Ireland enjoy perfect day against Afghanistan
Ian Callender (Irish Daily Mail)
THE rain returned to Rathmines with a vengeance last night just before 7.30pm but Ireland didn't mind. It was half an hour after the close of a successful day's play which sends Kevin O'Brien's side into the final three session with the possibility of claiming 20 points for an outright win.
After two blank days when a damp patch at the side of the square had stubbornly refused to dry, everyone - players and umpires - had almost given up on this Intercontinental Cup game. But, the sun finally came out, play got under way at 2pm and less than five hours later Ireland had extended their lead at the top of the table.
Afghanistan were bowled out for 84 in under 30 overs and when Ireland passed that total for the loss of two wickets, they had six points for the first innings lead. They are virtually assured of seven points for a draw and anything else on the final day will be a bonus.
Yet, Ireland resume this morning with a lead of 42, still with eight wickets standing, and depending on how much impact last night's rain made on the outfield, remarkably, they will be targeting the win points with a declaration and a second impressive bowling performance.
Only three bowlers were needed to take the 10 Afghan wickets and Stuart Thompson, the Limavady all-rounder given his first cap, is still waiting to get into the action.
Sorensen had made a slow start, conceding 10 runs in his first over and three boundaries in his first two, but when he bowled Asghar Stanikzai to reduce Afghanistan to 37 for two, The Hills pace man never looked back and wrapped up the innings with his fourth wicket.
Leading from the front, yet again, was Trent Johnston, who bowled Afghan captain Karim Sadiq with his third ball and by the time he took his sweater after eight overs, had figures of two for seven.
Backing him up superbly was Alex Cusack who carried on where he left off in last week's ODI between the teams. The Clontarf all-rounder loves bowling against Afghanistan. He claimed his best international figures of five for 20 against them in Rotterdam two years ago and yesterday he finished with four for 31, his best analysis in first class cricket. Remarkably, he had taken only one three-for in his previous eight four-day games.
At tea, taken at the end of the Afghanistan innings, there was still doubt over how much help the pitch had given the Irish bowlers – after all, it been under cover for the previous two days and whichever captain won the toss was always going to bowl first.
But Ireland showed how easy it was with a patient opening stand of 49 in 16 overs, with even the normally free-scoring Paul Stirling in four-day mode. He has still hit the only six of the innings but he took 64 balls over his 42. Opening partner Andrew Balbirnie bettered his previous best score for Ireland before he was caught at third slip.
But Cusack (seven fours in 34) and Gary Wilson (four in 21) were in control at the end and would love to continue today and assert Ireland's dominance and claim a remarkable win.
O'Brien hasn't given up on converting the six points into 20, as he confirmed just before the rain fell on Rathmines.
"The key is to wake up in the morning fully refreshed and fully focused. We are not going to set any targets. We are in the driving seat with the first innings points and if we have a full day and 60-70 overs against Afghanistan we would certainly fancy our chances.
"It was always going to be a win the toss and bowl first pitch and that was the only way we had a chance of winning. And with the bowlers putting in a huge performance and the top four (batsmen) putting us in a strong position, a win is on the cards if we bat well for 20-25 overs in the morning," the captain said.
He was also able to look back on an almost perfect day.
"Once the conditions dried up and allowed us to get onto the field, TJ started well, Cusi was fantastic again and Max finished well. There were a couple of dropped catches which if we are being picky, that's the things we have to hold on to. But the batters picked up where the bowlers left off and we are in a very strong position," he added.
"With the ball nipping around, the Afghans are less comfortable in these conditions so we knew if we put the ball in the right areas that we would get wickets. It showed the way they batted, not using their feet and just playing with their hands and they give us plenty of chances."