Eighteen Ireland players set off next week for their acclimatisation tour of Australia and New Zealand with the intent of proving to the selectors that they are worthy of being named in the fifteen man squad for the World Cup which commences in February.
It is safe to say that at least ten of them can be confident that they will be returning to the Antipodes in five months’ time with the other five places to be determined by their performances in the eight scheduled games.
One of the certainties is Ed Joyce who has been given leave of absence from this tour in order to rest up after his stellar season as captain of Sussex. The Irish batting phenomenon yesterday completed his eighth first class hundred of the season which is one more than second placed Adam Lyth of Yorkshire. Joyce with 1454 runs at an average of 72.7 is second only to Lyth in both categories.
However since the start of the 2013 season Joyce has the best average in County Cricket (68) and his welfare is so crucial to Ireland’s hopes next year that no one should begrudge him his well-deserved rest.
The original squad has already had to be amended as Max Sorensen has a fractured wrist and is replaced by Graeme McCarter who now gets his chance to stake a claim for the World Cup squad. McCarter rather bizarrely wasn’t selected for either of the first two matches against Scotland last week especially as the acclimatisation squad was selected on the evening of the second match.
He most assuredly would have welcomed the opportunity to bowl in the helpful early morning conditions in Malahide when his forte of swing and seam movement could well have caught the eye. His non selection for the 18 man squad was explained by Ireland coach Phil Simmons as “there are a lot of bowlers in the squad who are very similar to Graeme and the selectors felt we needed something different”.
Now I presume that the bowlers Simmons is referring too are John Mooney, Kevin O’Brien and in particular Alex Cusack. There had been rumours during the summer that Cusack would be selected for the tour but I discounted them as he had not stepped over the boundary rope since early May and he has a history of injuries in recent years.
However Simmons said that "Alex Cusack has been one of our best limited overs bowlers in the last six years. Although he's been out of competitive action since early May the plan was always to take him on tour as long as he had recovered from injury. He has been in a long period of rehabilitation and is fit to train now. He will be back training and bowling this week and part of his continued rehabilitation will be in Australia with the hope he is able to play towards the latter half of the tour in New Zealand. Alex has been injured before tournaments in the past but topped our bowling averages, so the selectors feel given his past record he deserves the chance to prove he can be fit for the World Cup, and this is the only tour before the final squad of 15 is selected in early December."
So Cusack was always going and McCarter as the most similar replacement is style and pace was not. Yet now McCarter is replacing Sorensen so the original reason for not picking him seemingly no longer applies. Now it may well be true that there is no direct alternative for Sorensen as Ireland is worryingly light on quick bowling options and other than those selected no one else has forced themselves into contention by dint of standout displays at Ireland A or Inter-pro level.
There is another consideration and it applies equally to Cusack and McCarter. Both depend on help from the surface or overhead conditions to be threatening against top class batsmen as neither could claim to be any more than medium pace.
Cusack has been a fine servant of Ireland for many years and early this year in the Caribbean he was virtually unplayable in the two T20 Internationals against the West Indies on slow low wickets that also had a bit of movement. However on the flat wickets in Sylhet in the subsequent World Cup he was smashed in every match.
Bowling in Australia and particularly in New Zealand in October is akin to bowling in England or Ireland in May. February and March down under is a totally different proposition when the wickets will be hard and flat and performances in the acclimatisation tour is no guarantee that they can be replicated three months later especially against much more talented batsmen.
Cusack does have the advantage of having grown up in Australia and if he can regain full fitness may still have a major role to play. The addition of McCarter to the party means that all three bowlers who spent last winter in Australia, which included coaching from Craig McDermott, will be returning again.
Six weeks ago Craig Young was the only one of the three who seemed likely to be on the plane. His bowling this summer has been a revelation and he came through all of his big tests with flying colours. He impressed the Sri Lankan A management and repeated the feat against Scotland last week when he was chosen as Man of the Series. If the team for the first World Cup match was being selected today it would be a shock if he didn’t share the new ball with Tim Murtagh.
