Selectors gambling on Thompson
When the Ireland squad was announced eight years ago for the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies it was inconceivable that eight years later the 2015 squad could afford to exclude players who are plying their trade with English counties.
There is no doubt that if they had have been around in 2007, Graeme McCarter and Stuart Poynter would have been certain starters in a team largely comprised of part time club cricketers. It is a measure of how far that Ireland has progressed when their exclusion from the current squad barely creates a ripple in cricket circles. Yet in a couple of monthsí time were you to offer supporters a similar outcome to the stunning achievements of Adi Birrellís side you would be mown down in the rush with Phil Simmons in the vanguard.
Much of the debate around the selection of the squad has focused on the omission of Max Sorensen. I spoke to Max a couple of days before the announcement and while he certainly didnít assume that he would be picked, neither did he seem to be contemplating watching the World Cup on television somewhere in Skerries. He said that his wrist, which was injured in the final ODI against Scotland, was fully recovered but the layoff had weakened his shoulder muscles somewhat and that more sessions in the gym and bowling in the indoor nets would soon rectify that. He was happy that his week in Dubai had aided his rehabilitation and that more overs under his belt would get him back to full fitness.
However it would appear that Phil Simmons has decided that Max has failed to convince him that he deserves a place in the final fifteen and that better options exist. I realise that there also selectors involved in picking the squad but I would astonished if Phil didnít get someone in the squad that he wanted. There was an assumption that missing the acclimatisation tour from hell would benefit Sorensen but that clearly is now erroneous. There is also a perception that Simmons is very big on loyalty and that unless, in his eyes, you blot your copybook as in the case of Niall OíBrien, only standout performances from other contenders will threaten your place in a squad.
Given the location of the World Cup, four frontline pace/seam bowlers are essential and with Tim Murtagh and the vastly improved Craig Young cast iron certainties two places were up for grabs. Peter Chase who earlier in the summer looked so far off the pace, literally and metaphorically, came with a late run and forced his way into the squad by dint of wickets for Durham and then in Australia and New Zealand. A fine spell against New Zealand A in Dubai sealed his place and his experience of last winter in Australia also did him no harm. Given that there was no obvious other standout pace bowler Sorensen could be forgiven in thinking that he would be on the plane.
However Phil has decided to persist with Stuart Thompson who is a fine young prospect but from initially being viewed as a bowling all-rounder he now appears to be regarded as more of a batsmen who bowls a few overs. In his sixteen appearances for Ireland in 2014 in the fifty over format he delivered the grand total of 40 overs and didnít turn his arm over in many of those matches. While he got runs in the first half of the year including a good 50 against Sri Lanka A, his last eight innings of the year yielded a miserly 24 runs. Now Phil will argue that he is prepared to give young players a chance and he certainly did that with Paul Stirling and George Dockrell who were both just 17 when he blooded them and no one could dispute the success of those choices. However he also persisted with James Shannon and he could hardly be regarded as a roaring success.
At times statistics alone can be misleading but I was at every 50 over match that Ireland played at home in 2014 and also watched the four streamed games in the West Indies at the start of the year. In addition I attended several inter-pro matches and I can honestly say that Thompson did not look a better bowler than Sorensen. Indeed in the final three games against Scotland, Sorensen comfortably out bowled Thompson who was entrusted with just seven overs in the series.
In many ways Graeme McCarter can also feel hard done by. The third of the triumvirate who wintered in Australia a year ago, he was the third highest wicket taker in Australia/New Zealand and also bowled well in the superb win over New Zealand A. He is no mug with the bat and indeed got more runs in one innings down under than Thompson got in the entire tour. However he appears to have become a victim to the return to the fold of Alex Cusack who missed virtually all of the Irish home season through injury. Given his upbringing in Australia it was always on the cards that Cusack would make the squad if he could demonstrate his fitness. Whether or not he is anything like the same player who was one of the stars in 2011 is another question entirely.
Selectors and coaches stand or fall by their choices and there is no question that going into a seminal year for Irish cricket everything will hinge on those choices. It is quite remarkable that of the side that beat England in Bangalore all but Trent Johnston and Boyd Rankin could be lining out against the West Indies on 16th February. At least Ireland will not be overawed by the occasion. I believe that the batting options are stronger than ever particularly in light of the stellar season many of them had during the English county summer. All will depend on whether or not the bowling attack is capable of containing the stronger sides that await especially West Indies and Pakistan, one of whom must be defeated if Ireland is to progress to the knock-out stages. And no I am not taking Zimbabwe and UAE for granted. But more of that next month when I write my previews.
