eyed a total in the region of 180, Zimbabwe was forced to settle for 163 for 5, no mean score given not just the conditions and the fact that it had its fair share of quality spinners, but also because Ireland had never scored more than 156 to win a T20 International.
Stirling and Porterfield tonked the ragged bowling around during an opening stand of 80 in just 50 deliveries; at that stage, no one had imagined what course events would eventually take.
Taylor straightaway began with spin at both ends, Prosper Utseya and Tafadzwa Kamungozi, the legspinner in his first international in more than seven years, entrusted with the responsibility of early breakthroughs. Porterfield and Stirling were in no mood to relent, happy to hit in the air with the field in and aware that the older the ball got, the harder it would be to find the boundaries.
Stirling hogged much of the strike and the scoring, striking freely on both sides of the wicket as Zimbabwe’s bowlers repeatedly erred in both length and direction. Utseya had a rare off-day, which magnified the pressure on the other bowlers, and they crumbled under the weight of that pressure.
Stirling took 18 off Panyangara’s first over and it all seemed routine business until, somehow, Ireland threw Zimbabwe a slim lifeline. Panyangara returned in the 15th over for a double-wicket maiden to infuse some excitement, and despite Kevin O'Brien’s pyrotechnics, the match hung in the balance until the very final delivery, the cricketing Gods rewarding the Sylhet faithful with an absolute humdinger.
As is its wont, Ireland had begun with the offspin of Stirling to complement the pace of Alex Cusack, who had a very poor day in office. Cusack went for 53 in his four overs and put a Masakadza skier down when the batsman was just 13. On another day, these mistakes could have proved catastrophic. If Ireland still had enough in the tank, it was largely because of the brilliance of Dockrell’s left-arm spin in particular, and the accuracy of Stirling and McBrine, both of whom bowled their offspinners with intelligence and craft.
Zimbabwe’s game plan revolved around taking the fight to the Irish from the off, and sustaining it for the length of the innings. Sikandar Raza perished in playing one stroke too many in the second over, but with Masakadza on song with sparkling cover drives and Taylor immediately bringing the sweep into play, Zimbabwe was setting themselves an excellent base.
Porterfield stuck to his spinners for as long as possible, looking at them as both wicket-taking and restrictive options. He had to, because his quicker bowlers were making no impression. Cusack, Max Sorensen and Kevin O’Brien’s pace was just about perfect for the Zimbabwe batsmen, who scored 90 off the eight overs sent down by the medium pacers. The spinners, though, struck at opportune moments. McBrine got rid of Masakadza in his first over and had Sean Williams stumped smartly by Gary Wilson, while Dockrell, who was impeccable in taking 2 for 18, dismissed Taylor with the last ball of his spell, brilliantly caught overhead at deep cover by a leaping Ed Joyce.
Elton Chigumbura smashed two sixes in the last Cusack over to propel the required rate to above 8 an over. On another day, it might have been enough; on this day, not quite.