Super Saturday sets World Cup alight
The Irish always said that their group gave the best chance for one of the ‘minnows' to shock the world by going through to the second phase of the World Cup, and having managed to take a point from their opening game against Zimbabwe, they made it all come true on Saturday when they eliminated Pakistan from the tournament.
It's still not mathematically certain that they are themselves through: were Zimbabwe to beat both West Indies and Pakistan and the Irish to lose their final game, or the Zimbabweans to win one and finish with a better net run rate, then Ireland could still be denied that prize.
But Trent Johnston and his men have put themselves in a terrific position, and it was above all the character of their win on Saturday which demonstrated the extent of their achievement.
Coach Adrian Birrell deserves every accolade going for having created such a solid unit, while Johnston's on-field leadership ensures that everyone plays their part. And the man leads from the front: his running catch at mid-on to get rid of Kamran Akmal was both inspired and inspiring, and typical of a team which gave its all.
It is, of course, true that it was a great toss to win, and that the game was played on a pitch to which the groundsman appeared to have forgotten to give a final cut. But the Irish took full advantage of the conditions, Langford-Smith, Rankin and Johnston himself all producing fine spells of swing bowling, while Botha's eight overs for two for 5 were a model of their kind. It all proved that you don't have to be lightning fast to survive at this level.
The Irish fielding, too, was superb, and then, with Niall O'Brien's experience as the cornerstone, the batsmen held their nerve as the Pakistanis in their turn gave a fine display of quick bowling. O'Brien's 72 was worth a century in the circumstances, and it is hard to imagine that he will ever play a more important innings.
Porterfield gave him tremendous support in a third-wicket stand of 47 that was similarly worth much more than that, and then Kevin O'Brien held firm as the Irish wobbled following Niall's silly dismissal eleven overs out.
In one momentous day, Ireland had provided the most eloquent answer to all those journalists, commentators, players and other ‘authorities' who had poured scorn on the ICC's expansion of the tournament to bring in six Associates.
There could be no better vindication of the High Performance Program and its investment of money, time and commitment in the development of the game among the leading Associates. We will, of course, continue to hear pundits coming out with clichés such as ‘one-day cricket is a great leveller', but the fact is that the Irish were the better team yesterday, and by beating the fourth-ranked ODI team they proved once and for all that the gap between fully professional cricket and the semi-professional game is not unbridgeable.
We should remember, too, to set Ireland's performance in context: only six weeks ago, they finished fifth in the World Cricket League, beaten by both Scotland and The Netherlands, who are now battling to maintain their self-belief in a brutally unbalanced Group A, by Kenya and by Canada, who will take on England on Sunday and will be hoping to spring another cataclysmic shock.
Birrell's men seem to have timed their run perfectly, but their achievement is for the whole of Associates cricket, as well as for the whole of the island of Ireland.
Meanwhile, in Port of Spain, Bangladesh threw Group B wide open by defeating the fancied Indians by five wickets.
India can still make it through to the Super 8 by beating both Bermuda and Sri Lanka, but with Bangladesh very likely to pick up two points against the Bermudians, even two wins for India could lead to three sides finishing on four points.
Net run rate would then be crucial, and much may hinge on how India and Bangladesh do, comparatively speaking, against the unfortunate Bermuda.
A Sri Lankan victory over India, on the other hand, would leave Dravid's men hoping that Bermuda could cause an upset against Bangladesh in the final group match - assuming, of course, that the Bangladeshis don't repeat their trick by beating Sri Lanka!
It was an amazing performance by another totally committed squad with a good blend of youth and experience: Mashrafe Mortaza, Abdur Razzak and Mohammad Rafique, the bowlers who undid India, are all established performers of known quality, but it was Tamim Iqbal, eighteen on Tuesday and playing only his fifth ODI, and the eighteen-year-old wicketkeeper Musfiqur Rahim whose batting took the game away from the Indians.
We should also remember that Bangladesh were themselves an Associate nation until 2000, and that they have spent much of the past six years being slaughtered on cricket grounds around the world. They, too, have provided an answer to those who shook their heads and said that the charmed circle of Test status had been extended too far, and their rapid rise in the past year holds out hope that they are at last following in the footsteps of the Sri Lankans, who had their own period as whipping-boys before they shocked the world by winning the 1996 World Cup.
Every sport needs its David-and-Goliath moments, but the issues here run much deeper than that. The great divide is between those who want cricket to stay as a narrow world producing huge short-term financial benefits for the lucky few, and those with a broader vision of how the game could grow into a truly global phenomenon, with every participating country with the passion and commitment able to reach the very highest level.
Bangladesh and Ireland spoke for the latter group yesterday, and their answer will echo down the corridors of cricketing power for a long time.