Alistair Bushe (News Letter)
Strabane's trip to The Lawn to meet Irish Cup holders Waringstown on Saturday was touted as the tie of the second round, and in terms of drama a bizarre game lived up to its billing.
The villagers live to fight another day in their quest to become only the second club to retain the trophy, but only after an afternoon littered with mistakes by supposedly two of the finest sides in the country.
Waringstown, unconvincing with the new ball and with the bat, won a rollercoaster tie by three wickets, but it really was a case of the sublime to the ridiculous from both teams.
The sublime was the stylish batting cameos from Niall McDonnell and Mark Gillespie from the visitors, and likewise Simon Harrison and James Hall from the holders, while Waringstown's famed spinners bowled expertly to halt the visitors' batting charge.
It might be harsh to describe Faisal Ibqbal's batting in the closing overs of the Strabane innings as ridiculous, but the Pakistan Test player's tactics in giving most of the strike to number eleven Ryan Patton instead of going onto the offensive himself probably cost his side anything up to 30 runs, runs that would almost certainly have seen the holders depart the competition at the first hurdle.
But ridiculous most certainly is an apt description of much of the Waringstown batting after Harrison and Hall's rampant 62-run opening stand inside 10 overs. Even after Harrison departed for 25 from 31 balls, this was a walk in the park, but the tie unravelled dramatically when Lee Nelson was bowled around his legs by Iqbal, a part-time spinner.
At that stage Waringstown needed 101 off 37 overs with eight wickets in hand, but instead of taking advantage of serene conditions, a succession of batsmen tossed their wickets away with reckless abandon.
Hall had batted beautifully, hitting seven fours and a six in 42 from just 37 balls before hitting a long-hop to mid-wicket, but by the time Kyle McCallan was wrongly adjudged caught off the arm in close off Tommy Barr, Waringstown were deep in the mire on 122 for six, with Iqbal having taken three 24.
Now it was time for the ridiculous from Strabane, whose tactics let the home side off the hook. Mark Gillespie is one of the North West's finest-ever leg-spin bowlers, but his worn fingers no longer allow him any modicum of consistency. It was staggering that he was given three spells and a succession of long-hops allowed Waringstown's seventh-wicket pair, Andrew Cousins and David Dawson, a relatively easy ride in a tense situation.
But even more ridiculous was the sight of Phil Eaglestone, once Ireland's new-ball bowler and still a superb operator at this level when the mood takes him, reintroduced into the attack bowling left-arm spin.
The claims of seamers Patton and Mark Roulston were bizarrely ignored and by the time Eaglestone turned back to seam, the horse had bolted and a 39-run stand between Cousins (26) and Dawson, who struck three boundaries in a composed 27 not out, took Waringstown to the brink of victory.
Even then there threatened to be a late twist as Cousins was caught in the deep off a Peter Gillespie full toss, but it was a day of what might have been for Strabane.
After the visitors had been inserted, McDonnell batted elegantly but briefly, driving gloriously through the off-side in making 26 from 32 balls, and the Strabane 50 was up in just the eighth over. But Gary Kidd, the former Ireland left-arm spinner, bowled superbly, taking four for 30, including a fine caught and bowled off McDonnell, and at 82 for six, only Iqbal stood between Waringstown and a routine win. For so long, the stylish Pakistani got it exactly right, taking no chances and getting Strabane to the point where they had something competitive on the board.
But Iqbal refused to hog the strike in the closing five overs and an unbeaten 63 from 84 balls, including only four fours, was a short return for a player of such undoubted class. He could easily have turned 177 all out into 200 and that probably would have been the difference between defeat and victory.
The question now for Strabane is how much more they will see of him. Iqbal has been included in a 16-man squad for the Test tour to Sri Lanka next month but has yet to hear anything official from the Pakistan Cricket Board.