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Match Report
Ian Callender

Day 1

The spectre of Krugerdorp, April 2009 hasn't gone away. That was the venue and date when Afghanistan, just eight months after winning World League Five, humbled Ireland, the best team in the rankings below the Test nations. The Asian upstarts, now basking in the prestige of playing in their first Intercontinental Cup competition, were at again yesterday on the first day of the four-day game against the three-times champions in pleasantly hot Dambulla.

Seemingly on the ropes at lunch, which Ireland, having won the toss, took in some comfort at 120 for one, Afghanistan bounced back in style to take six wickets in the final two sessions for the addition of only 204 more runs. Five Ireland batsmen reached 39 but no-one got to 80 as a series of missed opportunities went-a-begging. Already the pitch is taking spin and no-one used it better than Samiullah Shenwari, the 22 year old leg spinner and one of seven players looking for a second successive win over Ireland. In South Africa nine months ago, Alex Cusack was his only victim. Already, with three wickets still to fall, he has taken three including, wouldn't you know it, Cusack again. To the Clontarf batsman's credit he was the one Ireland batsman who was undone by a good ball. The rest were culpable of, if not suicide then certainly, self-harm. Gary Wilson, was the first. Given his chance to open the batting for the first time in the I-Cup - this is his eighth match - the Surrey professional was not given the warmest of welcomes when he returned to the pavilion after running down the pitch within five minutes of completing an unblemished first session for the holders. Wilson had just brought up his first 50 in the competition, following William Porterfield to the landmark, both batsmen for long periods dominating the ball as the Afghan skipper was forced to ring the changes.

The captain reached 78 and, possibly thinking about his record-breaking eighth century for Ireland, pulled one straight to the fielder, and two overs after Cusack was caught behind, Andre Botha played over one and was, yet again stumped. Kevin O'Brien hit a couple of fours in his trademark manner before he was trapped in front to give the leg spinner his third wicket and Andrew White's stroke looked the worst of the lot, hooking it straight to fine leg within tantalising reach of a third half century in four I-Cup knocks. Not the way he wanted to celebrate his 150th international. After the openers were dismissed it was left to the third county professional in the side to show his class. Niall O'Brien loves this competition. He was averaging 81 coming into the game, and on five of the six occasions he had past 50 he went onto a century. It is now five from seven after Karim Sadiq, Afghanistan's fifth change bowler, found the edge and Mohammad Shadzad claimed his third dismissal behind the stumps.

Although Niall O'Brien and White both fell in the last half hour, to give Afghanistan the momentum at the start of day two, Trent Johnston and John Mooney are capable of extending Ireland's innings and the bowlers will be confident of defending anything around 400 to ensure the vital first innings points. Let's just hope that a prolonged Johnston innings does not undermine the bowling capabilities of the 35 year old, faced by so many young, enthusiastic Afghan batsmen. It promises to be a vital day.

Day 2

It is not getting any easier for Ireland. Halfway through their Intercontinental Cup match against Afghanistan, in Dambulla, they are second favourites to emerge with anything from what was always a must-win game in their quest to retain the trophy they have held since 2005. Even the six points for a first innings lead are very much in doubt after the Afghans, now a true emerging nation rather than the Asian upstarts which announced themselves on the world stage with their fifth place finish at the World Cup qualifying tournament, finished day two on 263 for three, just 142 runs behind Ireland's total.

Even with eight bowlers at his disposal - and William Porterfield rung the changes throughout a day when they had to bowl 74 overs - the quality of the injured Boyd Rankin and Regan West and retired Kyle McCallan was badly missed. Peter Connell and Trent Johnston failed to make any impression in their opening overs and Alex Cusack, introduced in the seventh over, failed to make any difference. John Mooney, on the back of impressive bowling in the nets in the four days in Abu Dhabi and here in Sri Lanka, prior to this match, was given the ball ahead of the proven Andre Botha and Kevin O'Brien. Mooney bowled four overs for 22, Botha, with 143 international wickets under his belt, unbelievably, was not introduced until the 51st over, and has still bowled only six overs despite taking a wicket in his third. Porterfield reports all his bowlers are fit and raring to go.

It needed a slow bowler to break the opening partnership, and Gary Kidd, the specialist chosen to replace McCallan, his Waringstown team-mate, did it with his eighth delivery. Three overs later Connell, in a much improved second spell claimed the wicket of the impressive Noor Ali, caught behind chasing a wide one, but that was as good as it got for Ireland. From 74 for two, Shabir Noori dug in, unlike any of the Ireland batsmen on day one - he has so far faced 153 balls for 44 - and the runs flowed at the other end.

Captain Nowroz Mangal scored 84 with 16 boundaries - there have already been 44 in the innings, 15 of them through thirdman which was left vacant for most of the day - and wicket keeper Mohammad Shahzad then helped himself to a run-a-ball 60 with power to add this morning. Porterfield is banking on the new ball to make the difference and "maybe sneak a wicket in the first six overs while the batsmen are getting in again tomorrow" but he admits the Afghans are ahead of the game. The one positive in the day was the batting of Mooney. The North County all rounder bettered his best score for Ireland for the second time in four games and reached his first half century in 86 balls with his eighth four.

He was left stranded on 58 after Peter Connell lost his middle stump but not before the pair had added 66 for the 10th wicket - the highest outside Ireland and their best in the I-Cup. Despite the early loss of Johnston and Kidd yesterday, it allowed Ireland to pass what they thought would be the psychological barrier of 400. The only team which needed help on Day 3 was Ireland.

