Back on 10th of January last when Ireland played their first came of the year against Afghanistan in an ODI in Dubai they had a number of objectives for the year.
First would have been a good World Cup targeting a quarter final which seemed genuinely achievable if they could win three matches. Qualifying for the World T20 in India and winning the qualifying tournament in Ireland would have been the second. The third and arguably the most important was ending the year at the top of the Intercontinental Cup table with maximum points and in pole position to qualify for the Test Challenge in 2018.
While not everything on the wish list was achieved there was sufficient progress made that it could definitely be seen to have been a successful year. Three matches were won in Australasia but unfortunately an inferior net run rate saw Ireland lose out to West Indies despite having beaten them comfortably in the group stage. Ireland did qualify for the next stage of the World T20 Cup in India next March but it was not exactly the resounding triumph that had characterised their march to the title in the previous tournament in Abu Dhabi in 2013. This time they lost three of their seven matches and exited in the semi-final against Netherlands with underwhelming batting performances the main culprit in the worst series of matches by Ireland against fellow Associates.
Apart from the World Cup in the early spring the main ODI focus was on the home matches against England and Australia and the three match series in Zimbabwe earlier this month. Rain ruined the England game and had a significant impact on the game in Stormont. Rain certainly was not a factor in Zimbabwe as Ireland fell to a 2-1 defeat and also lost their 10th place ranking to their opponents.
The common denominator in all of those matches was the fragility of the batting with only Gary Wilson and Paul Stirling aggregating more than 100 runs in the three Harare matches while Tim Murtagh was the one bowler who consistently threatened to take wickets.
However there was no question as to the batting strengths when it came to the Intercontinental Cup matches which resulted in two comprehensive innings victories propelled by Ed Joyce who scored a double century in each of the matches and in the process becoming the first Ireland batsman to achieve this feat. Ed shared a second wicket stand of 231 with Stirling (146) in Malahide against UAE and in the past few days added the second best ever stand for Ireland of 326 with skipper William Porterfield (186).
So Ireland end the year 14 points clear at the head of the table and if they can repeat the 100% successes against PNG and Hong Kong next year they will be in prime position in 2017 when the final three games are played.
Ireland played 30 capped matches during the year which is the highest since the 33 matches in 2012 although it was someway short of the 43 in 2010. Of those 30 games 15 were ODIís and included 10 against Full Members. There were 12 T20 games, all against Associates/ Affiliates and the other three matches were the two I Cup games and a four day match against Zimbabwe A.
Ireland won 6 ODIís, half of those against FMís, lost 7 and there were 2 no-results. In the T20ís Ireland had 4 wins, 5 defeats and there were 3 no-results. Both I Cup matches were won while the other 4 day match against Zimbabwe A was drawn. Therefor the overall record was 12 wins, 12 defeats, 5 no-results and 1 draw.
The other major event during the season was the decision by Phil Simmons to leave the Ireland set-up after eight very successful years and attempt to resurrect the fortunes of his native West Indies side. It was a significant gamble to return to his homeland to coach a cricketing nation that has been riven by disputes for years and has seen its standing in the game plummet. Unfortunately he has already run into trouble for speaking his mind and is currently suspended from his position. All in Irish cricket will hope that he is back at the helm soon as his contribution to the game on this island is immense.
It was never going to be easy to step into Philís large shoes and John Bracewell has had a mixed start not helped by a very ordinary World T20 qualifying campaign. However he is starting to find his feet and he will eventually be judged on whether or not Ireland make it to the Test Challenge in 2018 and this weekís result in Namibia certainly gives him breathing space.
2015 also saw team manager Roy Torrens relinquish the position he had held for the new era of Irish cricket. Only those close to the Ireland setup realise the calming influence he brought to proceedings and made the coachesí job immeasurably easier, particularly on the long overseas trips. Chris Siddell has big shoes to fill and has started well and long may that continue.
In the 30 games just 22 players were selected and one of those, Peter Chase, got his only cap of the year in the ODI against Scotland in Dubai in January when the match was abandoned because of rain after the toss but before a ball was bowled and injury prevented him for challenging for a place during the remainder of the year.
No one played in all the games with Kevin OíBrien making it to 29 having missed the Australia match in Belfast with injury. During the year Kevin became Irelandís most capped player when he passed Andrew Whiteís total of 231 and he has now accumulated 254 caps which is 40 ahead of the next active player William Porterfield. OíBrien also became the seventh Ireland bowler to take 200 wickets when his brother Niall caught Chibhabha off his bowling in the second Zimbabwe ODI in Harare.
