There is a saying in the theatre that a bad dress rehearsal foretells a good opening night. If there is any validity in this, then the West Indies are in for one hell of a hammering in Nelson on the 16th of February.
I decided not to comment on the acclimatisation tour until it was over as making judgements after the first couple of games would be akin to reviewing an album after listening to a couple of tracks.
It was, after all, an exercise to establish which players could step up having been given sufficient time and opportunity to adapt to largely alien conditions. All this of course was taking place in a scenario were many of the key players of the past few years were either absent from the tour or were forced to return home early.
Without Paul Stirling, Ed Joyce, Tim Murtagh and Max Sorensen it was always going to be difficult for Ireland to compete against good professional teams comfortable in their own environment.
The subsequent loss of William Porterfield, Gary Wilson and Andrew White, who had just three innings between them, turned a difficult situation into a near impossible task. And if that wasn’t enough, Phil Simmons had to fly back to Trinidad to be with his seriously ill mother.
By default Ireland ended up with the bulk of the side that had played in five of the six matches during the summer, the exception being the comprehensive defeat to Sri Lanka in May. Of the remaining thirteen fit players who took to the field against Otago this morning only Niall O’Brien and George Dockrell were additions to the squads that lost heavily to Sri Lanka A in Belfast and beat Scotland 2-1 in a toss dominated series in Malahide last month while Kevin O’Brien had missed out the Sri Lanka A matches because of his commitments to the Caribbean Premier League.
This tour was always going to be about which of the non- established players were going to force their way into the final fifteen for the World Cup squad.
Porterfield, Stirling, Joyce, Wilson, the O’Brien brothers, Mooney, Dockrell, Murtagh and Sorensen were, if fit, nailed on certainties. That left ten players vying for the remaining five places. All of those ten, with the exception of White who fractured a finger taking a return catch off his only ball of the tour, played today.
Andrew Balbirnie, Andrew Poynter, Andy McBrine and Peter Chase were involved in all seven games while Craig Young, Stuart Poynter, Stuart Thompson, Graeme McCarter and Alex Cusack only missed one match.
Some were surprised that as the squad fell from eighteen to sixteen, then fifteen and finally fourteen (although it was effectively thirteen as Wilson stayed but was injured), no replacements were called up.
It was clear that Phil Simmons had made up his mind that these were the only players that he was considering and whatever about the results of the matches no one else was in the frame. It did mean that none of the nine contenders could complain about not getting a fair chance.
It is, I believe, a fair assessment that after the international summer season Young, Balbirnie, Thompson, Stuart Poynter and McBrine were the frontrunners. Chase got into the acclimatisation squad as a result of his bowling for Durham despite failing to impress for Ireland while Cusack, who hadn’t played since May, got his place on the back of previous exploits.
White did well against Sri Lanka A with bat and ball but was only a marginal figure in the Scotland games. Andrew Poynter despite a stellar season at club and inter-pro level failed to reproduce that form in the green shirt while McCarter only got his chance because Sorensen dropped out.
The last four weeks has, if the tour has any meaning, confirmed Balbirnie and Young in the World Cup squad. Despite often opening the innings Balbirnie has shown that he has the temperament to compete at a higher level and only two batsmen from all of the four Associate team’s acclimatisation tours scored more than his 233 runs.
One was Kyle Coetzer with 333 runs, which included a century and three fifties, passed fifty more often than Balbirnie’s three while in second place with 239 runs was the 17 year old Afghanistan prodigy Usman Ghani who Ireland needs to be wary of when they meet in the Intercontinental Cup.
Young had looked the part during the summer and indeed was pushing hard to be Murtagh’s opening partner. Of all of the Associate bowlers on tour only Mohammad Naveed of UAE, with 12 took more than Young’s 11 wickets. While his figures took a bit of a bashing in the last two games, 2-130 off 12 overs, he had the best strike rate (19.6) of all Associate bowlers.
Things, however, did not go as well for the other three frontrunners from the summer. Phil Simmons has got it into his head that Stuart Thompson is a top order batter and can bat at 3 when Joyce is not around. While he played a few enterprising knocks during the summer without ever kicking on to a decisive score this tour has proved that he is a long way from being an international top order batsman.
In six innings he managed just 24 runs and never once reached double figures. At one stage he looked a viable option as an all-rounder but he is bowling less and less as his career goes on. He only sent down eight overs in the entire tour which were wicket-less and he had the worst economy rate of any Ireland bowler (7.5). It is difficult to make any argument for his inclusion in the World Cup squad and to include him would render meaningless the point of this tour.
Stuart Poynter put himself firmly in the picture with a blistering hundred against Sri Lanka A but he hasn’t kicked on since and only scored 83 runs on tour. His highest score was the 32 not out today and while it could be argued that he had finally become acclimatised it was probably too little too late.
McBrine is another who made a late run with 2-76 from seventeen overs in the final two games which compared favourably to his figures of 1-187 from 27 overs in his first five matches. He also got a quick fire 43 not out today to remind everyone that he is a decent batsman. His problem is that given the nature of the wickets in Australasia another spinner in addition to Dockrell and Stirling may be superfluous to requirements.