Day 3

Ireland have refused to sink in Sri Lanka but Afghanistan are still calling all the shots in their Intercontinental Cup clash. The holders surrendered a first innings lead of 69 to the new kids on the block but, importantly, William Porterfield and Gary Wilson reduced the deficit to 30 and return on Day 4 with the sole intention of batting out the day. On a Dambulla pitch which is offering chronically slow turn and nothing for the pace bowlers, it should not be a difficult task - for the team that is, if not the openers - but a losing draw is the best they can hope for from a match to forget. It was always going to be more difficult without the injured Boyd Rankin and Regan West, in the first Ireland match after the retirement of Kyle McCallan, and the less experienced bowlers have been exposed on such a batting friendly pitch.

Still, to their credit, they stuck to their task yesterday - a much improved bowling performance than on day two - making the Afghan batsmen play many more deliveries and sending down far fewer "four balls'. In 74 overs on Friday, Ireland conceded a ridiculous 44 boundaries - yesterday in nine overs more only 21 were scored. It helped that Andre Botha bowled 15 overs, nine more than on day two, and as well as having the best economy rate, he also finished with three wickets, classically two caught behind and one leg before, even if the latter looked more than a little fortuitous.

Trent Johnston, Ireland's leading wicket-taker in the competition, was the only other successful pace bowler yesterday as Andrew White claimed the other four in his longest ever stint for his country. The Instonians all rounder is playing his 150th match - he led the team onto the field at the start of the Afghanistan innings - and with spin partner Gary Kidd not threatening, he celebrated by taking four wickets for the first time in a first-class match. It turned into a battle of patience between White and the batsmen - who would take a risk first - and it was the Ireland bowler who was rewarded.

White was fortunate that his last ball before lunch was a long hop. It was to Shabir Noori who for 331 minutes and 234 balls had defied everything the Irish had thrown at him in compiling 85 painstaking runs, but even he couldn't resist this one. However, it went straight into the midriff of Kevin O'Brien and Ireland were suddenly five wickets away from a first innings lead with 63 runs in hand. It was not to be, however, as the sixth wicket pair put on 72 before Johnston ended that stand, via the inside edge of Asghar Stanikzai's bat. His compatriot, Mohammad Nabi, was White's next victim, skying a pull to cover and the last two, more orthodox dismissals, ended Ireland's longest ever stay in the field.

The Ireland openers were untroubled in the 14 overs remaining and after their tame surrender in the first innings, along with a few other batsmen, they will be anxious not to make the same mistake on the final day.

Day 4

A four-day game that is decided with 15 balls and just 10 minutes to spare would give the impression that it was exciting. Ireland's Intercontinental Cup defeat to Afghanistan in Dambulla yesterday was no such thing. The seven wickets margin was the most relevant statistic.

It was supposed to be a day when Ireland would bat for 96 overs to preserve their 18-match, six-year unbeaten record in the competition. They were all out on the stroke of tea and left the Afghans 134 to win in the remaining 34 overs. Not a team to look a gift horse in the mouth, the classy Asians timed their reply to perfection and Ireland did not have a bowling attack good enough to trouble them. At least Gary Kidd, the Waringstown leg spinner playing only his second first class game, had an excuse for wilting under pressure and surprisingly no-one more bowled more overs than him in the second innings.

A full-strength batting line-up had no such excuse for being rolled over on a flat pitch for 202. Indeed, but for Trent Johnston's unbeaten 63 the end would have been even sooner and more emphatic. Peter Connell for the second time in the match shared in a half-century stand for the last wicket but before that the highest partnership was 40 and the second top score was 27. Perversely, Ireland's only chance of victory was to be bowled out but Kidd and Andrew White are no Kyle McCallan and Regan West, and Boyd Rankin may also have made a difference. Johnston, undoubtedly fired up by his batting heroics, duly took a wicket with his first ball but exited the attack after four overs, mysteriously never to return. Of the others, only dependable Andre Botha conceded less than Afghanistan's required four runs an over. Ireland needed a long opening partnership to give them momentum at the start of the day but William Porterfield failed to last eight balls, hanging out his bat and Dawlat Ahmedzai found the edge to claim the first of his five wickets.

It was to be a recurring pattern as the batsmen were caught between defence and keeping the scoreboard ticking over. Of the first seven only Botha found the happy medium and had reached 27 off 36 balls when he was beaten by off spinner's Mohammad Nabi's arm ball. Of the 20 Ireland wickets that fell in the match, only four were to catches away from the wicket. Repeatedly it was the defences that were breached and although National Coach Phil Simmons insisted he was happy with the preparation, after four months without cricket for many of the squad rustiness was inevitable and, actually, a valid excuse.

It was not insignificant that the player who has the most cricket under his belt, John Mooney after an autumn in Australia, hung around for 76 balls at No 8, after facing 90 in the first innings, but Ireland cannot afford a specialist bat at No 8; he bowled only four overs in the match. Alex Cusack got the best ball of the innings, in Ahmadzai's impressive first spell, but the others, some for the second successive innings, tamely surrendered. Niall O'Brien who went into the match needing 104 to bring up his 1,000 runs in the competition, is still 29 short after being caught behind twice and his brother Kevin failed to score 20 in the match - he was leg before twice.

Ireland have almost seven months before they return to the defence of this trophy but depending on other results their fate could be all but decided by then. They are currently sixth of the seven teams. The new leaders are Afghanistan and the still team to beat. Ireland have now tried twice and come up short twice.