Riding the highs and lows: Ireland are ready for Zimbabwe challenge after a revolutionary year on the cricket field. The Irish Post’s MALHAR HATHI reports.
It has been a year to savour for Irish cricket fans.
Not only did the men’s cricket team progress to the Super 12s stage of the T20 World Cup for the first time since 2009 but also toppled the eventual champions, England, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Add to that their first ever series win against West Indies and Afghanistan, albeit in different formats, and many believe the current crop of cricketers have the makings of Ireland’s golden generation of players.
Come 2023 and a tour to Zimbabwe and an opportunity to build on their recent success awaits.
One of the key aims in recent times had been to expand the squad depth and Ireland managed to tick off the box this year. In January 2022, a depleted squad missing their captain Dublin man Andrew Balbirnie and all-rounder Simi Singh among others due to injuries and Covid, beat West Indies 2-1 in the Caribbean to clinch their first bilateral ODI series win against a Test nation other than Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.
The T20 World Cup in Australia in October served as further evidence of their progress. Having lost their opening fixture against Zimbabwe, Ireland was staring down the barrel halfway into their chase of 177 against Scotland after being reduced to 61-4. Curtis Campher and George Dockrell then churned out an unbeaten 119-run partnership to complete a come-from-behind six-wicket win to keep their qualification chances alive.
If the win didn’t speak volumes enough of Ireland’s T20 transformation where it was no longer reliant on a couple of players, they thrashed West Indies by nine wickets in a clinical chase to progress to the next round and rub shoulders with the likes of defending champions Australia, eventual winners England, Asia Cup title holders Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Afghanistan.
While the Irish lost to Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand, the highlight of the tournament involved beating England, the pre-tournament favourites, in a rain-affected match at the MCG. Eleven years on from Kevin O’Brien’s heroic century against the same opponents to inspire a historic win in Bengaluru at the 2011 ODI World Cup, Ireland found new heroes in Andrew Balbirnie, who scored a match-winning 62, and Josh Little, the left-arm quick who priced out England’s in-form openers, Jos Buttler and Alex Hales to ensure England were always behind the eight-ball.
Rebuilding after disappointments
Despite not securing automatic qualification for the next edition of the T20 World Cup in 2024, having not finished in the top four in their group, Ireland showed how far they had come from the lows of failing to reach the Super 12s a year ago in the UAE after losing to Namibia. The absence of power-hitters in the middle order and the inability to string along partnerships were the key missing links the side has managed to plug in the past few months.
Harry Tector, who was dropped from the T20I side in the aftermath of the World Cup exit in 2021, enjoyed a prolific year averaging 76.80 runs per ODI and hit an eye-catchy 33-ball 64 against India in a T20I in Malahide. Lorcan Tucker, the wicketkeeper-batter, came of age to cement the No. 3 spot in the T20I side after top-scoring at the World Cup and finished second overall behind Balbirnie with the bat in the calendar year for Ireland.
On the bowling front, Josh Little led the attack superbly with wickets in both formats to finish as the second highest wicket-taker (39) in T20Is globally, which also featured a hat trick against New Zealand at the T20 World Cup.
Having run India and New Zealand close in the lead up to the World Cup, their prospects held promise but it required a shift of focus from results to performance under new Head Coach Heinrich Malan. More of that will hold them in good stead in a year where they return to play all the three formats for the first time since 2019.
“Clarity is the word,” Balbirnie said. “If you look at our batting order last year, there were a couple of guys that were floating a bit, not really sure of what role they needed to play to get in the team. We’ve changed that a bit. I think having a lot of games this year has definitely helped and it’s given guys confidence in the clarity. It’s all well and good having that clarity of thought, but to be able to actually go out and play with that is a big bonus. So, we knew we needed to have a change of mindset after last year’s World Cup, and it’s easy to say it, but I think the guys have worked so hard.
“Sometimes the aggressiveness isn’t going to come off and I’ve said that before, and sometimes it will and will look amazing. But as long as guys are clear with what they want to do and have that intent, we want to be a team that people want to watch, whether we win or lose.”
Success could beckon
Given that Ireland are set to play a Test match at Lord’s against England in June, push for World Cup qualification in both white-ball formats, the tour to Zimbabwe is an ideal opportunity to set the ball rolling.
As many as four first-choice players will miss the T20I leg of the tour due to franchise commitments. Little, who recently became the first active Ireland player to be picked at the Indian Premier League auction, will link up with Pretoria Capitals in the SA20. Curtis Campher has a contract with the Chattogram Challengers in the Bangladesh Premier League while Paul Stirling and Lorcan Tucker are UAE-bound to play in the inaugural International League T20.
In their absence, wicketkeeper-batters, Stephen Doheny and Neil Rock are expected to slot into the side with Ross Adair, a former Ulster rugby professional and elder brother of Mark, in line for his I nternational debut. Tyrone Kane is also set for his first appearance in an Irish shirt since July 2019.
The One-Day series that will follow the T20is starting on January 12 is not part of the ongoing World Cup Super League, a pathway to direct qualification for the 2023 ODI World Cup in October to be hosted by India.
Ireland still need to beat Bangladesh at home 3-0 to stay in the running for direct qualification. Even if they do manage to win the three games - their final fixtures in the Super League - it may not be enough with South Africa and Sri Lanka looking over their shoulders. Ireland’s chances will only improve if both sides don’t win more than three games or two in Sri Lanka’s case.
If Ireland miss out on direct qualification, they will head to the World Cup Qualifier in March 2023 in Zimbabwe in what promises to be a cut-throat tournament and fight it out for the remaining two spots at the showpiece event in India.
Given their turnaround in the past year, few would begrudge Ireland’s next set of golden generation to light up the big stage again
T20 squad: Andrew Balbirnie (captain), Mark Adair, Ross Adair, Gareth Delany, George Dockrell, Stephen Doheny, Fionn Hand, Graham Hume, Tyrone Kane, Barry McCarthy, Neil Rock, Harry Tector, Ben White.
ODI squad: Andrew Balbirnie (captain), Mark Adair, Curtis Campher, Gareth Delany, George Dockrell, Stephen Doheny, Graham Hume, Tyrone Kane, Josh Little, Andy McBrine, Barry McCarthy, Paul Stirling, Harry Tector, Lorcan Tucker