PAUL STIRLING fell agonisingly short of a one-day international century for the second time in three days in Delhi but Andy Balbirnie was on hand to pick up the reins and steer Ireland to a six-wicket victory over Afghanistan and reduce the deficit to 2-1 in the best-of-five series.

Stirling, who was the victim of a shocking game-turning lbw on 95 in the second match, again led the pursuit of a more modest Afghan total of 264-8 before he played down the wrong line and was bowled for 99 from 114 balls, with a six among his 10 boundaries.

This time the loss of Stirling barely dented the momentum as Balbirnie again showed how much he was missed last year with a well-paced 85 not out, from 74 balls, as he shared a partnership of 86 with Gary Wilson that got Ireland over the line with nine balls to spare. Balbirnie, now fully recovered from his long-term hip injury, lifted a six over extra cover and struck 11 fours.

"It was nice to score some runs and keep my personal form going but the important thing was to get that first win under the belt and keep the series alive," said man-of-the-match Stirling.

"We would definitely have taken 265 as a target after losing the toss but after having them 90-odd for six it would have been good to keep them to a few less. In the end it was a great knock from Balbo that got us home."

Stirling, Balbirnie and Wilson also appeared to have found a way to combat demon leg-spinner Rashid Khan, who went wicketless, as Ireland beat their hosts for the first time in six matches in Greater Noida - and a total of seven white-ball games this year.

However, the apparent turn in fortunes was tempered by the news that Boyd Rankin will play no part on the tour. The big County Tyrone pacemen failed a fitness test on his lower back on Saturday and will not be available for the remaining two ODIs or the important four-day InterContinental Cup match that follows at the end of the month.

Rankin's place will be taken by Peter Chase, of Malahide, who took two wickets with the new ball and looked a useful foil to veteran Tim Murtagh who bowled with great control before suffering in the final overs as Afghanistan recovered impressively from 97-6.