Andrew Balbirnie played 28 matches and only missed out on one of the T20 matches in Bready against Scotland and then in the final match this week when Stuart Poynter was preferred.
There were two new caps during the season with David Rankin, brother of Boyd, playing his only match in that T20 series in Bready and although he top scored with 33 he didnít play again with John Bracewell hinting that his strike rate of 89 was not quick enough at this level. In that same match Tyrone Kane made his debut and went on to play in the World Cup qualifier.
Alex Cusack retired after the defeat by Netherlands in the World T20 qualifier which was his 175th match for his adopted country. He finished with 2,347 runs at 22.57 and scored 1 century and 9 fifties. He also took 181 wickets with his medium pacers, which places him at 10th place on the all-time pantheon of Ireland bowlers and he got his victims at an average of 21.86 and an economy rate of 4.77. His most memorable contributions were his 47 against England in 2011 in Bangalore in that iconic partnership with Kevin OíBrien and again at the World Cup earlier this year when his two wickets in the final over snatched a 5 run victory in Hobart against Zimbabwe.
The batting star of the year was undoubtedly Ed Joyce who by some distance had his highest ever aggregate in a calendar year for Ireland. Mind you two double centuries, including the highest ever Ireland innings, will help you well on the way. The classiest batsman in our history shows no sign of falling off his own incredibility high standards and now is the only man of the 629 players who have represented Ireland to have a batting average over 40. Ed has stated categorically that he wants to play Test cricket for Ireland provided his body holds up and if that means him not playing white ball cricket again that is a small price to pay.
He has not yet given up on 50 over cricket and his batting in Australasia would make one hope that he can continue but as I said it would be worth giving it up if he could remain in the four day game but T20 is now off his agenda. There are those who would try and persuade him to come back for the World T20 final qualifier in March but leave him be. Ireland cannot afford to take any risks with the fitness of our greatest red ball asset.
William Porterfield had the second highest aggregate helped considerably by his career best 186 in the final match. The other highlight was the century he scored against Pakistan in the final World Cup match. His aggregate of 6,754 is 1,024 ahead of second placed Kevin OíBrien in the all-time list of Ireland run scorers. He is not the most consistent batsman but is still the leader on the park and has regularly delivered when he and his team have their backs to the wall.
Paul Stirling was third with 698 runs and made his ninth century for Ireland with his 146 against UAE back in June. He is now 25 and you still hope for greater consistency given his enviable natural talent but too often a lack of concentration leads to poor shot selection and he is back in the pavilion far too early. This year he was out for 20 or less in 13 of his 24 innings and the frustrating thing is that he can really deliver when he is totally focussed. His bowling continues to be a useful asset to the team and although he was unable to reproduce his wicket taking feats of 2012 and 2013 he still managed a dozen victims. Crucially he can still tie up an end and his economy rate of 3.39 was only bettered by Tim Murtagh.
Andrew Balbirnie made his breakthrough at the end of 2014 and consolidated his place with back to back scores of 58 and 97 against South Africa and Zimbabwe respectively during the World Cup. However he hasnít reached 50 in his 17 innings since and this sequence culminated in his being dropped for the final game of the year against Namibia. He is far too good of a batsman to be out in the cold for long but his situation with Middlesex where he cannot break into the first eleven is not helping his cause. He may well need to move to another county to get regular senior cricket if his early promise is not to be left unfulfilled.
There are still those who donít always appreciate the impact that Niall OíBrien has had on Ireland cricket. Apart from his top class wicket-keeping skills, which thankfully have now been restored to their rightful place, he is the third highest run scorer in history and his average of 34.34 is the fifth best for Ireland and of current players only Ed Joyce is above him. Three of his four fifties this year were against FMís with his unbeaten 79 off just 60 deliveries against the West Indies in Nelson the standout innings at a time when Ireland were starting to wobble. Of those with more than 60 runs this year he was, apart from Joyce and Porterfield, the only man to average above 30.
His brother Kevin retained his second place on the all-time runs aggregate list and his only two fifties in the year were significant in the contest of the match position. The crucial one was the 50 off 25 balls in a 72 run partnership with Gary Wilson against UAE in Brisbane when Ireland where on the ropes. The other innings was an unbeaten 56 against Zimbabwe A last week when he batted for three and a quarter hours to save the match alongside his venerable team mate John Mooney who finished 65 not out.
