Winners and losers
If anyone had any doubt about the difference between full time professional cricket and the part time club game then two days at Stormont last week would have been a real eye opener.
The Ireland team, shorn off their regular county players and Kevin OíBrien, were taught a harsh lesson about the demands of international cricket by a young talented Sri Lanka A squad. The visitors, revelling in the hot sunny conditions, outperformed their hosts in virtually every aspect and severely damaged the World Cup prospects of several of the Ireland hopefuls, in some cases terminally. It certainly cast doubt on the strength in depth of Ireland when you go beyond the core players.
The Sri Lankans were a very good side but they were still an A team and much stronger challenges await Ireland in the months ahead. With all players available Ireland will feel largely comfortable with their batting particularly as the county players are all having good seasons in England. However injury or a dramatic loss in form would turn the spotlight on the supporting cast, all of whom got their chance last week.
The frontrunners for the additional batting slots in the World Cup squad were the two Andrews, Poynter and Balbirnie. Neither could be said to have made an undisputed claim for selection as they both struggled to make a meaningful impact. Poynter, who has scored a mountain of runs in domestic cricket this season, looked uncomfortable at the crease especially against the sharp pace of Dushmantha Chameera. Perhaps the burden of captaincy took some focus from his batting and while he is still favourite to be selected in the 18 man squad for the acclimatisation tour of Australasia which commences next month, he is not yet assured of making the final fifteen.
Balbirnie batted well in the first match, being second top scorer with 37, but fell to an injudicious sweep shot in the second game for just 2. However he is a fine player as his form in England has shown and he should also get the opportunity to test his abilities on the wickets down under.
The other man who has been touted by many commentators, including myself, as a genuine contender for selection is Nick Larkin. The Sydney native was very impressive last year and followed that up by topping the Sydney Grade aggregate runs table during the winter but has failed to kick on this summer. In the Newstalk Inter-pros he has regularly got starts but failed to convert them and last week the Sri Lankan quicks exposed a fallibility just outside his off stump and he nicked off (pardon the pun) in both innings.
He will possibly get another chance against Scotland next month but that will be against a lesser attack and runs then is no guarantee than they can be replicated at a higher standard. However should he get runs against our Celtic cousins his knowledge of Australian conditions might just sway it in his direction if there is a tight call for the last place but that will be academic without standout scores in the next few weeks.
John Anderson has missed a fair bit of cricket through injury this season and he looked rusty in the first match but was a lot more assured second time around. Anderson has proved in his ten games for Ireland that he has the temperament for international cricket and against the Scots will be involved in the shootout for the final batting slots in the squad. His leg spin bowling is also a potential asset and in Leinster cricket this season has as many wickets as Max Sorensen despite bowling a third less overs.
The one major success story last week was the sparkling hundred by Stuart Poynter that has rightly thrust him into contention for the World Cup squad. This was not a fluky one-off as he also produced a fine innings against Australia A last summer and his maturity at such a young age has been recognised by Durham who have entrusted him with their second eleven captaincy in his first season.
What stood out in his innings was how straight he played and he was, unlike some of his colleagues, unfazed by pace. Obviously not all of the above can make the plane but the younger Poynter may well have elbowed his way to the front of the queue.
I had a long chat with some of the Sri Lankan coaching staff last Friday evening and three players in particular impressed them. Stuart Poynter unsurprisingly was one and Craig Young also came in for praise. However it was the veteran Andrew White who drew most of the accolades both for his batting and bowling. As his figures in both matches attest the opposition batsmen were wary of attacking him due to his accuracy and changes of pace and he was their Ireland man of the series.
Given that White has had little meaningful time in 50 over cricket for Ireland in the last couple of years he wouldnít have been at the forefront of peoplesí minds as a likely World Cup selection. Irelandís most capped player has put his hat firmly into the ring and given that this was the strongest opposition that anyone in last weekís team has faced this season he demonstrated that experience allied to ability is still a potent mix.