The third member of last winter’s training squad was Peter Chase and following the Sri Lanka A series in Belfast, as I wrote on this website at the time, I felt that he was going backwards at a rate of knots. By the end of the second match he was bowling at little more than gentle medium pace and he was decelerating into the crease. He was conceding a boundary every four balls and his confidence seemed totally shot to pieces.
However a spate of injuries to their pace attack suddenly thrust Chase into the Durham first eleven and he has embraced his opportunity. He became only the fourth bowler to get five wickets on debut in the county’s history and in only a handful of matches is topping his county’s averages with 11 wickets at under 16 and a superb strike rate of 25. So what has brought about such a dramatic change in such a short time?
I suspect that the answer lies in the instruction he got before his debut. As he described it "they told me just to run in and bowl as fast as I could and the wickets kept on coming.” He was able to bowl without fear of leaking runs and his confidence soared. Even though he is still conceding more boundaries than you would like he is getting good batsmen out. Yes it is the red ball and in that first match Durham was defending almost 400 but he delivered under extreme pressure knowing that this might be the only chance that he would get.
This was in stark contrast to his two matches against Sri Lanka A and indeed his bowling in the Leinster Senior Cup Final. Then his fear of going for runs had him in the catch 22 situation of trying to put the ball on a length at reduced pace which led to him still getting hammered to the ropes. Now he can head back to Australia with the knowledge that he can fit in at this level and if he can reproduce his Durham form over the next few weeks will bring a much needed extra dimension to the Ireland pace attack. But he has to be encouraged to adopt the same philosophy that he got from the Durham coaching staff.
It is also worrying that Paul Stirling will miss the start of the tour because of a back problem. Quite frankly it would be much better if he missed the entire tour rather than risk long term damage to one of our key players. This season Middlesex have transformed him from a top of the order limited overs hitter into a measured middle order four day batsman. He came into the county championship side in the latter half of the season and has 351 runs at a tad under 44.
This augurs well for Ireland as despite his pyrotechnics he hasn’t always been the most patient of batters and his new role can only make him a more complete player. To get a measure on who is likely to make the cut I have selected what I believe to be the most likely starting eleven against the West Indies on the 16th of February assuming everyone is fit for selection.
That is thirteen players accounted for which leaves only two spots available in the fifteen. There will probably be one more batsman selected so that place is between Andy Balbirnie and the Poynter brothers unless the selectors consider Stuart Thompson as a top order batsman.
The evidence from the Scotland matches suggests that they do but he would need to kick on from enterprising twenties and thirties if he is going to make a serious challenge for that position.
I have watched Balbirnie score a couple of classy hundreds this year, one for Leinster and the other for Ireland A against a mediocre MCC attack. However every time he has moved up to the next level he has still looked the part but he has been unable to convert his starts into the scores that would make him indispensable.
Both Poynter brothers have produced performances with the bat this season that made everyone sit up and take notice. Stuart blazed a memorable century against a very good Sri Lanka A attack in Belfast while Andrew has been awash with runs at club and provincial level.
Unfortunately for him, as is the case with Balbirnie, he has been unable to get the weight of runs when the stakes are raised. The next few weeks will sort out which of them comes out on top.
The final spot is a battle between Andrew White, Andy McBrine, Stuart Thompson and Graeme McCarter. Much depends how the selectors feel about the balance of the squad and especially if they believe that another spinner is necessary as backup for Dockrell and Stirling.
I cannot imagine Ireland playing two front line spinners on the fast hard wickets in Australasia and in the event of injury to Dockrell they could have a replacement on standby playing grade cricket. This could rule out both McBrine and White making the final fifteen and leave McBrine on standby.
