Cricket: Tucker continues top order resurgence as Ireland secure long awaited first win of the summer

Return to form with the bat as captain Andrew Balbirnie and Lorcan Tucker notch half-centuries

Ireland (171-3, 19.5 overs) (Andrew Balbirnie 51, Lorcan Tucker 50; Mujeeb Ur Rahman 1-22) beat Afghanistan (168-7, 20 overs) (Usman Ghani 59; Barry McCarthy 3-34) by seven wickets. Scorecard here.

What a difference a good power play makes. This wasn’t even Ireland’s highest total in the first six of the summer, but the fact they reached 53 without loss gave them the perfect platform to keep wickets in hand and chase 33 off the final three overs, securing a first win of the season by a seven-wicket margin over Afghanistan at Stormont.

Despite the required rate late on of 11 runs per over, with Harry Tector, Lorcan Tucker and later George Dockrell at the crease, the result felt somewhat secure given Ireland had licence to be aggressive with plenty of players left in the sheds. Sure enough, both Tector and Dockrell scored boundaries at crucial times, hitting 15 off the last over to take the win.

“When you’ve got your four (Tector) and six (Dockrell) in there who are in really good form this summer, you’re not that nervous, explained captain Andrew Balbirnie after the win. “That’s the beauty of having wickets in hand.”

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The trend is easy to see for Ireland. When the top three fail, the side struggles. Some have lamented an over-reliance on Balbirnie and his opening partner Paul Stirling, leaving the likes of Tector and Dockrell too much to do under pressure despite their good form. That over-reliance is probably overplayed, but when neither of the openers have passed 50 in T20Is since June 28th against India and the side continually struggles, some sort of link can be argued.

After a difficult few weeks, the top order fired in Belfast as partnerships of 61 for the first wicket and 62 for the second made what could have been a difficult chase look somewhat comfortable in the end. It certainly helped that Balbirnie notched a half-century, but the most consequential development of late is the emergence of Lorcan Tucker at number three.

In five games at the position since December 2021, his run of scores reads 57*, 84, 28, 78, 0 and now 50 on Tuesday in Belfast. He averages 59.4 at first drop with a strike-rate of 152. It’s too small a sample size to hail him as the cure-all to Ireland’s recent top order wobble, but it’s enough to hang your hat on going forward; the position is surely his for October’s World Cup.

Both that strike rate and average is higher than Tucker’s career norms; what’s changed? It’s clear he prefers the role consistency higher up the order than the unpredictability of batting at the death.

“Down the back end there’s a lot going on,” explained Tucker after his fourth half-century in five innings at number three. “You’re not really sure what your role is going to be. There might be a guy in who’s going well and it’s your job to get off strike or you might have to take a bowler down.

“The good thing about being at three is you know what you’re going to get. It’s quite clear how it’s going to be. When you’re batting down the order you could be coming in early or only getting two balls at the end. That clarity has given me a good opportunity to go to what I’m comfortable doing and I think I’ve been doing that the last couple of weeks.”

In a partnership with Balbirnie that proved to be a match-winning one of 62, Tucker swept Afghanistan’s trump card Rashid Khan well to both rotate and pick up boundaries — “I sweep every bowler really,” he admitted. “It’s something I often shied away from because it’s risky but I’m going to stick with it now.”

It was a close to a complete performance with the bat after Ireland continued to trend in the right way with the ball. Barry McCarthy’s three wickets (3-34) represented a season-best international performance while George Dockrell (2-7) and Gareth Delany (2-27) backed up their coach for recently labelling them full-time spin options, squeezing Afghanistan nicely in the middle overs.

Ibrahim Zadran’s late cameo of 29 off 18 balls looked to have taken the game away from Ireland somewhat, helping Afghanistan to an above par total, but it was a measure of the batting display that the hosts became just the third side to chase down a score of 140+ at the Belfast venue.

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist