Spate of injuries exposes soft underbelly
Phil Simmons would be forgiven for retreating to a darkened room, locking all the doors and having a lie down for a couple of hours. At least then he could consider at which point did he manage to walk under a ladder, stumble across a black cat and inadvertently break a mirror. Such has been the extent of a swelling injury list and the magnitude of the resulting headache, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had managed to do all three in one swift movement.
As it is, Simmons now faces the prospect of going into a pivotal juncture in the World Cup preparations without several of his luminaries - namely Max Sorensen, Tim Murtagh and Paul Stirling as well as Ed Joyce, whose absence was a purposive decision by management. Andrew White’s broken finger rubbed salt into the wounds (quite literally) with his tour of Australia/New Zealand over before it ever really got going - his chances of making the plane have surely taken a considerable hit.
It’s far from an ideal situation. Four months is arguably a substantial window of opportunity to complete the necessary groundwork but much like studying for an exam or training for a marathon, there is no use in starting the legwork devoid of all the necessary components - try completing 26 miles with one runner, for example.
Between now and February, Ireland must perfect the nitty-gritty, meticulous fundamentals required to perform on cricket’s most-exalted stage, hone their white-ball skills and formulate a stratagem for the 50-over format. But, their task has been made that bit harder by the absence of, in particular, Murtagh and Sorensen.
To have the nuts and bolts of the side stricken in a treatment room across the other side of the world is not what was needed with a World Cup on the horizon but such is the hand dealt to Simmons and the management. Injuries are part and parcel of professional sport and success is determined by how sides adjust to setbacks and indeed the capacity of those filling the void to attune to the necessary level.
There is every possibility a similar predicament could arise, given Stirling’s injury-plighted year, when the serious business starts come February so to be over-reliant on a fixed XI would be a dangerous game to play. After all, Ireland’s Associate level supremacy has been underpinned by the strength in depth across all formats and the wealth of resources available to Simmons.
That, however, is why he may just be banging his head off the wall before resorting to a lie down. What has happened to the much-trumpeted and widely-acclaimed next generation? Where have the heir apparents disappeared to?
Quite frankly, there are no cabs coming off the rank and it’s alarming.
It’s true that perspective must be added to last week’s chastening defeats Down Under but you can’t turn a blind eye to the performances, or lack there of, from players supposedly grappling for the final few berths in the final squad for Australia/New Zealand.
It’s not just this week, either. Had Scotland not arrived in Dublin in a state of stupor then the outcome of that series may have been wholly different. As it was, the shortcomings were exposed in the third game but were largely masked by John Mooney’s outstanding innings. There has been no hiding place in the Australian furnace this week.
It is often counter-intuitive to forensically dissect results of warm-up fixtures, just ask Man United fans. They went through pre-season undefeated, leaving the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool among others in their trail, but such results were only masking their underlying deficiencies.
Phil Simmons may not have the luxury of the Old Trafford management’s chequebook to paper over the cracks but he can be safe in the knowledge that reinforcements are coming. What a relief that must be.
This tour of the Antipodes had been doubtlessly earmarked as the start of an intense period that would go along way to fine-tuning the means for the opening game at the Saxton Oval in February. Two games in, however, and the past couple of performances - both in Malahide and Australia - have thrown up more questions than the answers that, in an ideal world, would have been emphatically answered over the course of the past nine months or so.
We’ve been here before, though. Not long before toppling West Indies in their own backyard at the start of the year, that Caribbean tour began with consecutive reversals in similarly abject fashion. Lessons have clearly not been learnt. In essence, preparations for a third appearance at the sport’s showpiece event began with the decision to accept the WICB’s invitation to partake in their domestic Super50 competition. That was nine months ago and it’s difficult to gauge if any progress has been made since.
It’s important to acknowledge that, all being well, the names on the teamsheet to face West Indies in Nelson are all but pencilled in. Continuity and stability has been the cornerstone of Simmons’ tenure but the problems arise if he is forced to turn to one of his four deputies. For now, none of whom seem to be too interested in putting their case forward for inclusion.
It may seem harsh to pick holes in relatively inexperienced players’ armour but the benchmark has been set and if we are to harbour realistic hopes of ascension and then possessing the wherewithal to hold our own on the biggest stage on a consistent basis then we need to start producing a certain calibre of player - think Joyce, Morgan, Rankin.
Chastening, and ultimately embarrassing reversals, to the Queensland Bulls only accentuates the alarming shortage of players in that category currently in the set-up. A day trip to ‘DreamWorld’ at the start of the tour for the squad seemed quite apt given the majority seem to be in a daze, on the pitch anyway.
The top-order, much like in Malahide, looks utterly hapless, dumbfounded and clueless against the new ball (or two as now is the case) and many look out of their depth against purposeful, yet domestic, opposition. For all the brouhaha surrounding the potential of some of these players, they have yet to deliver when it matters most.
Andrew Balbirnie is averaging just twelve in ODIs. His top-score is 38 and he’s managed just 89 runs in seven innings. Statistics can often be deceiving and indeed, they are just numbers but it’s clear to the naked eye that he, and others, have been unable to step up to the mark.
Stuart Poynter rarely inspires confidence either. A cursory glance at his recent scores, for both Ireland and Durham 2nd XI, provides little evidence that he may, in time, become an integral part of the middle order. Serious question marks hang over Andrew Poynter as well. It’s all well and good scoring heavy runs in domestic competitions but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to cut it at a higher level, it’s a different ball game and a bit of perspective needs to be added when aficionados are calling for international honours on the back of a lean run of form back home. Facing international quality bowlers in front of the watching world is slightly different to pummeling Terenure’s bowlers around on a Saturday afternoon.
The problems don't just lie in the batting department. Once again, there was no control, potency or resistance with the ball apart from Craig Young. It's worth noting that he spent the winter in Australia and has clearly acclimatised to conditions far quicker than his teammates. Ireland’s bowling resources are threadbare, no matter what is said about ‘the next generation’.
Young has experienced a rapid rise up the ranks and has been a standout performer but both Graeme McCarter and Peter Chase are perfectly entitled to question their standing within the set-up. The former wasn't included in the touring panel originally and was a late call-up due to Sorensen's withdrawal. Chase hasn't been involved before and was shoehorned in on the back of a dream debut for Durham. What of George Dockrell?
Uncertainty remains over his future at Somerset and on the back of a season in which he was forced to carry the drinks at Taunton for the majority, his confidence has taken a hit. A niggling shoulder injury hasn't helped either but he looks a shadow of the bowler that the English media were lining up as Graeme Swann's potential successor only six months ago.
It mustn't be forgotten, however, that Ireland are still attuning to conditions. They haven’t become completely inept overnight and the arrival of Porterfield, Wilson and Niall O’Brien will bolster the depleted ranks but more importantly will add some steel to a fragile order. Simmons would have hoped that their absence would have solved his selection headache, giving those on the fringes the platform to impress, but the only conclusion that can be drawn from the past month is that there is no strength in depth. At present, there are no deputies capable of stepping in and filling the void of Stirling or O'Brien or Wilson.
The only way to enhance the required skills with the white ball is to execute them in match situations and Simmons will hope his side can build up some sort of one-day steam over the next few weeks. As for the selection issues, he’ll be hoping he doesn’t need to call on the reserves when the serious business starts because at the moment, they aren’t up to the task.