When Dwayne McGerrigle scorched the grass to the long-off boundary to secure a two-wicket victory for Ireland over the Essex County Board at Comber, faces, which an hour earlier were death masks, suddenly bloomed with rude good health. Sure, there were two wickets and 15 balls in hand, but a slow and low pitch made this Nat West Trophy second-round match a great worry for all batsmen through the day as many deliveries shot under defences to prompt LBW decisions. Three of the visitors perished in this manner and while only Neil Carson and Andy Patterson of the home side went into the scorebook in similar fashion, it was not for want of Essex appealing, often prompting serious consideration by umpires O'Hara and Dixon.
The prize of a third round match against English County Champions Leicestershire at Castle Avenue on June 23 was quickly disappearing down the tubes when Gerald Dros, Patterson and skipper, Angus Dunlop, were snared in six balls from the second delivery of the 31st over. At the 30 over mark, Essex had been 102-5 and Ireland were a comparatively healthy 113-3. Kyle McCallan and Carson had found Aris Saeed's spearing yorkers and the hum of Jamie Sparrow's deliveries none too sweet as they set about the visitors 196 for nine wickets. The degree of their difficulty is illustrated by the fact that they faced 27 and 16 balls respectively in scoring three and two.
Stephen Smyth, as usual, refused to be shackled by anyone and a six and five fours in his 35 from 35 deliveries tells the story accurately, with Dros notching 51 from 71 balls, including one six and seven fours, contributing a chapter on professionalism South African style. This was all the more praiseworthy as he was earlier off the field with a badly-bruised finger. Ed Joyce fully understood his role as anchor from this point but his languid style was too much so in the face of a sharper than usual ball from Tim Jones but not before he had contributed an invaluable 18.
By this stage Gordon Cooke had also helped guide Ireland back on track again and, coupled with his two wickets earlier, his unbeaten 38 totted up to a unanimous Man-of-the-Match performance. When Ryan Eagleson was eighth down with 10 runs still needed, there was little appreciation for a magnificent setting sun. McGerrigle and Cooke are growing in stature as all-rounders and, fortunately, they grew another few centimetres yesterday.
Spirited resistance at perilous moments and a finely-honed will to win gave Ireland a commendable two wicket victory over Essex County Board at Comber yesterday, with the added bonus of a third round NatWest Trophy match against Leicestershire, the English County Champions for the past two seasons, at Castle Avenue in Dublin next month.
Ireland needed 197 after Essex had won the toss and batted first, and that looked a remote chance indeed when Jamie Sparrow removed the opening pair, first Neil Carson and then Kyle McCallan with only six runs on the board. Thereafter, Ireland's fortunes fluctuated dramatically. It was heady, exciting stuff. Stephen Smyth and Gerald Dros were the first to spearhead the comeback, putting on 55 for the third wicket before Andrew MacKinlay broke the partnership by clean bowling Smyth.
Then Dros and Andy Patterson put on 48 for the fourth wicket before Dros departed the scene in dramatic circumstances. He drove pace man Arif Saeed for a massive six to reach his half-century. Saeed got his retaliation in fast, and bowled Dros next ball with the score on 119-4. Paterson and then Angus Dunlop got out with only three runs added, and, at 122-6, Ireland looked to be in deep mire. Enter Ed Joyce and Gordon Cooke, whose stand realised an invaluable 47 runs before Tim Jones bowled Joyce to leave Ireland on 169-7 with seven overs remaining.
Ryan Eagleson was next to the rescue, and with the indomitable Cooke, he had put on a precious 18 runs for the eighth wicket, before Jones removed him. Dwayne McGerrigle then joined Cooke, kept his cool, and with considerable aplomb drove MacKinlay for a boundary with the winning stroke. It was a moment to savour for the 19-year-old who was winning only his second cap, and who had earlier clean-bowled MacKinlay and Saeed with the last two balls of Ireland's 50 overs for a brace of well-deserved wickets. Cooke, also primarily a bowler, was a real matchwinner; his unbeaten 38 were scored of 51 deliveries at his innings included two sixes and two fours.
Earlier, Alex Richards had top-scored for Essex, with a handsome 60 before his partner effectively ran him out, and there were other useful contributions from Giles Ecclestone with 33, 29 from Jones and 19 from Simon Fitzgerald. Eagleson, McGerrigle and Cooke each took two wickets, and overall Ireland did well to restrict their opponents to a total of 196 for eight wickets.
This Ireland side may have its limitations but it possesses not a little talent and, above all, a steely resolve, and for that latter quality, national coach Mike Hendrick must deserve some praise.