The success story in Irish cricket in 2014 is the breakthrough of Andrew Balbirnie. While he was always considered a stylish player he has made the transition from entertaining cameos to genuine international class innings. In a column earlier in the year I compared him to Ed Joyce. While he is still a long way shy of Joyceís achievements there are aspects of his batting that are very reminiscent of Irelandís classiest batsman.
He strokes rather than bludgeons the ball and he usually seems to have that crucial extra fraction of time that differentiates the best from the rest. He kick started his memorable year with a magnificent hundred at Milverton in May for Leinster Lightning against North West Warriors whose attack included three of his World Cup squad colleagues in Craig Young, Stuart Thompson and Andy McBrine. In the return fixture in August he put the same bowlers to the sword with a 98 ball 88 which was a key factor in adjudging him the 50 over Inter-pro player of the season.
A month earlier in July in Malahide for Ireland A against MCC he made an unbeaten 140 off just 110 deliveries and while the bowling was far from top notch his class still lit up the occasion. However it was on the acclimatisation tour that he really came to the fore. With so many of the frontline batsmen either absent or injured he was one of several players trying to stake their claim to the one batting position available. At the start of the tour he was probably third behind the Poynter brothers but by the end he had moved into pole position as he topped the runs aggregate with 233 and scored three of the six half centuries made on tour.
It was in Dubai last month that he spectacularly removed any lingering doubts about his place in the World Cup squad by producing the innings of the year. Against a New Zealand A side, every one of whom were full ODI players and an attack that had over 300 ODI wickets, Balbirnie blitzed a 71 ball hundred and went on to score 129 off just 96 deliveries to take Ireland to the cusp of victory that was to be their first over a New Zealand national side.
It wasnít just the runs that Balbirnie got that were so impressive; it was also his remarkable strike rate. He demolished any suggestion that he was one paced as under real pressure against high class pace and spin he could change gears with ease and bring another dimension to the Ireland batting line up. He now has set down a marker to the long established top six that should they slip up he is not only ready but very able to step into their shoes. Indeed the possibility exists that given Ireland has quite a few all-rounders in addition to the specialist bowlers that he could slot into the top seven in the batting order and help ensure than Ireland can post defendable targets or alternatively chase down totals that they might struggle with in normal circumstances.
I caught up with Andrew a couple of weeks ago at the launch of the Ireland v England match next May and talked to him about his recent performances.
Odran Flynn. Andrew you must be very pleased with your performances this year and particularly in the last couple of months.
Andrew Balbirnie. Yes it has gone well. I started off well in Australia and New Zealand. It was a big thing for me taking it into Dubai. I had an on and off season over here and the UK and it was good to put things right in Australia and New Zealand and then last week in Dubai and so Iím happy enough.
OF. How did you find the wickets in Australia and New Zealand compared to those you are used to in the UK and Ireland?
AB. Definitely the big thing we took out of it was bounce. There is a lot more bounce out there. We were aware of it going out but we had never really experienced it before. That would be the big thing, the bounce and the extra pace but once you had played a few games out there we got used to it but definitely the big thing is the bounce.
OF. It seemed to be from the scores that players started to get adjust to it towards the end. However then going back to Dubai and to conditions that you are more used to do you think that it could be a disadvantage given that the World Cup will be back in Australia and New Zealand and that you are also going back to Dubai in January?
AB. Yeah It was my first time in Dubai and I wasnít sure what to expect but it definitely seemed more like good English wickets rather than good Australian wickets but I think that in saying that there was decent pace and bounce and there was definitely something there for the bowlers. It will, if selected, be good to get back to Dubai in January and get in the nets as they have Australian type wickets in the nets and we can get some good practice before the World Cup.
OF. Your century, indeed your very rapid century against New Zealand A with a bowling attack that all had ODI caps, that must have been one of the best innings of your career?
AB. It was. It was one of those days when everything just seemed to come right. From my second or third ball I hit a boundary and everything just seemed to go on from there.
OF. You hit six successive balls for four at one point.
AB. Yes I did. It has been frustrating at times as I know that I can play like that most innings but getting it together and getting my eye in and just playing as I saw it and luckily it happened that day and yes it was very memorable and one that I will remember for the rest of my career.
OF. You must have a very real chance of making the final fifteen now?
AB. Itís difficult. We have so many good players now. That group of eighteen/twenty who went to Australia and Dubai is a seriously competitive group and until you see the e mail or get the call you still canít believe that you will go but I have done as much as I can. I have got runs under my belt so itís just down to the selectors now and I have done as much as I can possibly do to get my name in the hat.
OF. Well I think from my perspective that given your performances during the year and particularly in the last couple of months that I would be stunned if you didnít make it. I am certain that you will and I wish you all the best when you get there.
AB. Thanks very much.
Andrew did of course make the squad and he will be a very welcome addition to the ranks of Irelandís World Cup heroes.