Ireland take on Afghanistan in crunch ties
AFTER the glamour, comes the serious business of World Cup qualification. The Australia match at Stormont last month, even if it had gone the full distance, was always going to be the hors d’oeuvres before the main event and that is the Ireland team making sure they will be in Australia in 2015 for the next ICC Cricket World Cup.
So far it has been plain sailing for William Porterfield’s side with victories over Namibia, Canada and Kenya putting them top of the World Cricket League table but, defeat in the first of the double headers against the Kenyans in February underlined the need to avoid complacency and why the one-day internationals today and on Thursday at Clontarf against Afghanistan are, quite simply, the most important games Ireland will play this summer.
With the top two from the eight competing teams booking their passage to Australia, without the need to go through the qualifying tournament, already confirmed for New Zealand at the start of 2014, it is likely that both the leading Associates will avoid the long trip to the joint hosts of the next finals but, with two games against the dangerous UAE - currently table toppers with Ireland - next spring and Scotland to wrap up the league at the end of next summer, it is near essential that the No 1 Associate proves their ranking this week.
There are also bragging rights up for grabs and after the World Twenty20 thriller in Dubai 14 weeks ago, it is Ireland who are still the team to beat.
There will be at least two changes to the team that won the final by five wickets, with Boyd Rankin injured and Andrew Poynter not in the 14-man squad. Tim Murtagh, the Middlesex pace bowler who made an unseen debut against Australia - he didn’t bat, bowl or field - is again Rankin’s likely replacement although Max Sorensen took two Afghan wickets in the final, including top scorer Mohammad Shahzad, and will be unlucky to miss out this time.
However, 14 into 11 doesn’t go and places have to be found for John Mooney and Alex Cusack, who also missed the final stages in Dubai through injury as well as Niall O’Brien who didn’t even make it on to the plane. All of which means National Coach Phil Simmons is likely to say to the starting XI against Australia, “same again”, with Andrew White, the other member of the final line-up in Dubai to miss out.
The only downside going into the game - and it is quite a critical one - is that three of the Ireland team are not in their county line-ups at the minute, with Porterfield joining Niall O’Brien, Murtagh and Ed Joyce on the bench for the Twenty20 matches. At least they are not 50-over games.
Kevin O’Brien and George Dockrell both played for Somerset on Sunday - the last two to arrive in Dublin - but they failed to make a meaningful contribution as Worcestershire won comfortably.
It is Paul Stirling who continues to be the star of the show, with Middlesex, and Ireland will be hoping he can keep the runs flowing, although the biggest problem for both teams could be getting on the field.
Hopes of outdoor practice at this week’s match venue were washed away yesterday so Ireland headed indoors to North County.
As for the Afghans, they have been here a week and haven’t hit a ball in anger with their two-day warm-up games against an Ireland Development XI last week abandoned without a ball bowled and they are also without injured lead bowler Hamid Hassan, and skipper Nowroz Mangal.
But with eight of the team that qualified for the World Twenty20 finals in Sri Lanka this September, Ireland know they will have to be at their best as they continue to set the standard the other Associates have to reach.