The evidence of the past week is that McCarter can only make the final cut if Cusack is not fit enough to guarantee his full participation. Thompson has two shots at this as he could also be viewed as an all-rounder who bowls a few overs of reasonably sharp medium pace. I just have a feeling that the selectors are determined to get him into the squad as they believe that he is a very talented player who has that x factor particularly with the bat.
There certainly have been flashes of it this season and I believe that unless he has a nightmare acclimatisation tour he will be back there next year. There is no question that the players on the fringe of the squad have everything to play for and it is up to them to convince the selectors that they can deliver under pressure.
With the exception of McCarter they have all had several chances this season to show what they can do. Some have been more successful than others but those others have one last chance. Whatever happens it is certain that Ireland will be heading to the World Cup with the most experienced and successful group of players in their history.
Between them the squad has over 40,000 first class runs and a further 33,000 at ODI/List A level.
Ed Joyce of course leads both lists with 15,372 and 8,392 respectively and has 39 of the 74 first class hundreds scored by the squad as well as contributing 13 of the 36 ODI/List A tons.
Niall O’Brien with 7,203 runs and 13 hundreds lies second on the first class list followed by William Porterfield on 5,156 and 7 centuries.
It may come as a surprise to some that with 3,113 runs Tim Murtagh is in fourth place. On the ODI/List A table Porterfield with 5457 runs (7 hundreds) is followed by N O’Brien 4070 (3), K O’Brien 3311 (3), Stirling 3247 (8) and Gary Wilson 2391 (1).
In the bowling department Murtagh has 542 of the 819 first class wickets with George Dockrell (119) the only other bowler in the squad with more than 27.
Murtagh also leads the ODI/List A table with 195 of the 586 wickets followed by K O’Brien who needs one more for 100. Dockrell 63 and Mooney 57 are the others who have captured at least 50 wickets.
There was a time not long ago that Halley’s Comet appeared more regularly than Irishmen in English county cricket first elevens. But not now as no less that 12 of the squad heading south next week (I am including Ed Joyce even though he is not actually going this time) appeared on the first team in at least one of the three formats with no less than 10 playing in county championship matches.
Four of those ten, Joyce, Wilson, Porterfield and Niall O’Brien captained their county. Apart from Joyce’s figures (see above), Niall O’Brien 971(2), Gary Wilson 844 (1) and William Porterfield 750 (1) were the main contributors to a record 4756 first class runs by Irish players in England.
Tim Murtagh 55, George Dockrell 21, and Peter Chase 11 got most of the 94 championship wickets.
Last Wednesday in the lovely setting of Trinity College there was an announcement that will have a profound impact on the future of Ireland cricket for many years to come.
Cricket Ireland announced the naming rights for the Cricket Ireland Academy and surprised everyone with the name of the sponsors who are the Indian conglomerate Shapoorji Pallonji Group.
Owned by the Mistry family, an Irish family based in India whose founder is Ireland’s richest person, they have agreed a ten year deal worth 2.5 M Euro.
There will be 500k up front plus 200k per year and will allow Cricket Ireland to bring in specialist coaches as required.
The intriguing thing about the deal is that despite the Group being India based this is their first venture into cricket sponsorship and Cricket Ireland deserve the plaudits for identifying the opportunity and more importantly closing the deal.
It is incumbent now on Cricket Ireland to ensure that the money is spent appropriately in identifying the cream of the young Irish talent in the island. Ireland has no shortage of batting prospects but is in desperate need of both fast and spin bowling resources so that the progress made in recent years is not stymied by failing to challenge the top teams in the world when they have a bat in their hands.
There are currently 22 young men and women in the academy and these and future entrants will be able to avail of top class coaching and facilities designed to ensure that no future Joyce or Johnston slips through the net.
It should not be about allocating places on a regional basis but simply on merit irrespective of the location.
Given the source of the sponsorship it may well be an incentive to the many young people playing the sport who have family ties with the sub-continent to increase their desire to don the green shirt.
A very welcome development that handled properly can be another step on the road to full Test status.