Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
Ireland remain on course for a place alongside the elite in the West Indies at the end of April after continuing their winning run in the World Twenty20 qualifiers yesterday.
The Super Four stage of the qualifying tournament will be decided by, in effect, two semi finals today after Ireland and the Netherlands inflicted first defeats of the tournament on UAE and Afghanistan respectively.
That left all four teams on two points each so the winners of today's games - Ireland meet the Dutch in the second match - will contest tonight's final already assured of their place in the Caribbean..
Captain William Porterfield admitted his side had to dig deep to record a 22 runs win over the hosts who had ended Kenya and Canada's interest in the competition in the group stages and had already beaten the Netherlands.
“We knew we had to keep taking wickets to keep them behind the run-rate but when Saqib Ali was there they still needed eights and they could have done that quite comfortably, but that was a big wicket and the way the lads bowled was tremendous.”
There is history with Saqib and Ireland. Two years ago, in the Intercontinental Cup, he batted for more than seven and a half hours in scoring 195 to take a match that seemed destined to finish on day three into the final session on day four.
Then, Alex Cusack ended his resistance and yesterday the Clontarf bowler, much to the relief of Porterfield, did it again, bowling Saqib with the first ball of his second spell, for a brilliant 63, off 49 balls with five fours and two sixes.
Cusack had earlier held a stunning, reflex return catch to dismiss UAE captain Khurram Khan and three balls after Sadiq's wicket he took a simpler one to claim his third wicket and seal the man of the match award.
For the third match in a row, Ireland took two wickets in the first over, the first to a typically brilliant piece of fielding by the skipper to run out Arfan Haider, the leading run scorer in the tournament before yesterday, before he had faced a ball.
Peter Connell had two wickets in his first seven balls, both caught in the deep by the rock-solid Gary Wilson, Kevin O'Brien's clever short ball was rewarded with the fifth wicket and George Dockrell was not fazed by being introduced with Saqib in full flight in the 14th over and ended the dangerous sixth wicket stand of 46.
It was Niall O'Brien's turn to top score with the bat - he seems to take turns with Porterfield - and after losing his opening partner in the fourth over he stayed until the 16th, with Ireland content to take the ones and twos against no fewer than four slow left armers. Indeed, between the openers' dismissals, O'Brien scored the only two boundaries, a reverse sweep and a straight six.
Crucially, Ireland finished with a flourish, scoring 48 in the last four overs with Wilson particularly impressive, hitting two fours and a six in a seven-ball innings of 19 although Kevin O'Brien also came to the party with two boundaries in a brief but breezy 13.
There is a momentum to this Ireland team now which augers well for what they hope will be back to back games today. The “punishment” for not finishing top of their group is that if they win the semi final they must play the final just an hour later.
It is unlikely to be too great a burden for players who know they will be back on the world stage in the Caribbean once again.