By John Kenny
Ireland will be hoping to finish the year on a high as they go head-to-head with Afghanistan in the ICC Intercontinental Cup final at the ICC Academy Oval 1 in Dubai on Tuesday morning.
There was a late withdrawal from the squad on Monday evening when Tim Murtagh dropped out due to personal reasons and he is returning home to be with his family.
No replacement for Murtagh will be called up by coach Phil Simmons.
Simmons’ side has already won the 50-over Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Championship (WCLC) as well as the ICC World Twenty20 titles this year, and should they win this five-day clash, they will become the first team in the history of the sport to win three ICC tournaments of three different formats in a calendar year.
Ireland will face a resilient Afghanistan, who will be no push-over, however the Blarney Army have the resources and ammunition to complete this unique cricket treble.
Trent Johnston and Andrew White have participated in all ICC Intercontinental Cups since the tournament’s inception in 2004 and are in possession of winners’ medals from 2005, 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Besides Johnston and White, there are three other survivors from the side that had won the tournament in Port Elizabeth in 2008 when Ireland defeated Namibia by nine wickets, captain William Porterfield and the O’Brien brothers, Niall and Kevin.
In terms of form and performance in this tournament, White tops the list after having already scored 419 runs at an average of over 52 to be the second highest run-scorer, followed by Paul Stirling (366 at an average of 40.66), Gary Wilson (270 at just under 39), Kevin O’Brien (260) and Mooney (250).
Porterfield in three matches has scored 231 runs and averages 57.75, while Niall O’Brien, in his only appearance, scored 126 at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this March.
Left-arm spinner George Dockrell is the pick of the Ireland bowlers with 33 wickets in five matches, followed by Max Sorensen (17) and John Mooney (12).
Porterfield believes that his team are in form and that the side want to give a grand send-off to Johnston who will be playing his final match in Ireland colours.
“It has obviously been a really good year for us so far. Having won both the 50-over and Twenty20 tournaments, we are keen to make it a treble,” Porterfield said.
“Added to the fact that we could make it a treble is that it will be Johnston’s last game for Ireland. I am sure that the lads will be looking to send him out on a high.”
Ireland and Afghanistan have met twice in this format to date, with Afghanistan leading 1-0. In this tournament, the two sides clashed in Dublin in July 2012 when rain came to the rescue of Afghanistan after they was bowled out for 84 and then conceded a 167-run first innings’ lead to Ireland.
“We know that Afghanistan are going to be really tough opposition, especially in Asian conditions over five days. But we are raring to go.
“There will be quite a few changes in our side that played in that rain-affected game, as quite a few of our players were on county duty then. Regardless of who was on the team sheet for that game, we still expect this to be a very keenly contested final.
“We have prepared as we do for any opposition. We will have our plans for individual players, et cetera. I think both teams know each other pretty well by now because of how often we play. So I think that both teams will be well prepared for the game.”
While Afghanistan have been second-best to Ireland this year, they maintain their unbeaten record in the current ICC Intercontinental Cup to date.
The Afghans finished behind Ireland in the Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Championship, lost the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier 2013 to Ireland by 68 runs and also ended up 12 points behind Ireland on the ICC Intercontinental Cup 2011-13 points table.
But it would be foolish to think that Afghanistan will be easy opponents for an experienced Ireland, as the Afghanistan side includes Nawroz Mangal, Asghar Stanikzai, Samiullah Shenwari, Shabir Noori, Mohammad Shahzad, Afzar Zazai, Gulbodin Naib, Mohammed Nabi and Mirwais Ashraf, who were members of the side that had defeated Scotland by seven wickets to win the 2010-11 tournament at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai Sports City.
Stroke-makers Asghar Stanikzai (342 runs), Mohammad Nabi (243 runs), Rehmat Shah (211), Samiullah Shenwari (208), Mohammad Shahzad (207) and Nawroz Mangal (203) have shown glimpses of their talent and mettle in the current tournament and continue to be capable of destroying any bowling attack on their day.
Fast bowler Izzatullah Dawlatzai, with 30 wickets, is Afghanistan’s most successful bowler, followed by another fast bowler, Dawlat Zadran, who has taken 21 wickets. Other notable Afghanistan bowlers in this tournament so far are Nabi (17 wickets) and Mirwais Ashraf (10 wickets).
Nabi said his side were ready to give Ireland a run for their money. “We are ready for the final. We have done well against Ireland in the ICC Intercontinental Cup so far with one win and one draw. So, we are in a good position.
“In a five-day match, the game changes a lot and you get opportunities to fight your way back. Our big positive is our pace bowling, and reverse swing will come into play, which should work to our advantage. So it will be a good contest between both the sides.”
Reflecting on the Dublin match, Nabi said: “When we played them in Ireland, we had a few new players and the conditions were very different. Weather dominated the match as only two days of cricket was possible.
“Here in the UAE, the conditions will be different. We have been unbeaten so far and our team is in good rhythm.”
The final between Afghanistan and Ireland will be live-streamed on the ICC’s YouTube Channel http://www.youtube.com/cricketicc and the ICC website www.icc-cricket.com.
Teams (to be selected from)
Ireland: William Porterfield (captain), John Anderson, George Dockrell, Trent Johnston, Ed Joyce, John Mooney, Kevin O'Brien, Niall O'Brien, Max Sorensen, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson, Andrew White, Gary Wilson.
Afghanistan: Mohammed Nabi (captain), Mirwais Ashraf, Izzatullah Dawlatzai, Nawroz Mangal, Gulbadin Naib, Shabir Ahmed Noori, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Shahzad, Samiullah Shenwari, Sayed Ahmed Shirzad, Asghar Stanikzai, Dollat Zadran, Afsar Khan Zazai, Rahmat Shah Zurmati.
Umpires: Sarika Prasad and Tim Robinson.