Ireland arrived in Canberra as one of only three teams to have a perfect record in the 2015 Cricket World Cup.
Yet they left the Australian city under grave threat of failing to reach the quarter-finals.
Of course, it was little surprise that Ireland lost to South Africa, a side widely considered among the three favourites for the World Cup. But the manner of the defeat – by 203 runs after conceding 411 – puts a grave dent in Ireland’s hopes of progressing.
Pool B is shaping up as by far the tightest in this World Cup, and there is a good chance that the qualifiers will be decided by net run-rate, something that now bodes ill for Ireland after this thrashing.
In the build-up to this tournament, there were serious fears over the capability of Ireland’s bowling attack. Despite some sterling work from the spinners, it has turned out to be even worse than envisaged.
In their combined 20 overs, John Mooney, Max Sorensen and Kevin O’Brien conceded 223 runs. If this owed much to the belligerence of South Africa’s hitting, it also reflected the dire nature of Ireland’s pace bowling attack.
While Irish cricket has continued its rise since 2011, it is unarguable that the standard of pace bowling – once led by Trent Johnston and Boyd Rankin, with Andre Botha’s dibblydobblers to come – has deteriorated in the last four years.
Johnston retired; Rankin defected to England, naturally taking 4-46 – his best ODI figures to date – against Ireland at Malahide in September 2013.
And Tim Murtagh, a bowler whose county pedigree and combativeness marked him out as Johnston’s successor, was replaced from the World Cup squad because of injury a few months ago. On this evidence, Murtagh is sorely missed for the control and calm he provides the attack.
When Murtagh was ruled out, Sorensen replaced him. He had played Ireland’s previous eight ODIs before the World Cup squad was selected, so was entitled to feel disappointed at his original omission from the tournament.
Sorensen impressed in Ireland’s World Cup preparations, winning praise from Brett Lee in his short stint as a pace-bowling consultant for Ireland. He usurped Peter Chase and Craig Young to make the final eleven. Here he had the opportunity to play against South Africa, the country of his birth.
Sharing the new ball with John Mooney, Sorensen began with a legside wide. Things got no better thereafter: he conceded 21 runs in his opening two over spell, and 76 from his six overs. Kevin O’Brien was even worse, conceding 95 runs from seven overs.
Though Ed Joyce spilled a routine chance off Amla at short midwicket from O’Brien’s very first ball, by the end of South Africa’s assault it was unclear how much difference that spill made. At every turn, the paucity of variety in Ireland’s pace attack – though calling it a medium-pace attack would be more appropriate – was exposed.
Alternatives do exist for Ireland. In the six games since his ODI debut in September, Young seemed to shape up as Ireland’s attack leader, taking 16 wickets at 14.06 apiece. His height makes him the nearest to a replacement for Rankin.
Chase, meanwhile, made a flying start to his county career with Durham last year, taking five wickets on his championship debut, and also offers pace and bounce. If Ireland’s concern is that neither can be trusted on for parsimony, the same is palpably true of Sorensen.
“There’s not a lot of bowlers that consistently get it up over 140 (kph), and to have three on your side is a great thing to have,” William Porterfield reflected, rather jealous of South Africa’s pace bowling resources. “Obviously we wouldn’t mind a couple, as well, if we can produce them.”
Against Zimbabwe in Hobart on Saturday, one – almost certainly Young – is likely to play. It is a game that now shapes up as pivotal to Ireland’s World Cup hopes; lose and a victory, possibly a comfortable one, will be required against Pakistan in the final group game of the tournament unless India can be overturned in Hamilton.
But, for all the newfound gloom following the damage to Ireland’s net run rate, this remains a position that Porterfield and Phil Simmons would have gladly accepted at the halfway stage in their campaign.
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