Like others in this squad he suffers from inconsistency as since that century against England he has only passed 50 eight times in 108 innings and has never reached three figures. In his 25 innings this year he has failed to reach double figures on 10 occasions and were he to be judged on his batting alone questions would be asked as to his value to the team. However he is also a key bowler and only five men have more than his 206 wickets.
This year his 30 wickets were bettered only by Mooney and Dockrell and his economy rate and average suffered because he was used as a front line bowler during the World Cup on flat wickets against the best batsmen in the world.
Gary Wilson was the only other batsman to pass 500 runs and he became the eighth man to pass 4,000 runs a couple of weeks back although his average of 26.11 is the lowest of that elite group. His crucial innings was the aforementioned 80 against UAE without which Ireland would have undoubtedly lost. Ironically his other two fifties this year were both against Zimbabwe in the just completed tour but they were in the two defeats. Now that it appears that Niall OíBrien has resumed the wicket-keeping duties it frees Gary to concentrate on his batting and John Bracewell knows that he has a top class keeper available to him if needed.
A late flurry of runs in the final two matches of the year more than doubled John Mooneyís aggregate for the season and pushed him into the top twenty on the all-time list. He only reached 20 five times in 2015, three of those coming in the final two games of the year. His batting wasnít helped by the bizarre way he was used in the World T20 qualifier often being sent in too late to change the outcome.
However it was his bowling that stood out this year and his 38 wickets were only equalled by George Dockrell but not bettered. On many occasions and particularly during the World Cup in Australia he opened the bowling and while he at times took some stick he kept plugging away and was never embarrassed. He was the standout Irish bowler in the T20 qualifier when his 14 wickets were instrumental in ensuring Ireland got to India despite many shortcomings in the teams overall performance.
Stuart Poynter came back into the squad for the T20 series against Scotland and then for the T20 qualifier but never looked like repeating the spectacular innings he had made against Sri Lanka A in Stormont in the summer of 2014 when his 109 consumed just 89 deliveries. Since that day he had only managed 43 runs in seven innings and could count himself fortunate into being selected for the African trip in the past month. He was initially only there for the Zimbabwe leg but an injury to Max Sorensen meant he stayed on.
He didnít play in the ODIís but the decision to rest Porterfield for the Zimbabwe A match gave him an unexpected opportunity and he grasped it with both hands. His 125 off 166 balls rekindled memories of the Stormont innings and it led to him replacing Balbirnie in the vital match against Namibia. Hopefully he will now go on and fulfil his promise that he has shown on three occasions.
George Dockrell continues to be the workhorse of the side as his 266.4 overs were 80 more than the next bowler and his 38 wickets put him alongside Mooney at the top of the table for 2015. Although he is only 23 he is the twelfth most capped player in history and in the Namibia match became the eighth bowler to reach 200 wickets.
His career has stalled to an extent and the loss of his county contract is a severe setback and cannot have helped his confidence. Indeed this contributed to his being left out for the Australia match in Stormont when Bracewell preferred Andy McBrine. However he has bounced back to some extent in the African sun and hopefully that can kick start the next phase of his career. While his overall average for Ireland in 2015 was more than 6 runs higher than his career average and his strike rate was 11 balls a wicket higher, his economy rate of 4.00 for the year was actually lower than his overall record.
Craig Young got 26 wickets in the year but nobody has yet given a satisfactory explanation as to why he didnít bowl a single delivery in the World Cup especially as in the three ODIís in Dubai in January he had taken seven wickets for 90 runs off 25 overs. There can be little doubt that that had a negative impact on his confidence and being left out of the side for the England game in Malahide can only have exacerbated that feeling. It is to his great credit that he bounced back with match figures of 7 wickets for 110 in the I Cup game against UAE.
Although he only got 3 wickets in five T20 qualifiers he bowled with pace and aggression and only conceded 5.17 runs per over which is gold dust in the shortest form of the game. He finished the year with 8 wickets in Africa in three games and his strike rate of 37.46 for the year will improve when he feels that he is a regular in the team.
Unfortunately injury severely limited Tim Murtaghís year but the six games that he did play showed how crucial he is to Irelandís cause. Having missed both the World Cup and the England match his only game before the end of August was the I Cup game against UAE. While he only got one wicket his match figures of 27 overs for just 54 runs tied up one end thus exerting pressure at the other end. As with Joyce he eschewed the T20 qualifiers to ensure that he is fully fit for the longer formats and fine bowling against Australia showed the value of that decision.
