Ireland is in the unfortunate position of not having a competitive ODI against a Full Member nation until they step onto the field in Nelson on 14th February to take on the West Indies in their opening World Cup encounter.
Last week’s wash out in the second Sri Lanka ODI has left Ireland with just three matches each against Sri Lanka A in July and Scotland in September. Few of the county players will be available for either set of matches as they are not against Full Members. In July the English county program is dominated at that time by the conclusion of the group stages of the NatWest T20 Blast and the commencement of the new 50 over league while in September the County Championship reaches its climax.
The ICC’s much trumpeted new found support for the Associate nations is long on rhetoric but distinctly short on actions. Not one of the four qualifiers for the World Cup, Ireland, Scotland, Afghanistan or UAE have a single match against a Full Member before their first match in Australasia.
However Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who both lacked the courage to face up to the Associates in a promotion and relegation scenario, have seventeen matches between them prior to next February.
Bangladesh have three ODI’s in India in June and then tour the West Indies in August and September for six matches across all three formats of the game. The morally and financially challenged Zimbabweans will benefit both on and off the field by visits from South Africa and Australia in August and September for eight ODI’s.
Clearly the Triumvirate who now control world cricket have already started the payback for the support given by Bangladesh and Zimbabwe which helped ensure the acceptance of their plan for the annexation of the game we love. The concept of a level playing field is as alien to ICC as North Korea is to democracy.
But the reality is that nothing more is going to done to help the Associates prepare for next year in the way of meaningful matches. ICC is making much of Dav Whatmore’s appointment to an advisory role in the High Performance Programme and say he will assist the four Australasia bound Associates in their preparations but it is difficult to see what he can achieve for Ireland that Phil Simmons is unable to because Ireland need more matches rather than more coaching.
However the absence of our county stars for the rest of the year opens up opportunities for the home based players to state their case for a place on the plane heading down under. Apart from the Sri Lanka A and Scotland matches, the Newstalk interprovincial series takes on an extra significance as it should thrust the top performers into the consciousness of the Ireland selectors.
Of the fifteen spots available in the Ireland squad I believe that eight are nailed on certainties. They are William Porterfield, Paul Stirling, Ed Joyce, Niall and Kevin O’Brien, Gary Wilson, Tim Murtagh and George Dockrell.
Normally you would add form and fitness permitting to that list but these core players are so trusted by Phil Simmons in the 50 over format that fitness alone will suffice. The other five players in the squad for the Sri Lanka matches are in pole position to retain their places but form will be a consideration in their selection.
Alex Cusack, Stuart Thompson and Max Sorensen started last week and it’s fair to say that none of the trio stood out. Cusack and Dockrell bowled steadily early in the match but their death bowling failed to deliver. There is no disguising the fact that of Sri Lanka’s total of 219, 20% of the runs came in the last twenty two balls of the innings. And these were conditions that Ireland should relish and which will be vastly different in places like Brisbane and Adelaide.
Sorensen was fairly economical but never looked threatening unlike his opening partner Murtagh who deserved even better figures that his 2 for 21. Murtagh took some time settling into the Ireland set up and was constantly being compared to Rankin and Johnston but his recent performances have demonstrated why he is so highly regarded and successful in county cricket. Ireland’s success has been founded on a strong batting line up and like all good teams has a potent pair of opening bowlers.
With the key men of the last few years gone Murtagh has now provided one leg of the new partnership but no one has as yet made the second position their own. Stuart Thompson and Craig Young have something about them but they will have to demonstrate that it is more than potential.
The two left out last week, Andy McBrine and Andrew Poynter, did well over the winter matches and would be disappointed not to make the plane but only a summer of sustained success can guarantee that. The breakthrough onto the global stage for Irish cricket in 2007 in the West Indies was significantly assisted by the presence in the squad of four players who had developed their cricket skills south of the equator.