The biggest conundrum for Ireland is still the bowling attack especially the pace department. Last weekís events did nothing to dispel those concerns except that Craig Young has pulled well clear of the pack pursuing the support role for Tim Murtagh and probably Max Sorensen. The Bready man bowled with pace and accuracy and as noted above impressed the Sri Lankans and will almost certainly be spending his second successive winter in Australasia.
It was a very different story for Peter Chase who struggled with his rhythm and consistency. At this level you cannot afford to be bowling 2 four balls an over and despite his potential would be too much of a gamble at this stage of his career. Maybe it is a product of contradictory coaching but his run up lacks the explosiveness of successful quick bowlers, indeed he regularly decelerates coming into his delivery stride which forces him to generate pace from his shoulders, invariably resulting in loss of line and length. He urgently needs top class fast bowling coaching otherwise his potential may never be fully developed.
Eddie Richardson was the third seamer last week and if you were to judge by his five wicket haul in the first game last week he would appear to have been successful. However that has to be put into the context of the state of the match when he got his wickets. All five wickets came in the final five overs when the batsmen were trying to hit every ball to the boundary and on three of those occasions failed by a couple of meters to clear the longest boundary which was also into the breeze.
Eddie has a slower ball that reaps him many wickets in club cricket but the professionalism of a Full Member coaching team rapidly analysed his bowling and by the time of the second game had his slower ball well and truly sussed and quite frankly took him to the cleaners. He is an honest hard working bowler but unless John Mooney is unable to go to Australia it is difficult to see what role there is for him in the squad especially as Kevin OíBrien can also bowl in a similar style except he has a lot more experience.
As Graeme McCarter showed up with a leg injury and couldnít play and Stuart Thompson only played as a batsmen in the second match we are none the wiser as to their capacity to bowl at the highest level. Indeed the Thompson issue needs to be addressed as he rarely bowls more than a few overs when in the green shirt usually because of niggling injuries and is in danger of being judged purely on his batting alone. While he has looked useful with the bat he has a lot of competition and unless he can convince that he is fit to perform his duties as an all-rounder he is in danger of missing out altogether.
The spin options are also problematic. The reality is that George Dockrell is having difficulties in limited over cricket this season. Between T20 and 50 over matches for Somerset he has only bowled 25 overs and conceded 227 runs while picking up just four wickets and he was left out of the 50 over team yesterday. It may be a confidence issue not helped by the flat Taunton wickets and also video analysis. However he is still our premier slow bowler and there is no question about him not being in the squad.
With Paul Stirling a second spin option in the team no more than one more slow bowler will be needed in Australia and that only as backup. Andy McBrine has been filling that role in recent matches and has at times forced his way into the side but the performance of Andrew White threatens McBrineís place in the squad as it is inconceivable that they both will get the nod. With the loss of Trent Johnston, Alex Cusack and doubts over John Mooney the experience in the squad has diminished and that is to Whites advantage.
The probability is that Phil Simmons and the selectors have fairly well made up their minds about who will be in the initial party of 18 with perhaps no more than two spots still in contention. The Scotland matches will likely determine who makes the cut and who loses out. Anyone missing out will have no further opportunity to state their case. While the three matches in Malahide may not be the most glamorous they will still prove vital to the prospects of several contenders.
The news this week that Trent Johnston is returning to his native New South Wales in September to be assistant coach for two years was rightly greeted with warm tributes from Irish cricket lovers.
Few would dispute that Trent has been one of the most, influential figures in the success story of cricket here in the last decade. His drive and professionalism aided and abetted by several others from the Southern Hemisphere changed Ireland from a side that played largely social cricket to a battle hardened outfit that could compete with and at times beat the best.
Since his retirement from the playing field last December he has been coaching the Ireland Womanís team (it is unfortunate that as they progress they have lost yet another coach) and also coaching Leinster Lightning. There can be little doubt that he has ambitions to coach at the highest level and he would include Ireland in that ambition. Therefor he is much better off going outside Ireland to hone and enhance his coaching skills.
