A gritty batting display followed by an exceptional bowling performance by Ireland saw the home side convincing winners by 72 runs in the first of their two-match GS Holding ODI series against Afghanistan at Stormont on Sunday.
After Afghan captain Gulbadin Naib won the toss and sent Ireland in to bat, the visitors bowling attacked sought to use the seam-friendly conditions to make early in-roads.
The loss of James McCollum and the in-form Andy Balbirnie, both dismissed by Dawlat Zadran for 4, had Ireland set back on their heels at 35-2 in the 9th over.
The experience of Irish batters Paul Stirling and William Porterfield then came to the fore as the pair fought to stabilise the innings and shared a 99-run third wicket partnership. Stirling (71 from 94 balls) continued his rich vein of form this summer, having scored 77 and 130 in his last two innings for the men in green, while captain Porterfield (53 from 83 balls) scored his second consecutive half-century after registering 93 in his last outing against Bangladesh last Wednesday.
With Ireland sitting at 134-2 in the 34th over, the sudden loss of Stirling and Porterfield in the space of eight balls rocked the Irish side and restricted the home sides momentum.
A well-compiled 32 from 44 balls by Kevin O’Brien was the only contribution of note following this, and Ireland was eventually dismissed for 210 from 48.5 overs.
For the Afghans, Dawlat (3-35) and Aftab Alam (3-28) claimed three wickets apiece, as the Irish side looked to have registered a below-par score.
Looking for early wickets, the Irish bowlers led by Tim Murtagh (2-12) and Andy McBrine (0-17) began with an incredible spell of tight bowling.
Murtagh claimed two wickets early and the visitors were reeling at 19-2 in the 9th over.
Struggling to break the shackles, pressure built up and further wickets fell with Mark Adair (4-19) picking up where Murtagh left off, removing Hazratullah Zazai for 14 and Hashmutullah Shahidi for 12. A 54-run stand between Asghar Afghan and Mohammad Nabi threatened to get the visitors back into the game, but three wickets to Boyd Rankin (including his 100th wicket in ODI cricket) saw the end of the visiting teams resistance.
Adair came back at the end to clean up the final two wickets, including a spectacular caught-and-bowled effort to finish the innings. Afghanistan were dismissed for 138 runs, with Ireland claiming a convincing 72-run win.
Gary Wilson was in fine form with the gloves for the Irish on his home ground, playing a part in three wickets as Ireland picked up their first victory since March 10.
The 33-year-old earned his 100th one-day international cap against England earlier this month and spoke on Thursday about his pride at reaching such a momentous milestone.
“I wouldn’t have dreamt that I could get 100 ODI caps when I first started so to be able to get 100 for Ireland is special,” he said.
The former Surrey and Derbyshire man missed a busy winter period for Ireland which consisted of nine matches in various formats against Afghanistan, including a Test match in Dehradun with an eyesight issue.
Having had four full matches now under his belt upon return, Wilson says having an injury helped put things into perspective.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect two months ago,” he added. “To be back playing now when I wasn’t sure if that would potentially happen again or not puts things into perspective a bit. For me personally it was nice to get through a couple of games.”
Wilson, who is now back in the NCU full-time playing with CSNI, will lead Ireland into Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers later this year and will also be in charge of the side for a three-game series against Zimbabwe in July.
“Especially for Twenty20 - it’s a massive year for us,” he said.
“With the World Cup qualifiers coming up and preparation, that will be our focus after this Afghanistan series. These games are very important and it’s always a close, hard-fought series.”
Meanwhile, Mark Adair continued to impress on the international stage after picking up figures of 4-19 in Ireland’s victory over Afghanistan.
The 23-year-old is also aiming for Interprovincial glory with the Northern Knights this summer.
The Knights kicked off their 2019 season with a 117-run win against the North West Warriors in La Manga where Adair struck 44 from 15 balls and picked up three early wickets.
They will be back in action on May 27 with a 50-over game against the Warriors before a busy period of fixtures in June.
Leinster Lightning have dominated the majority of Interpro cricket in years gone by, but this could be the most competitive summer yet with key players returning to Ireland from the County game.
Led by Simon Johnston, many of the Knights squad earned international honours over the winter and Adair believes they are in a good position to win silverware.
“We have probably one of the best teams we have ever had in the competition,” he said in a recent interview.
“With Gary (Wilson) coming back, James McCollum doing as well as he is and then James Cameron-Dow, Shane Getkate and myself all making international debuts this year it’s a good year to be a Knight.”
Adair has excelled for Ireland since making his debut against England earlier this month, showcasing his hard-hitting middle-order batting along with pace bowling that has picked up six wickets.
He was called into the squad on late notice ahead of the England clash in Dublin after Stuart Thompson sustained an injury but has wasted no time in staking his claim for an extended run in the side.
“I came down to net bowl on the Tuesday and was told I would be playing on Friday,” recalled Adair.
“It isn’t a lot of time to get your head around things but it’s the perfect way to do it.”
Adair signed for defending Premier League champions CIYMS during the winter and made his league debut against Muckamore last weekend, but he is looking forward to making a real impact at Belmont.
“I just wanted to win trophies,” he said of the move. “I have played with Jonesy at CSNI before and he was class. It was nice to be around him and he can help with the management of playing for both the Knights and Ireland.
“It will be nice to actually play for them. I played against Muckamore but didn’t get to bat or bowl. Fielding was good, but it would be nice to actually do something and try to contribute to a win.”