It was in the African trip that he confirmed his importance to the team when he twice got four wickets in an innings the first of which was decisive in the ODI win against Zimbabwe and the second ripped the heart out of the Namibian second innings. His average for the year of 19.47 and economy rate of 3.01 were not bettered.
Although he has now retired Alex Cusack gave a reminder what will be missed and what his successor needs to do to emulate his feats. He managed to snare 23 victims with an average of 21.57 that was second only to Murtagh and his strike rate of a tad under 24 was comfortably the most potent (minimum of 20 overs). While his batting had faded in recent years he was still better than 10th or 11th in the batting order as happened to him regularly in his final season.
It was a strange year for Andrew McBrine as he had a couple of performances that had a serious impact on the game but at other times he struggled to be relevant. His finest moment was in the West Indies victory when his superbly controlled bowling conceded only 26 runs of his 10 overs and in the end was the major contribution to the men from the Caribbean being some 35 runs short. His one handed pick-up and direct hit to run out Darren Bravo was also a factor and emphasised the significant improvement in both his fitness and fielding since his debut two years ago.
He bowled very well against Australia when he displaced Dockrell in the side and it seemed that he might have moved ahead of his rival. However in the Zimbabwe series Dockrell had a superior economy rate and moved back into pole position for the Namibia match. The pair is also locked into a battle with the bat as Bracewell/Porterfield is sending in Dockrell ahead of the Donemana man. While George is no mug with the bat those who have watched Andy over the past two years would be surprised that he is not further up the order. Certainly if he had batted higher in the first two Zimbabwe ODIís the final outcome might have been different.
Stuart Thompson is the enigma in this set up. Regularly favoured by Phil Simmons as the successor to Cusack he has now garnered 43 caps which is more than Alf Masood got and is as many as Dave Langford-Smith amassed. To date he has accrued 472 runs at 18.9 and taken 33 wickets at 27.3 and these figures are much better than his performances this year. There is no doubt that he has talent but if he is to be a genuine contender to replace Cusack they 2016 must see a significant improvement in his contributions.
Perhaps now that there is competition for this role in the shape of Tyrone Kane the challenge might well raise Thompson to a new level. Kane got seven caps in his first season, all of them in the T20 format. They came on the back of a stunning Inter-Pro series where he took 10 wickets at 8.5, an economy rate of 5.67 and a strike rate of 9.
During the tournament he became the first man in the competition to take 5 wickets in an innings when his 5-15 put the North-West Warriors to the sword. His lively pace saw him take 8 wickets in the five matches that he bowled and although they were all against Associates a strike rate of 12.25 is not to be sneezed at especially when he was going at 7.7 per over. He is also a useful bat and he might well find himself in India in the spring. His progress in other forms of the game will depend on how he handles his second season in the limelight.
The last thirteen months have not been kind to Max Sorensen. An injury to his wrist took him out of the acclimatisation tour to Australasia and although he made the World Cup squad when Murtagh pulled out he never really came to terms with the challenge. He played in the first three matches but lost his place after conceding 200 runs in 24 overs. He made one T20 appearance against Scotland and when it seemed that his season was over he was called up for the African tour but injury meant he had to return home without stepping across the boundary line. If he can resurrect the form that has brought him 85 wickets at 20.6 for his adopted country then he could come back in contention particularly as he is a more than useful batter.
The others who were capped this year, Andrew Poynter, Graeme McCarter, John Anderson and David Rankin only made it to the T20 matches against Scotland and didnít do enough to challenge for further honours.
Ireland cricket lovers have already started planning for 2016 with the T20 Qualifier in India and possibly the subsequent final stages. There are confirmed home ODIís which will include 2 each against Sri Lanka and Pakistan and also a likely three against Zimbabwe. There are of course the crucial I Cup matches against PNG and Hong Kong.
The majority of the players who are featured above will still be at the forefront of push for further success and there are many others who could make the breakthrough. The likes of Barry McCarthy, Robert McKinley, Mark Adair and Bobby Gamble could reinforce our seam bowling which would also be enhanced by the return to fitness of Peter Chase. While the u19ís didnít make it too the World Cup there was sufficient evidence that several such as Jack Tector, Rory Anders, Lorcan Tucker, the McClintock twins, Adam Dennison and Ben White could feature in senior colours in the not too distant future.
The prime purpose of the u19 and the National Academy is to provide players to the senior squad and if you can get six every u19 cycle then it will be a success. Hopefully the promise that more A games will be arranged is delivered on as these are a vital component in the development of our future stars.
Adieu 2015 see you in 2016.