For a start there is no vacancy here and unlikely to be for some time and even if there was it may well be too soon to take over a group of players most of whom he has spent so much time with on the playing fields of the world.
Two years in the land of his birth coaching quality players can only benefit him personally and, who knows, may ultimately benefit his adopted country and bring the same level of influence off the pitch as it did for so many years playing.
Every Irish cricket lover will wish him and his family the very best of fortune and a fond adieu rather than farewell.
In a recent column I wrote of the complete absence of any fixtures against Full Member countries for the four Associate teams who had qualified for next yearís World Cup. But lo and behold within days and following the ICC meeting in Melbourne that ratified the takeover of the ICC by the lopsided triumvirate, Afghanistan announced a tour of Zimbabwe to include four ODIís.
This wasnít just an announcement of matches that would take place sometime in the future but rather it happened with such haste that the games have already taken place. Now I certainly have no issue with Afghanistan getting FM matches-on the contrary I welcome any development that benefits Associate cricket.
However the timing and the speed of execution of the decision is at odds with most ICC decisions. It is probable that the tour was funded by Zimbabwe who presumably got another large dollop of largess to go into the black hole of their coffers. So why were Afghanistan selected rather than Ireland who after all has been the leading Associate side by a country mile for some time?
Afghanistan played in the Asia Cup earlier in the year and now appears to be favoured by the block of countries in that region for additional development and support. Zimbabwe would have been happier facing Afghanistan rather than Ireland as they would have believed that they were easier matches although they were shocked when the Afghans won the last two ODIís to square the series.
All of this raises a number of issues and I make no apology for viewing this from an Irish prospective.
Where Ireland considered for the tour and did Cricket Ireland get any advance notice of it?
I recognise that given that these were ODIís against a Full Member, players would be automatically released which would cause difficulties for counties in the middle of an English summer. However Ireland, despite the acknowledged benefits to Irish players playing county cricket, are not the 19th county and are entitled and indeed need to play as many full ODIís as possible.
This year Afghanistan has played eight ODIís against Full Members. Since the conclusion of the 2011 World Cup in the Sub-Continent Ireland has played a total of nine ODIís against Full Members (it would have been 10 but the second Sri Lanka game in May was washed out) and as there are no further ODIís scheduled prior to the opening World Cup match next year it will mean 9 matches in four years. Only one of these games was an away match-against West Indies in February.
This has potentially severe consequences for Ireland cricket as the Afghanistan-Zimbabwe series has resulted in Afghanistan moving nine points clear of Ireland in the ICC ODI Rankings. Given that the 2019 World Cup will be restricted to just ten teams the still undecided qualifying process for the ninth and tenth spots in the finals will probably be based to some extent on ODI rankings and unless Ireland can overtake Afghanistan they could find themselves in a much more difficult qualifying path than the Afghans.
However to achieve that Ireland need to be playing many more matches especially against the two lowest ranked Full Members Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. It is all well and fine playing high profile matches against the likes of England and Australia as we do next year but realistically, as results have shown, we are not going to win many of those so the opportunity to pick up ranking points is less than if we were playing the lower ranked sides.
Clearly Afghanistan has the support of the Asian group of Full Members and Zimbabwe is also getting disproportionate support from that region because they have India to thank for still being in existence as a cricket entity. Yes there is a degree of support from England and Australia but not to the extent that forces Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to play series against Ireland. Indeed Ireland has had more tangible support from Pakistan in the last four years than from any other country as we have faced them in four of those nine games.
The reality is that Ireland will face into the World Cup with just two ODIís in the year leading up to the biggest tournament in which we compete, the most recent being in early May, while Afghanistan will have played eight in the same period. Ireland despite all of its on field success is now, in terms of fixtures, regarded in the same light as Scotland and that is not meant as a slight on Scotland but merely a statement of fact on results at World level in recent years.
If Afghanistan get a continuous series of fixtures against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe over the next few years and Ireland donít play them then it is almost certain that the current differential of nine points will widen to a level that could be unbridgeable irrespective of how many times Ireland beat Afghanistan.