Fighting Irish stun the world




AS Kevin O’Brien climbed into another six, and the Ireland cricket fans in the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore started to think of an improbable victory over England, Vanessa Johnston wafted through the supporters, spraying them with a stress-relieving potion.

“Just enjoy the game,” the wife of Ireland fast bowler Trent Johnston smiled. O’Brien’s heroics so far meant that Ireland, an Associate team playing a full Test nation, would not be embarrassed on a world stage. O’Brien was at that stage 43 not out and Ireland, chasing a huge total off 328, still needed 145 off 18 overs. Ignominy had been avoided, but Vanessa was not even contemplating victory.

But it was not to end there. O’Brien would go on to score the quickest World Cup century in history, smashing a ton in just 50 balls and beating Matthew Hayden’s mark by 16 deliveries.

The next time we would see Vanessa, with Ireland needing 19 runs off 17 deliveries, she would be looking at her spray and muttering grimly: “It isn’t working.”

There was more stress to be relieved, as O’Brien was run out for a magnificent 113 with 11 balls remaining. But in came husband Trent, and he and John Mooney led Ireland to a three-wicket victory and the greatest upset in World Cup cricket history.

Asked whether he thought Ireland had any chance when he came in at 106 for four — soon to be 111 for five O’Brien said: “Honestly, no. But we just took a chance. You cannot write yourself off in any one-day cricket.”

O’Brien has always been a natural big hitter, but did not usually get the same plaudits when he kept losing the ball as a child.

“That’s a long way the best innings I’ve ever played,” he said. “It even eclipses playing in the back garden with Niall, where hitting it out of the garden was out.

“I think anyone is going to struggle to beat that innings. It doesn’t get any better. I’ll take that — a World Cup 100 off 50 balls in front of a billion people under lights against England.”

Watching in the stadium was Kevin and Niall’s father Brendan ‘Ginger’ O’Brien, who himself played 52 times for Ireland, and felt his son’s achievements had proven a few doubters wrong.

“He has had this day coming for a while,” he said. “Prior to this tournament, he had two noughts in the warm-up games in Dubai and people were asking whether he should be in the team! So it is fantastic to see him come back.”

Kevin is one of five O’Brien brothers to play cricket, with Niall keeping wicket yesterday, and sibling Ger, who is the president of Kevin’s club — Railway Union — was not surprised to see him take England’s attack apart.

“Over the last six or eight months, his batting has really flourished and he was destined to have a big knock,” he said.

“I am so proud. I followed some of it on the web and then I got out to see the climax of the game. When he got to 80, I knew he had a chance and he did nearly all of it in boundaries, which was amazing.

“It was amazing to see the English bowlers go around. He took them apart, even Graeme Swann, who is the number one spin bowler in the world.

“It is such a great day for Irish cricket. Some bookmakers had Ireland at 400-1 at one stage. I wish I’d not kept my money in pocket.”

It had all seemed hopeless when England posted 329 for seven in their 50 overs, with Jonathan Trott hitting a run-a-ball 92 and Ian Bell looking imperious in scoring 81 in 86deliveries. Before that pair, openers Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen had put on 91 for the first wicket,before the England captain was bowled by George Dockrell. But there were clues to Ireland’s resilience to come even in the bowling display, as they took six England wickets in the last seven overs and prevented a score of 350 or more.

Memories of 2007, and comparisons with the World Cup victory overPakistan in Jamaica will inevitably be made. But this was even better. England have hit their four highest World Cup totals in the last four games, are champions in the Twenty20 format of cricket, and are highly fancied to win this tournament.

They are far better and more disciplined than the Pakistan side of 2007.

Ireland have improved immeasurably since that breakthrough victory in the West Indies. Thirteen of the 15-man squad are now full-time cricketers, and they are part of a 32-county squad that represents the whole nation of Ireland and sings ‘Ireland’s Call’ as their anthem.

They come with a self-belief and mental strength that sees them view results like this as just rewards.

Ireland have not only shocked world cricket with this win, they have put themselves in with a real chance of making the quarter-finals. The defeat to Bangladesh in Mirpur on Friday had seemed to quell such outlandish hopes, but William Porterfield’s side now only have to win two out of the four remaining games against India, West Indies, South Africa and The Netherlands to make it to the last eight.

But that is a thought for tomorrow, a plan for the future.

For now it is about hugs, high fives and awed and shaken heads at the scale of their achievements.

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