Stirling and Balbirnie heroics set up England shock
➤ Shades of Bangalore as Ireland chase down 329 target ➤ Tector and O’Brien finish job after two stunning centuries
Perhaps it was fated. In Bangalore nine years ago, Ireland chased down 329 to seal an epic World Cup win over England. At the Ageas Bowl, England set them the same target. And under the floodlights at 10 to 10, Kevin O’Brien – whose century had slain England in Bangalore – calmly swatted Saqib Mahmood away to seal Ireland’s second ever victory over England.
While it fell to O’Brien to seal the chase with a clinical unbeaten 21, this was a victory authored by two magnificent centuries from Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie, whose 214-run second-wicket stand underpinned this stunning chase.
After Eoin Morgan’s own terrific century earlier in the day, the third one-day international was a tale of three Irish centuries.
From Sabina Park against Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup to the remarkable heist against England in Bangalore in 2011 and nonchalantly hunting down 305 against West Indies in the 2015 World Cup, Irish cricket’s greatest victories have come while chasing.
They are wolves, born to chase, not be chased. The guttural roar that greeted O’Brien’s blow spoke of the significance of this win – their first over a top-eight nation in ODI cricket for five years and first ever away to a top-eight team constituted vindication for Balbirnie’s bold captaincy and faith in his young team.
“We absolutely thought we could chase it, we just knew we had to bat well up top,” said Balbirnie, whose side leave England having lost the three-match Royal London series 2-1, but with Irish cricket emboldened once more.
While Balbirnie, with 113, O’Brien and young Harry Tector – who walked off unbeaten on 29 – could all toast their deeds, Stirling’s innings will be the stuff of instant legend.
His talent has always been apparent – including to Morgan, who proclaimed him good enough to follow his route and play for England seven years ago. In the past three years he has found increased consistency, averaging 40 in ODIs.
But this innings marked an announcement of the full possibilities of Stirling’s game. There is a stunning nonchalance and a wonderful purity of method. This was detectable in consecutive sixes off Mahmood in the eighth over of Ireland’s chase: first Stirling pulled a short ball over square leg, then he flicked a fuller ball to the same location for another six.
Adil Rashid loomed as Ireland’s biggest threat in the chase. Stirling showed the range of his game by slog-sweeping three emphatic sixes, meaning that Rashid could not control the middle overs.
Stirling forged a brilliant alliance with Balbirnie, who also showcased his dexterity against spin, sweeping both in front of and behind square and finessing late cuts. Together, they shared a record Irish secondwicket stand of 214 that threatened to turn the chase of 329 into a breezy waltz.
Perhaps it was never going to be that way. When he had 142, Stirling charged down for an optimistic single when the ball went behind square and was run out. And then, after reaching his own maiden century against England, Balbirnie perished trying to clear long-off in Rashid’s final over.
England’s innings had also been dominated by an Irishman. Entering in his customary role at No4, after shuffling down to six in the first two ODIs, Morgan came in with his team in strife: 14 for two, which soon became 44 for three after James Vince got an inside edge to a delivery from Craig Young.
Morgan’s approach was to counter-attack. Some had thought that he would retire after the elixir of England’s World Cup triumph last summer.
Instead, Morgan has responded by playing the best cricket of his life: he enjoyed a magnificent winter for England in Twenty20, propelling him back into the Indian Premier League.
On this evidence, Stirling could soon join him there.
Leading from the front: Paul Stirling hits out during his remarkable knock of 142 from 128 deliveries to help Ireland to a famous victory