Balbirnie back in the big time
ANDREW BALBIRNIE'S match winning innings against Afghanistan on Sunday signalled the turning point for the affable Dubliner after a year of misery and frustation.
In March 2016 Balbirnie played no part in the T20 World Cup after aggravating a hip injury which threatened his career.
On his return home from India he underwent major surgery which ruled him out of the entire domestic season, and in a further blow was released by Middlesex from his county contract.
Sunday's brilliant unbeaten 85 saw the Pembroke man back to the form of 2015, which saw him score World Cup half-centuries against South Africa and Zimbabwe - innings which cemented his place in the Irish top order.
For Balbirnie, it represented the culmination of a lot of hard work to get back into the side after his injury nightmare.
"It's been a tough year, I won't lie about that," said Balbirnie. "I've been through a lot, with quite a few downs. There were question marks about whether I'd be able to come back and play as it was quite a serious operation on my hip."
While the journey back to international cricket was a tough one, it was made easier by fantastic support and Balbirnie was quick to pay tribute to their efforts.
"I had a lot of good people around me. My family first and foremost who put up with my during the four or five months after the operation and helped me every step of the way.
"There were a lot of people who were there for me during the dark days, especially the people at Pembroke, Cricket Ireland, and Randwick Petersham. John Bracewell was very supportive, and I can't speak highly enough of physio Kieran O'Reilly, who was amazing with me."
Sunday's innings was rated by Balbirnie as among his best for his country, especially given their recent poor run in India.
"It was so vital for our confidence that we got the win having lost five games in a row out here. I'd say it's probably my best knock for Ireland. It's always pleasing to contribute to Irish wins.
"It's great to be back here now and playing for Ireland again. You never realize just how much you love something until it gets taken away from you for a while. To be back in the green jersey again and contributing is just brilliant."
Despite having been released by Middlesex, there are no bad feelings for Balbirnie, who thoroughly enjoyed his spell with the reigning county champions.
"I was at Middlesex for five and a half years, and they were great times. To play at Lord's was something special. To call Middlesex your club was brilliant and have the chance to play with world-class players. To play with one of my best friends Paul Stirling was fantastic, and they were some of the best years of my life.
"However as time went on I realized there wasn't going to be much of an opportunity there. They're obviously a seriously good team with some very strong batters in their line-up.
"I was in the last year of my contract and then picked up the injury and expected to be released. I can't speak highly enough of Angus Fraser and all the people at the club who treated me so well during my time there."
Balbirnie confirmed that his immediate domestic future lies in Dublin, rather than across the water in England.
"I'm playing my cricket with Pembroke and Leinster Lightning this summer, rather than going back over to England. Having been out of action for quite a while I need to get back up and running.
"I want to get a number of games under my belt without having the worry of a county contract or trying to impress coaches in England. I'm just going to focus on helping Ireland win games and keep my health in the best possible position."