This Thursday sees the first fixture of the new ODI Super League, as England welcome Ireland to a bio-bubble protected Ageas Bowl for three 50-over matches.
Quarantine requirements mean England’s Test squads for their West Indies and Pakistan series will be unavailable for selection, and so Eoin Morgan’s ODI team will be without big names such as Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Joe Root.
However, while this makes Ireland’s chance of upsetting the odds ‘easier’, that is not the same thing as ‘easy’. England’s ludicrous strength in depth will allow them to field a team full of veteran internationals, including Morgan, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Jason Roy. Ireland will be going into this match very much the underdogs.
Early signs are less than encouraging as Ireland were demolished by an England Lions side in a warm-up match which saw the Irish bowling unable to pose any threat to a series of second and third choice English batsmen.
With luck, this will have served as a wakeup call to the Irish coaching team, and the team that takes to the field this week will be more prepared for the onslaught that will be facing them. The men in green will have three cracks at the whip to claim a second ODI victory against their neighbours and will need several factors to work in their favour.
1. Hope Kevin O’Brien has one of those days
Ireland’s only ODI win over England to date is a match cricket fans around the world will be familiar with. In the 2011 World Cup, England had scored 327, and Ireland reached the halfway stage of their innings at 5/111.
Ireland were completely off the pace and England seemed to have the game in the bag. Kevin O’Brien disagreed. What followed is still the fastest World Cup century ever, and a memorable night for Irish fans.
That match in Bengaluru would not be the last time O’Brien would conjure a magical innings out of nowhere – his magnificent century in Ireland’s Test debut versus Pakistan for example – and Ireland must be hoping that on one morning during the series O’Brien wakes up on the right side of the bed, and decides to do it all over again.
The Dubliner has been working hard on his fitness during lockdown, with a commanding 126* in one warm-up game and an aggressive cameo against the Lions (28 off 14 balls) suggest he is in fine form. Maybe, just maybe, he can make the difference once more.
2. Power hitters must make an impact
England’s strength is their power hitting. On a batsman-friendly Ageas Bowl with small boundaries, a big score is a near inevitability. Against the Lions, Ireland set 296 while batting at a sluggish pace. While there were 50s for Paul Stirling, Andrew Balbirnie and Harry Tector, only the latter was scored at above a 100 strike rate. Ireland will need their big hitters to deliver a titanic haul of boundaries to stay in the game.
Stirling will be vital here, as will support from younger batsmen such as Gareth Delany and Tector, who have already proven themselves against quality opposition; notably Delany’s four sixes in a row on his way to 44 off 22 balls against the West Indies earlier this year.
3. Can Simi Singh break his mental block?
Simi Singh has long been an infuriating enigma for Irish fans. His ability is clear; he is the only player to score a 100 and bowl a five-fer in the same match in Ireland’s domestic competition, and his List A figures with both bat and ball are impressive. Then the pressure of playing in a full international gets to him, and his performance falls away.
This is not a case of not having the skill to step up, as he has proven himself against top-level opposition. When Bangladesh toured Ireland last year, they started with a warmup against the Ireland Wolves, where Simi managed figures of 91 and 4/51, and then followed that up with another 90 against the Zimbabwean first team a few weeks later.
His current ODI Batting Average of 15.1 is nowhere near reflective of his abilities and, while his bowling in recent tours has started to look much stronger, both as a wicket-taking threat and as a way of drying up runs, Ireland must be hoping that he can finally get settled with the bat and become the match-changing all-rounder he has long threatened to be.
4. Bowlers must tighten up
The main concern from the hammering handed out by the Lions was the toothless bowling from Ireland. The innings started well, with Mark Adair dismissing Jason Roy with the very first ball. Then the remaining 49 overs and five balls happened. Ireland’s bowlers not only struggled to take wickets, but were unable to stop the English batsmen hitting them all over the park. In the end, three English batsmen retired not out, and only three wickets were taken. Two of those were by Adair, who has been ruled out of the ODIs due to injury.
While likely first-choice seamers Barry McCarthy and Craig Young were not playing in that match, and will hopefully inject some danger into the attack, the remaining bowlers will need to bowl a lot tighter if they do not want the efforts of the batsmen to be completely wasted.
5. The wildcard option
Curtis Campher, a former South African under-19 all-rounder with dual nationality, made the switch to Ireland late last year and has so far impressed in every chance he has been given.
Time and again he has been called to higher levels in the setup, seemingly as a fringe player, and delivered with both bat and ball, demanding the Irish coaches take notice.
First for the Ireland Wolves against Namibia, scoring 45, 62* and 54 in his three innings, and then in the training squad for this series, Campher has yet to find himself out of his depth. However, at just 21, and with no full international experience under his belt, an ODI series against the World Champions is maybe a step too far. Maybe.