It was a small crowd that came to watch the first ever World Cup match hosted at the Bellerive Oval when Ireland took on Zimbabwe in a critical Pool B clash, but, as it emerged, the ones that turned up ended up watching a most thrilling contest on Saturday (March 7) evening in Hobart.
Going into their penultimate match of the group stage, Zimbabwe, with only two points in their kitty, stood one loss away from being eliminated from the 2015 World Cup, and even a 91-ball 121 from Brendan Taylor, the stand-in captain, wasn’t enough to take them past the spirited Irish unit.
Set a daunting target of 332 for victory, Zimbabwe fought hard, but after a dramatic finale, fell short by just five runs.
Zimbabwe lost their top four batsmen inside the 17th over with only 74 runs on the board. Sikander Raza’s disappointing run in the tournament continued as he became the first to return to the hut, caught at first slip by Paul Stirling off John Mooney with just 12 runs against his name.
Chamu Chibhabha, Hamilton Masakadza and Solomon Mire followed suit, and it looked like the match was headed for an early finish.
But Taylor and Sean Williams had other plans, using their experience to build a solid partnership to rescue the innings from its rickety state.
Running between the wickets was clearly the significant aspect in the initial part of the 149-run stand, but then the duo took on the slower bowlers to step up the run rate. Taylor took just 79 balls to reach his seventh One-Day International hundred, equaling Alistair Campbell’s record for most tons by a Zimbabwean batsman in the format.
Alex Cusack finally got rid of him in the 38th over with a slower delivery that Taylor failed to read, playing his shot too early and lobbing an easy catch to mid-on.
Zimbabwe were 223 for 5 at this stage, and it was now up to Williams to try take his side over the line. Craig Ervine and Regis Chakabva kept him company while he smashed the ball around the park, taking the score to 300 for 6 with 20 balls to spare.
But then came that moment every Zimbabwean fan dreaded: Williams pulled a Kevin O’Brien delivery straight towards the deep midwicket boundary, where Mooney took a brilliantly judged catch, even as his foot appeared tantalisingly close to the boundary rope. A referral to the third umpire confirmed it was a legitimate catch, leaving the Zimbabwean dressing room in a state of shock.
It looked like it was all over, but then came the 49th over from Kevin O’Brien, which was taken for 19 runs, including two fours and a six from Tawanda Mupariwa, the No. 10 batsman, to leave Zimbabwe with seven runs to get off the final six balls.
Porterfield trusted the experienced Cusack with the final over, and it paid off with Chakabva playing on the first delivery on to his stumps. Chatara, the new batsman at the crease, took off for a frantic single off the first ball he faced to get Mupariwa on strike. But the pressure then got to Mupariwa, who miscued Cusack to lob a high catch straight to Porterfield, who ran in from long-on to end the Zimbabwe innings at 326 in 49.3 overs.
Earlier in the day, Ireland, put in to bat by Taylor, showed no signs of any lurking mental scars of the 201-run clobbering they suffered at the hands of South Africa.
Even though Paul Stirling, who has been a great asset for Ireland at the top order so far, had an off day, falling for 10 in the third over, Ed Joyce and Andy Balbirnie made up for it in style.
Joyce first partnered Porterfield to consolidate the innings after Stirling fell, adding 63 off 103 balls for the second wicket. But Porterfield looked far from comfortable against Zimbabwe’s medium pacers, struggling to rotate the strike, and finding the fence only on one occasion.
Eventually, in the 21st over of the match, attempting to scoop the ball over extra cover, he ended up looping the ball high in the air. Hamilton Masakadza made no mistake in judging the catch, ending Porterfield’s innings after a sluggish 61-ball 29.
The captain’s departure helped Ireland as it brought Joyce and Balbirnie together with Ireland on 79 for 2.
Much to the delight of the Irish fans in the stands, the duo almost immediately decided to step on the accelerator, tonking the bowlers for fours and sixes in between cleverly picking up the ones and twos.
Balbirnie assumed the role of the aggressor, reaching his fifty with a six off Raza over the deep midwicket boundary in the 37th over, and in the process, took Ireland past the 200-run mark.
With Balbirnie firing in all cylinders at the other end, Joyce trudged along to script his third ODI century, aided by nine fours and three sixes. But, shortly after reaching the milestone, he miscued a slower full toss straight into the hands of Craig Ervine at midwicket after scoring 112 off 103 balls.
But Balbirnie continued the onslaught, launching into the Zimbabwean attack alongside Kevin O’Brien to add a quickfire 33-ball partnership of 59 for the fourth wicket.
Kevin O’Brien hit four boundaries in his 22-ball 24 before being caught trying to heave the ball away for another big shot.
Gary Wilson (25 off 13 balls) and John Mooney (10 off 4 balls) then accompanied Balbirnie with short cameos to help Ireland zoom past 300 in the 47th over.
Balbirnie fell three agonising runs short of what could have been his first ODI century, but walked back to a standing ovation from the crowd who were thoroughly entertained by his 79-ball knock, studded with seven boundaries and four sixes.
Just when it looked like Ireland were headed for a score close to 350, Williams and Tendai Chatara somewhat managed to pull things back with three wickets each.
But the total of 331 for 8 eventually proved to be just enough for Ireland to pick up the crucial two points.