In my column last December I wrote of the influence that Trent Johnston, Andre Botha, Jeremy Bray and Dave Langford-Smith had in transforming Ireland into a professional outfit. While it is always preferable to have home grown players they need to be at least as good as any Ireland qualified players.
I am not advocating that Ireland remotely consider the route taken by the Dutch, which ultimately failed, despite their belated pyrotechnics. However we would be ignoring reality if we delude ourselves into believing that the team couldn’t benefit from broadening our options.
Simmons has been reluctant to bring in players who are Ireland qualified unless they have played club cricket here. Indeed I can’t immediately think of one other than Tim Murtagh and even he had to serve his apprenticeship in the squad before making his debut.
Generally I would sympathise with Simmons reasoning on this but we desperately need a bowler who can hit the high 80’s consistently and with control and there is no obvious contender plying their trade in Ireland.
Matt Dunn and Tom Curran are producing that regularly for Surrey and as I have said before should be asked about their availability. Four men who are playing cricket on the island and are Ireland qualified are in the Interpro squads and provided they outperform home grown talent in the same disciplines should be considered. Nick Larkin, Nathan Waller, James Cameron-Dow and Simmi Singh have the opportunity to say “pick me”.
Larkin is probably the most likely to bring something extra to the squad as he proved last season with a remarkable 247 not out off 349 balls for the Northern Knights against a Leinster Lightning attack that contained four Ireland bowlers. He enhanced that display by being the leading run scorer in Sydney Grade cricket last winter. His Australian upbringing also gives him added value as the he is very much at home on the type of wicket that Ireland will have to contend with in the World Cup.
Waller didn’t do himself any favours with his comments during the winter about how he would always see himself as a Zimbabwean and that it would be weird playing for Ireland. Now in fairness he is young and if the same question had have been asked of Trent Johnston or Andre Botha at that age maybe they would have responded similarly.
There is no doubt that he has talent but certainly did not set the world on fire for Lisburn last season but a move to CIYMS could provide the impetus that will see him realise his potential. If he can develop his bowling, which is currently on the brisk side of medium, his height could be an asset on firmer wickets.
Cameron-Dow is a tall left arm spinner who does give the ball a rip and his upbringing on South African wickets gives him an advantage in southern hemisphere conditions. His problem is that he is competing for a spot in the squad against George Dockrell and it’s hard to imagine Ireland taking two left arm spinners to Australia.
But if he impresses in the Interpro’s and gets a slot against Sri Lanka A who knows where it might lead. Simmi Singh was the top wicket taker in Leinster last season with 48 victims and was also the sixth highest run scorer. As an orthodox off spinner he will be in direct competition with Andy McBrine but should the latter’s form dip the batting qualities of Singh could see him edge ahead.
Of course these players will have to show that they are better than those born here and the likes of Andrew Balbirnie, John Mooney, Eddie Richardson, James Shannon and co are not going to willingly stand aside. But hopefully the competition for places will enhance the standard of cricket this summer and compensate for the absence of significant International action.
Particularly good news emerged from an interview that I did with Ed Joyce on the day before the Sri Lanka ODI. Provided that he stays fit he is determined to play for Ireland for as long as he can and would love to play a Test Match for his native land.
He acknowledges that if that is at the end of 2018 he will be forty by then and may be a year too far. However he will do his utmost to ensure that Ireland have every chance of winning the next Intercontinental Cup.
There could be no better news than that Ireland’s classiest batsman, who is currently batting as well as he ever has, has no intention of leaving the International scene any time soon.
In the past year it was a pleasure to spend a great deal of time in the company of Robin Walsh, whose term of office as President of Cricket Ireland has just ended. Robin could not have given more to the cause as he was at every day of every Ireland match home or away, not to mention under age matches and interpros.
He was great company and while the blazer may be retired to the wardrobe his body will continue to patrol the boundary. He is succeeded as President by Joe Doherty, a proud son of the North-West and someone steeped in cricket.
While it is a truism to say that Robin will be a hard act to follow, Joe will be determined to match his predecessor and I wish him every good fortune.