A ROLLERCOASTER day of cricket that saw 13 wickets fall for 155 runs in 64 overs has left Ireland and Scotland with everything to play for on the final two days of their Inter-Continental Cup game at Mannofield.
The Scots gained the vital six points for the first innings lead after Ireland collapsed from 129 for two to 174 all out, losing their last five wickets for eight runs. With a lead of 91, all Scotland had to do was bat patiently and there would be no way back for Ireland but a series a rash shots, controversial umpiring decisions and excellent bowling from Trent Johnston, who has already taken three wickets, has given Ireland a lifeline, the home team closing on 24 for four in their second innings.
There are 14 points available for outright victory and although heavy rain was forecast overnight, the groundstaff were hopeful of a significant number of overs today and play will also start half an hour early tomorrow, if required. After yesterday's crazy last session, when eight wickets fell for 32, no-one is predicting how this contest will finish.
Yet, for the first two and half hours of play yesterday, it was was an absorbing, even contest between bat and ball, in spite of light that was never better than adequate. William Porterfield and Andre Botha added 35 to Ireland's overnight 43 for one without undue alarm until Botha chose to hit probably the worst ball of Dougie Brown's spell, high to second slip and Ryan Watson held the catch. But Niall O'Brien, showing all his experience of the four-day game from his time with Kent, then put on a 50 partnership of the highest class with Porterfield.
Scotland, with four front-line pace bowlers, and captain Craig Wright eventually made it five - in spite of sustaining a hairline fracture in his thumb - bowled a superb line and length which consistently tested the batsmen. Porterfield and O'Brien, however, more often than not chose the right ball to play in a fine batting exhibition.
If Botha could be blamed for a poor shot, then all the credit for Ireland's third wicket must be given to Brown who found the edge of O'Brien's bat to make what proved to be the major breakthrough. As can so often happen, one wicket brings two and, sure enough, two balls later, Gavin Hamilton forced Porterfield, on 48, to chase a wide ball that maybe bounced more than the batsman expected and Brown held the catch at first slip.
Peter Gillespie's current batting woes with Ireland continued when he also got an edge off John Blain and Ireland were 136 for five. Andrew White and Kyle McCallan then led a mini recovery but, from the last ball before tea, the in-form Waringstown batsman slashed wildly at Wright and this time it was the beginning of the end.
Two balls after the interval, White was caught at second slip, next over John Mooney offered no stroke and was leg before first ball, one over later Trent Johnston swung and missed and even the normally solid defence of Paul Mooney was breached after just six balls, the latter giving Brown his first five-wicket haul for Scotland.
Suddenly the idea of four-day cricket and the excellent defence which the batsmen had shown in the first half of the day was abandoned in favour of the one-day mode that has dominated much of the season. And the Scotland batsmen caught the bug when they went back into bat. Frazer Watts played an extravagant cut at Dave Langford-Smith's first ball and Porterfield - the best fielder in the Ireland team - made the gully catch look easy.
Johnston then struck twice in seven balls with first Neil MacRae and then Ryan Watson getting edges to the keeper although the latter appeared to be unlucky, the decision given by Shahul Hamed, the Indonesian umpire who was in charge of last year's ICC Trophy final between the teams at Clontarf. If the Indonesian's decision angered the Scots it was his Denmark colleague Neils Bagh who had the Irish up in arms, in what proved to be the last over of the day, when he failed to see an edge by Neil McCallum that Niall O'Brien and the slip cordon appealed as one for.
Maybe that had something to do with the umpires' joint decision to offer the batsmen the choice to go off for bad light - with more than a little persuasion from county professional Brown - in spite of it being brighter than both teams played happily in throughout much of the day.
It all sets up a fascinating final two days and after their remarkable cup final comeback against Kenya in this competition in Windhoek last October, Ireland will believe anything is possible. The pitch still looks as good as it did at the start - it is certainly not the result wicket served up here last year - but the way this contest is suddenly careering along then only the weather will prevent an outright winner.
With the UAE as both teams' next and final opponents, the winner this weekend can start making plans for the Inter-Continental final. For Ireland it means quick wickets this morning.