The future for Ireland's batting is bright but a first win in the Friends Provident Trophy since 2006 looks more elusive. On the day 19-year-old-James Hall made his senior debut and schoolboy Paul Stirling showed his burgeoning talent with a classy 70, Ireland's bowlers let the side down as Niall O'Brien turned up to haunt his international team-mates.
O'Brien was promoted to open the batting and made 75 as his Northamptonshire side, chasing 204, swept to an eight-wicket victory with almost 8 overs to spare. A first-wicket partnership of 179 with Stephen Peters had apparently sapped the confidence of an increasingly ragged Ireland bowling unit but Ravi Rampaul, their West Indian professional, finally made the breakthrough in the 36th over. Then Hall, Ireland's seventh bowler, followed up with the wicket of Captain Nicky Boje for a duck, displaying this team's never-say-die spirit.
Rampaul, for the second day in a row, bowled with total commitment, pace and class. Indeed he put so much effort into one ball that it bounced high over O'Brien's head, continued climbing over wicket-keeper Gary Wilson and flew to the boundary for four no-balls. Three more boundaries for O'Brien followed in the same over as the World Cup star brought up his 50 in 75 balls with six fours. The Dubliner then added two more fours and hit Kyle McCallan for a six into the pavilion, before he pulled Rampaul into the hands of his brother, Kevin, at deep mid-wicket.
Although Kevin O'Brien opened the bowling, he did not bowl a single delivery at his sibling in his first four overs. He had the satisfaction of beating the bat in his second spell but that was as good as it got for the younger O'Brien on a day he will want to forget. There was no joy, either, for Alex Cusack, Thinus Fourie, Andrew White or McCallan, even though Ireland's most capped player should have had O'Brien's wicket on 62, when he was missed by Fourie at mid-on.
At the other end for Northants, Peters produced a chanceless innings of 103 with 14 fours and a six to ease his side to victory, his pulling off the back foot particularly impressive. Mind you, the former England Under 19 World Cup batsmen received so many short balls that by the end it was a case of practice makes perfect.
Ireland's innings had been dominated by Stirling, who returned to class in Cliftonville this morning, and while his new Ireland teammates will be practising at Stormont ahead of their next game against Warwickshire on Friday week, he will be sitting the first of his exams. Once again Stirling made a cautious start but, unlike his first two one-day innings, when he was out for 0 and 11, it was the start of something big. He didn't score between the 14th and 19th overs, despite facing 12 balls, and had scored from only three out of 23 at that stage. But, unlike the more senior players, he took a liking to the slow bowlers, memorably hitting England's Monty Panesar into the stands at wide-long-on to take him to 49. The first of what is sure to be many half-centuries for Ireland duly followed off his 77th ball.
Stirling was eventually undone by the bowler who had caused him so much trouble in the early stages of his innings, Stephen Crook, but not before he had hit three further sixes and a total of eight boundaries. Hall had been even quicker to show off his all-round potential. The Waringstown player, getting his chance because of Philip Eaglestone's knee injury, was given the reins at the top of the order and got off the mark from his fourth ball as he thumped South African Lance Klusener to the fence at extra-cover in the eighth over. In all, the opener faced 52 balls for his 22 and later, when Ireland turned to spin, he kept it tighter than anyone bar Alex Cusack.
However, the more experienced batters failed to impose themselves and, on a ground where 590 runs were scored in the previous Trophy game, Ireland's total was never going to be enough. Three games into the new campaign and, for all the potential of youth, they again have nothing on the board.