England 328 (50 ovs) (E Morgan 106, T Banton 58, D Willey 51) lost to Ireland 329-3 (49.5 ovs) (P Stirling 142, A Balbirnie 113) by 7 wkts.
Kevin O’Brien, the hero of Bangalore is the saviour of Southampton. Dragging Ireland to the finish line of 329 with a solitary ball to spare – the same score they made on that famous night when shocking England at the 2011 World Cup in India – they have beaten the world champions on home soil for the first time.
The victory, unthinkable but a few days ago, was built on the back of a 214-run stand between Ireland's new leadership axis, Andy Balbirnie and Paul Stirling, both saluting for superlative centuries before falling with the target in sight.
The margin of victory was seven wickets but it all came down to the final over with eight runs required off Saqib Mahmood. Aided by a waist-high no-ball and a free hit, O’Brien, unbeaten on 21 from 15 balls, held his nerve in the final stanza alongside 20-year-old Harry Tector. Before the game, the 36-year-old veteran explained how much beating England means to him, and it showed when it mattered most on a most historic night for Irish cricket, achieved while wearing black armbands in honour of the memory of the late John Hume, who was a big supporter of the team.
For the majority Ireland’s pursuit, having bowled England out for 328 one ball shy of their allocated overs after sending the hosts in, the spadework from opener Stirling and skipper Balbirnie was anything but spectacular. Sure, the former cleared the rope six times – crucially, three times against Adil Rashid, the legspinner who made scoring so difficult when losing last Thursday and Saturday – but their progress was clinical after coming together at 50 for one. In keeping with O’Brien’s advice to his senior colleagues ahead of the final match, there was an assertiveness to Ireland’s accumulation.
For Stirling’s part, he was eventually run out for 142 from 128 balls with 65 still required from the final 50 balls. His long-time friend, Balbirnie, holed out for 113 in the 45th over – close to the only false stroke he played across 112 balls.
Having both been part of collapses of 28 for five and 44 for four in this series, both made sure they weren’t leaving these shores without making a mark. That they also leave with a win is a tremendous fillip for this relatively inexperienced side. Nights like this – the first time that Ireland’s men have been successful against a top-eight team since the 2015 World Cup – breed belief and accelerate development.
“It is a huge win for us and this group,” the skipper said after the win. “That is as well as I have seen Stirling play in an ODI and it’s great that the younger lads were involved in it. We threw in a young guy in Harry Tector, he will gain so much from it. It has been a privilege to come over here and play in these uncertain times and to come back with 10 points [towards World Cup qualification] is an added bonus. It’s been a great boost for the country. There hasn’t been much cricket and it’s great that we could play and get a win.”
At the halfway mark, heads could have dropped. After all, you don’t nick Jason Roy off in the first over, knock over Jonny Bairstow inside the first five overs and leave England three down in the first powerplay too often – Craig Young responsible for two of those early wins.
Yes, Eoin Morgan came in next and compiled a tremendous century of his own, the former Irish international finishing with 106 from 84, but as soon as his rapid 156-run stand with Tom Banton was broken for the fourth wicket, Ireland went on to take another three wickets to leave the home side on 217 for six.
Sure enough, Curtis Campher was right in the middle of that collapse, too quick for Moeen Ali, with Josh Little and Gareth Delany playing their parts too. But they let it go. David Willey smashed 51 from 42 balls at number nine before the final pairing put on a most annoying stand of 30. They didn’t stick the landing.
Lesser teams walk off the field knowing they should have kept a team to far less and drop their bundle. But Stirling and Balbirnie, who have played together since they were 12 and lived together when playing at Middlesex, didn’t let the target overwhelm them. Anything but.
The tangible takeaway for them is 10 points in the World Cup Super League – and who knows how important than might end up being two years from now. The far more important legacy is a new cohort of Irish players knowing they too can have days and nights like those from the retired and retiring golden generation. They too can stun the world.