The first real test for India’s World Test Championship leader tag has begun in Wellington.
Supporting Irish cricket is often a bizarre rollercoaster where you simultaneously experience every human emotion at once in a way that the human mind was surely never designed to cope with.
There will be marvellous record-breaking highs, stomach-churning collapses, awe-inspiring moments of courageous play, and long, slow motion slides past mediocrity, where everything goes terribly wrong, and then keeps going wrong for a bit longer.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Ireland’s recent tour of the West Indies. The three ODIs and three T20Is ended in one win, four losses and one no result for the Irish, although those basic facts are not the whole story.
In true Irish fashion, there were highs and lows aplenty with the T20 World Cup now just months away.
Con: Weak T20 finishing
Ireland batted first in every single game of the tour, and their T20 batting was characterised by explosive starts and feeble finishes. In their final eight overs in each of the three T20Is they added a pedestrian 55, 52 and 42 runs to their strong starts. When handed a strong foundation each time, closing out their innings at five or six runs an over when other teams would be accelerating resulted in a series of unimpressive totals for the bowlers to defend. Ireland cannot rely on their openers to deliver in every game, and World Cup progression may well depend on the middle order rebuilding on a rare poor start.
Pro: Paul Stirling and Kevin O’Brien’s partnership
The decision to move Kevin O’Brien up the order to open alongside Paul Stirling has been a tactical masterstroke. The two big hitters have consistently dominated the opening power play and ended 2019 claiming first and second spots in the list of the year’s highest T20I run-scorers. They continued to impress in the Caribbean, notably putting on 154 runs together in the first T20, including the highest ever opening power play score in international T20 cricket, smashing 93 runs in the first six overs.
Con: Failure to build an ODI innings
A consistent problem in the ODI series was the lack of big scores from the Irish batsmen, with only two 50s across all three ODIs (one each from Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie). There were several strong bowling performances from the Windies. Alzarri Joseph in particular was a constant threat, taking 4-32 in both the first and second match. The Irish were a match for the opposition, as batsmen consistently got themselves in, with only three single-digit scores from the top six across all three games, only to throw their wickets away with a series of silly shot choices and bad decisions.
Pro: Andrew Balbirnie’s captaincy
Andrew Balbirnie took to the field as Ireland captain for the first time during this tour, and he seemed immediately suited to the role. His field placements and bowling choices were mostly well thought out and successful, notably the decision to open the bowling with part-timer Paul Stirling in the second and third T20s, which worked well both times. There were a small number of odd choices, but nothing that a bit more experience will not iron out.
There were a lot of fresh faces in the squad that arrived in the Caribbean, many of whom had only made their debuts in the past 12 months, as Ireland attempt to move on from their golden generation, and at times it showed. Mark Adair’s fumble in the final over of the second ODI to cost Ireland a match-winning run out was particularly notable, as were the numerous poor shot choices costing the younger batsmen their wickets at key times.
In a similar vein to any captaincy issues, many of the above problems will be fixed with time and experience, and each of the younger members of the squad showed flashes of brilliance that demonstrated that they are worth sticking with. Gareth Delany’s four sixes in a row on his way to 44 off 22 balls showed power-hitting skills that could well be a match-winner for Ireland when they head to Australia in October. Harry Tector’s 31 in the same match demonstrated his potential stroke play in tough circumstances, while 20-year-old Josh Little’s composure in the final over of the first T20I – conceding zero runs from the final three balls under enormous pressure to give Ireland the victory – is exactly the sort of grit a winning team needs.
There is a lot of work to do for Ireland before the T20I World Cup, but a lot of opportunity to do it. The next eight months will feature T20Is against New Zealand, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as ODIs against the Kiwis, Bangladesh and England.
When Ireland take to the field against Sri Lanka in Geelong to kick off the tournament, their young squad will be far more experienced, and hoping to add yet another famous upset or two to the list.