And even if it is decided that one should be brought it brings Andrew White back into the frame who would add valuable experience to the squad. However these last two matches has at least given McBrine an opportunity which seemed unlikely three days ago.
Chase built on his success with Durham by being the second highest wicket taker on the tour with nine victims. However, as with Young, he suffered in the final two matches with his twelve overs going for 118 runs without a wicket. He definitely has potential and can get batsmen out and I suspect that his extra pace will squeeze him into the squad as backup to Murtagh, Sorensen and Young. It is interesting that he was given more overs (52) than any other bowler.
Andrew Poynter with 161 runs had the third best aggregate behind Balbirnie and Niall O’Brien with 59% of his runs accumulated in the final two games on tour. However the chances of him making the final squad are very much dependent on Ireland deciding to take 2 additional batsmen to back up the regular top six as he has now fallen behind Balbirnie who is also the better fielder.
Alex Cusack has given Ireland sterling service but his fitness has deteriorated in the last year. He deserved his chance to prove that he could still compete at this level and while he had the second best economy rate (5.55) from his eighteen overs on tour he only took one wicket and could not be said to have made himself indispensable. His Australian upbringing may still give him an edge but he is in direct competition to Graeme McCarter who was the second most used bowler and he got seven wickets with an economy rate only marginally inferior to Cusack.
Neither did he suffer in comparison to Cusack with the bat. McCarter’s spell in Australia last winter has improved his confidence and his fitness levels may well be the determining factor in the final decision.
Of the ten who I believe were certainties prior to this tour it is fair to surmise that Niall O’Brien can take the greatest satisfaction from his performances. There have been well documented issues between himself and Phil Simmons and despite his record for Ireland; Niall always seems to be having to justify his place.
On this tour he has followed an excellent season with Leicestershire by topping the averages for Ireland (42.4) and in the absence of Stirling regularly faced the new ball. His brother Kevin had a somewhat disappointing tour with only 116 runs and 4 wickets (albeit with the best economy rate of 5.06). However he did have to lead the team in Porterfield’s absence which may have had an impact on his form but a lot more will be expected of him in February.
George Dockrell showed some improved form with the ball after a poor year. He got 7 wickets and also showed that his batting has come on markedly. He is still vulnerable to attacking batsmen, particularly left-handers, and his inability to produce much turn could again be costly on firm wickets. However the reality is that he is the best spinner at Ireland’s disposal.
It was a real bonus to see John Mooney make it through the tour without any apparent difficulty and he performed well with both bat and ball. His presence is vital to the team as he brings balance, experience and most crucially a determined fighting spirit. Therefor I believe that in addition to the ten certainties I named at the outset in this column, the other five should be Balbirnie, Young, Chase, McCarter and White (although I wouldn’t be surprised to see McBrine instead).
Whatever the final makeup of the squad, there is no point in glossing over the problems that still exist. While I would be less concerned about the batting should everyone be available, there is a genuine worry for the bowling attack.
Only Murtagh and Sorensen were missing but neither would frighten any side with their pace. They are steady bowlers whose experience should at least improve the attack. The reality is that against batsmen who generally were not international class none of the bowlers had an economy rate below 5 and Young, Chase and Thompson were well over 6.
Of the top ten individual scores made against the four Associate teams six were made against Ireland while four of the top seven team totals also were compiled against the men in green.
Today against Jesse Ryder, who is not even currently in the New Zealand team, there was an unwelcome reminder of the slaughtering Ireland suffered at the hands of the Dutch last March. To put it in perspective Ryder today scored 120 runs in boundaries from an innings of 57 balls while Niall O’Brien was the only Ireland batsman who got more runs in boundaries (122) in the entire tour and he faced 227 balls.
Ireland chased down a record score against England in Bangalore but it is not feasible to expect a repeat of that if they have to continually face targets of 300+. Unfortunately that is a prospect that they now face and the loss of Trent Johnston and Boyd Rankin has never been more acutely felt.
Young, Chase et al may eventually turn out to be of a similar calibre to the two absentees but pessimistic as it seems it is unreasonable to believe that they can do it as soon as in three months’ time.
Ireland should still have the batting firepower to see off Zimbabwe and UAE next spring but any prospect of coming out of the group stage will almost certainly be determined by that first match against the West Indies.
I have no doubt that the West Indies will find a way to resolve their current contractual difficulties before the World Cup and that they will have a full strength team, albeit with a likely new captain.
The future of West Indies cricket depends on it and despite the annoyance that they have caused to India it is in nobody’s interest to consign Caribbean cricket to the history books. But make no mistake they will be under pressure to deliver and if Ireland can find a bowling plan that at least contains their big hitters then our batting could give us a chance especially if Narine is still side-lined with a suspect action.
Hopefully all of the misfortunes that have afflicted the Ireland squad for the past month has used up the bad luck quota for the foreseeable future and that that voodoo doll has been located and destroyed. Ireland teams in all sports are renowned for pulling off unlikely results against the odds and this Ireland squad has contributed more than their fair share.
To finish on another theatrical quote, hopefully “it will be all right on the night”.