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Julian Herbert-IDI Zimbabwe's Graeme Cremer celebrates.
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Ireland's World Cup hopes in tatters as time catches up on a golden generation
Heavy defeat to Zimbabwe leaves Ireland needing a miracle to qualify for a fourth straight World Cup.

THE OPTIMISTS WANTED to believe that this team — a golden generation of cricketers — had one last hurrah in them, but that was always wishful thinking. Ireland’s World Cup dreams are in tatters, the race run in this qualifying tournament and so too for this cohort of players.

Now isn’t the time, or place, for deep introspection because there are still two games remaining for Graham Ford’s side and those optimists — the same people who have fumbled to paper over the cracks for the last two years –  will be quick to remind us all that there remains a flimsy chance of qualification.

Flimsy is probably the best way to describe Ireland’s batting performance as they once again spurned a glorious opportunity to give their chances of progressing to next summer’s World Cup in England a shot in the arm.

Having restricted tournament hosts Zimbabwe to 211/9 after their 50 overs, Ireland were bowled out for 104. There really isn’t much more to be said at this juncture.

Paul Stirling, who remains one of the bright sparks, top scored with 41 but those around him floundered as Ireland fluffed their lines, further exposing the soft underbelly to the batting order and the team’s inability to produce big performances when it really matters.

Questions will, or at least should, be asked.

Most pertinently, why did Ireland play just one specialist spinner in conditions which were evidently conducive to slower bowling?

And when was the last time Ireland’s middle order produced an innings of any sort of substance?

And when was the last time Ireland defeated a Full Member nation other than Afghanistan?

13 October 2015, in case you were wondering.

Ireland v Zimbabwe - ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier Julian Herbert-IDI Ireland lost a flurry of early wickets. Julian Herbert-IDI

Tri-series wins in the depths of winter when nobody really cares are meaningless if they don’t lead to anything.

Harsh? Consider this.

In their last seven ODIs against teams ranked higher than them (excluding Afghanistan), Ireland have been bowled out for: 126, 243, 238, 181, 154, 205 and now 107.

Rolling over is one thing, but to do it so consistently and frequently for the last 24 months is another. You simply don’t win games of cricket by posting those scores.

William Porterfield was asked what he put today’s performance with the bat down to.

“It’s hard to put my finger on it now,” the captain replied, as if it was some sort of one-off malfunction.

It can’t be that hard to identify the reasons.

Stirling’s dismissal — an awful mix-up which led to a run out — was the final nail in the coffin in Harare, and just about encapsulated a wretched display with the bat.

The defeat — by 107 runs — leaves Ford’s side needing to beat Scotland and Afghanistan while also hoping other results go their way. Whatever about winning the next two games, it’s highly unlikely the rest of the cards will fall Ireland’s way.

“Having given ourselves 200 to chase any day of the week you’d take it, but we let ourselves down with the bat,” Porterfield added.

“We were very confident at half time, but in the second half we let ourselves down.”

Ireland had bowled with control and discipline after winning the toss, hallmarks of bygone successes which have been restored under Ford in recent months, but it all fell apart rather inevitably thereafter.

Ireland v Zimbabwe - ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier Julian Herbert-IDI Stirling top scored with the bat again. Julian Herbert-IDI

Sikandar Raza starred for the hosts with the bat, his counter-attacking unbeaten 69 hauling Zimbabwe up past the 200 mark when Ireland were unable to keep their foot on the pedal.

McBrine took two wickets in his 10 overs, while in contrast Zimbabwe’s spinners bowled 25.2 overs out of the 34.2 that Ireland faced, taking eight wickets.

“A game of two halves for us,” Porterfield continued, much like he did following the defeat to West Indies when Ireland had given themselves a real chance with the ball.

“We played some very good cricket up until now.”

All in vain now.

Too many of this team have been living off past successes, and too many have been blinded by the glaringly obvious decline. It has been coming, so failure to reach the World Cup should not come as a big surprise, but that doesn’t make it any more of a disappointment.

Two games left to salvage something — anything — from this tournament.

“Qualification mission not impossible but uphill battle for Ireland,” read the Cricket Ireland press release this afternoon.

Nothing short of a miracle will do now.

At least there’s a historic first Test match against Pakistan to look forward to.

Zimbabwe 211-9 (S Raza 69*, T Murtagh 3-36, McBrine 2-42)
Ireland 104 all out (P Stirling 41, G Cremer 3-18, T Chisoro 3-22)

Zimbabwe win by 107 runs — full scorecard available here.

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