Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
When Cricket Ireland agreed to Boyd Rankin staying with his county Warwickshire last July, thereby missing the five-match one-day international series against Afghanistan, they did not expect to be without him for the next seven months.
But an impact fracture to his leg ("it wasn't a proper broken leg") ended his season in August and ruled him out of Ireland's ODIs against Pakistan, South Africa and Australia. They lost all three by huge margins.
So the big Bready fast bowler was a welcome addition when the Ireland squad assembled in Dubai at the start of the week ahead of their first action of the year, the Desert T20 tournament which gets under way today with their first match against Afghanistan, their main rivals in Associate cricket.
Rankin returns to a squad with a couple of new, young faces, an older returning player and a steely determination to right the wrongs of 2016 when they won only seven of their 20 games and lost their last six in the fast and furious Twenty20 format.
"I was probably fully fit again at the start of October but there was no cricket then so, after a month off, it was back training with Warwickshire in the second week of November, mainly fitness stuff and batting and bowling twice a week since," said Rankin.
"We didn't know about this tournament until November so my target was to build up towards India in March for the (nine) games against Afghanistan. With Test cricket on the horizon, the four-day Intercontinental Cup game is really important for us.
"But it's great to get cricket before then and the T20s are ideal before that. It's only four overs for a bowler and a matter of getting my body built up again."
The bowlers arrived in Dubai a couple of days before the batters and the team enjoyed a comfortable win in a warm-up game against a local side on Tuesday.
"The opposition wasn't as good as we would have liked but it was still a good run-out. They bowled and fielded well and put our batters under pressure. It's been three or four months since most of the lads have been outdoors (four of the squad have been in Australia) but the rest of us have just been in indoor schools so it was great to get game time again," said Rankin.
It's also been a first chance for Rankin to see the newest kid on the block, Pembroke left arm opening bowler Josh Little, and the former England Test player is impressed.
"He's very confident, not a lot fazes him, he's pretty chilled out, maybe too much sometimes! It's a big learning curve for him, he's only 17 so he's getting his eyes open in and around the squad. He is also a left armer which gives the team an extra dimension and in the warm-up game he showed he has a lot of variation, so I'm excited to see what he can do in the tournament and hopefully play a part," said Rankin.
"I am rooming with Jacob Mulder (another debutant in Ireland's last T20 game in Bready last September). He's only 21 but I've now seen him bowl and he has good control as a leg spinner so he too should have a big impact on the competition.
"We haven't had many left armers and leg spinners and they can be massive in T20s. Other sides have shown they can make a big difference. Hopefully they have big futures.
"It was also great to meet up again with Greg Thompson, I was with Greg at the Under-19 World Cup in 2004. He was more a leg spinner back then but his batting has come on and that's another guy who has done well in the inter-pros and in club cricket and who can also offer something different. He comes from a hockey background so plays the scoops and ramp shots which can be very effective in T20s. He's been training hard in the nets and this is a good opportunity for him."
With Rankin committed to England for three years from 2012, he has missed Ireland's recent encounters with Afghanistan but knows it will be a tough start today. "They are the highest ranked team in the competition, but if we play our best we can make a winning start. Even if we don't, we still have the opportunity to win our last two games (against Namibia and UAE) to get through to the finals day," he said.
"So while Saturday is not a must-win game it's good that it is first up because no matter what the result progress is still in our own hands. Obviously, route one is winning all three games but having not been playing as well in 2016 we are in a bit of a rebuilding phase and it's a case of preparing as well as we can."
Having said that, Rankin recalls that preparation was good for the World Twenty20 last year - and Ireland didn't win a match! "It only takes one or two overs with the bat or ball to change a T20 game and in those situations we lost our nerve and lost those moments," is Rankin's take on the disappointment.
"We should have won the Oman game and the Dutch game. It was frustrating but it just didn't go our way. "We don't regularly play T20 so are not used to those crunch situations, so when they do come around, some of the guys haven't been in that situation before."
It's only the first week of action for Ireland in 2017 - but it's a big one.
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