Andrew Balbirnie’s fourth international century helped Ireland keep alive their World Cup qualification hopes with a 25-run win against Scotland in Harare.
The Dubliner rode his luck in the early stages of the innings, looking palpably lbw on one to the fifth ball he faced, and reprieved on 22 when a wild throw from Wheal allowed him to make his ground with a full length dive when he had no right to.
The Pembroke man’s four previous scores in the competition were 7, 9, 7 and 2, but one he got over the initial nerves, he grew increasingly in confidence, unfurling a range of his trademark cover and square drives.
He shared a second wicket stand of 44 with William Porterfield after Paul Stirling fell for 0, well caught by Hampshire pace bowler Brad Wheal (3-43) via a bat-pad deflection on his follow through.
Porterfield was dropped at first slip on 12, but Wheal got his reward when just five runs later the Irish skipper chopped on.
Niall O’Brien – promoted up the order in the absence of the injured Ed Joyce – joined Balbirnie and the pair proceeded to bat Ireland into a strong position with a third wicket partnership of 138 in 153. The stand equalled the Irish ODI record for the third wicket, made also by Balbirnie with Ed Joyce in the World Cup win over Zimbabwe in Hobart.
O’Brien reached his 33rd half century in all formats with a superb run-a-ball 70 (9 fours), before being run out by Craig Wallace’s direct hit after a stop-start call for a single.
His younger brother Kevin was also elevated up the ranks and he and Balbirnie continued to play positively adding a brisk 58 from just 47 deliveries. Balbirnie made his second ODI hundred of the year, before missing a full toss and being trapped lbw for 105 from 146 balls (10 fours) – how Scotland would have wished for a similar verdict three hours sooner.
The Irish innings thereafter ended with a whimper rather than a bang – six wickets falling for just 30 runs in the last five overs, including Kevin O’Brien for 46 from just 27 balls.
Brad Wheal (3-43) and Safyaan Sharif (2-51) were the pick of the Scotland attack.
Tim Murtagh (2-51) removed the dangerous Matt Cross (18) thanks to a stunning reflex catch by Gary Wilson at first slip, but Kyle Coetzer launched a powerful counter-offensive to kick-start the Scottish reply.
The Scottish skipper was particularly severe on Boyd Rankin, striking the giant Bready man for six boundaries in his first two overs.
Simi Singh and Andy McBrine slowed the rate, and it was the recalled Singh who got the breakthrough, ending a second wicket stand of 68 as MacLeod was caught in the deep.
Coetzer duly reached his 11th ODI half-century, but Rankin returned to send his stumps cartwheeling and from then Ireland were in the ascendancy. 112 for 2 became 132 for 6 with Rankin also dismissing Munsey and Wallace, while Singh accounted for the dangerous Leask.
Scotland’s most capped international Richie Berrington (44) added 58 in an enterprising stand with Sharif (34) as Scotland rallied, but when Murtagh bowled Berrington, followed by a double strike from Barry McCarthy, the contest looked all over at 208 for 9.
However Mark Watt kept believing as he thumped 31 from just 19 balls, including two sixes in an over from Murtagh, as he and Brad Wheal added 38 in just 19 balls. The equation then meant Scotland needed 26 from 15 balls, but Rankin had the final say, claiming his fourth wicket thanks to a superb one-handed catch by Niall O’Brien.
Scotland’s destiny is still in their own hands, and they will make the World Cup if they beat West Indies in their final game. For the Irish however, they must beat Afghanistan on Friday and hope results elsewhere go in their favour.
“The quick turnaround has helped,” said Man of the Match Balbirnie afterwards. “It hasn't been a great tournament for me, but I’m happy to get some runs.
“I've had a couple of dismissals that weren't like me, but today I had a bit of a rub of the green - St Patrick's weekend and all that. I just managed to kick on and it was great to get a total on the board for the team.
“Luckily Niall O’Brien played a run-a-ball innings, while Kevin did the same, and that helped me. In the last ten we would have liked a bit more, but after the batting performance on Friday against Zimbabwe we wanted to put in a solid performance on a pitch that was playing a bit slow,” added Balbirnie.
Ireland captain William Porterfield was relieved that his team put in a much improved display following the horror show against Zimbabwe on Friday. “I didn't have to say a lot to the team - we knew we had to turn up today and get the two points to stay in the running. What was most pleasing was getting back with the bat. To post a total and then go out and defend it was highly pleasing for the team.
"Going into the next match, we obviously need some results to go our way during the week, and if that's in place then we've got to be ready come Friday. We've had a few good tussles with Afghanistan recently, so looking forward to a good game."
WORLD CUP QUALIFER, AT HARARE SPORTS GROUND
Ireland 271-9 (50 overs: A Balbirnie 105, N O'Brien 70, K O'Brien 46; B Wheal 3-43, S Sharif 2-52)
Scotland 246 all out (47 overs; K Coetzer 61, R Berrington 44, S Sharif 34, M Watt 31*; B Rankin 4-63, S Singh 2-33, B McCarthy 2-44, T Murtagh 2-51)
Ireland beat Scotland by 25 runs