The die was cast for the World Cup Qualifying squad once an inspired Paul Stirling led Ireland to victory against Afghanistan last month in Sharjah.

The fourteen players in the Sharjah squad plus of course Ed Joyce when he was fit again were, bar injury, almost certain to go to Zimbabwe in March. This would mean that eight of the eleven who played in the iconic win over England are still in the squad with only the retired Trent Johnson, Alex Cusack and the retired and then unretired John Mooney missing.

The likelihood that the Sharjah group would be the World Cup squad was effectively confirmed when the squad for the current Tri-Series in Dubai was announced with only Tim Murtagh being omitted in order to rest him for the battles ahead. Interestingly he was replaced by Andy McBrine which suggests that if he performs well with his off spin he could get yet slip in under the radar.

While it certainly would not be at the expense of Murtagh, neither Stuart Poynter nor Jacob Mulder can be as confident of their place as they might have felt in the immediate aftermath of the triumph against the Afghans. While McBrineís batting was disappointing in 2017, 23 runs at an average of 5.75, he did take 8 wickets at an average of 25.1 with an economy rate of 3.9. He came into the team for the second match against UAE last week and got two key wickets while only conceding 40 runs from his ten overs. The new Ireland selection panel led by Andrew White may well remember McBrineís performance against West Indies in Nelson at the last World Cup when his 10 overs for just 26 runs was a major factor in preventing the men from the Caribbean getting off to the start they must have anticipated.

Mulder is a curious case in that he was awarded the Sunday Independent Aengus Fanning International Emerging Player of the Year at the Cricket Ireland Awards last November yet has only played one match for Ireland since March against Afghanistan in Greater Noida despite being in every squad. In that one game against Netherlands in August he never looked particularly threatening and when I saw him in the final 3 day Inter-Pro match in Clontarf in September he, quite frankly, looked disinterested.

After a decent start for Ireland A against Bangladesh A last October his performance levels fell away and although he was in the squad for the final I Cup match versus Scotland and the three ODIís against Afghanistan he never got on the park and wasnít picked for either of the two matches against UAE. New bowling coach Rob Cassell has persisted with trying to turn him into a match winner but it would be very odd if he went to Zimbabwe without playing in at least one of the two matches against Scotland this week. Having watched him quite a few times throughout the past season it appears to me that the zip had gone from his action over the second half of the season and this may in part be due to him no longer driving through with his leading arm which is essential for a successful leg spinner.

Hopefully it can be resolved as a good wrist spinner is a vital component to an international bowling attack.
Poynter has had quite a few opportunities over the last couple of years but while he regularly gotten into double figures he seems to be unable to kick on. The promise generated by his blistering century against Sri Lanka A in Stormont in July 2014 has never really materialised.

It appears that Andrew White has decided to go with the collective after the Afghanistan series rather that concentrate on individual performances. His thinking could be that at every World Cup since the initial breakthrough in 2007 Ireland have exceeded all expectations despite less than stellar pre tournament form.
Indeed the acclimatisation tour of Australasia in late 2014, of which White was a part until he shattered his finger taking a return catch off his only delivery on tour, filled most observers with dread such was the horrendous displays by many of that squad.

Yet only a few months later, largely the same group of players won three matches and narrowly lost out on the quarter finals on run rate.

Without doubt the Afghanistan series win was the best performance by the side since the 2015 World Cup. The batting was led by Paul Stirling who yet again demonstrated that the much vaunted Afghan bowling attack, especially their spinners, held no fear for him. His 188 runs were 62 more than anyone else on either side and he now has an aggregate in ODIís against this opposition of 665 runs in 16 matches at an average of 44.3.
Yet other than Stirling only George Dockrell, with a superb 48 ball unbeaten 62 in the second ODI ensured Ireland set a target that was beyond the reach of the opposition, got to 50 as the sequence of low scores by many of the top order in the past year continued. The problem is that, as I have written a number of times previously, the lack of proper development opportunities has meant that the current squad has had little in the way of pressure put on them for their places.

Fortunately the instigation of a meaningful A team program together with the enhanced Academy system, is in the process of changing this. There is now real hope that a new generation of talented players such as the Tector brothers, Nathan Smith, David Delany, Josh Little, James McCollum and a revitalised James Shannon will bolster the squad in the not too distant future.

In my view the key difference has been the bowling performance and there is no doubt in my mind that this is largely due to the influence of Rob Cassell. I watched the live streaming from Sharjah on an Afghanistan TV station and the significant difference was the much tighter line bowled by all of the attack. The Afghan batsmen couldnít free their arms to anything like the same extent that they had been able to do in the past and which of course have also been exploited by most of the others countries Ireland have faced.

The use of variations has been much more subtle, particularly in the type and length of slower balls, and has brought quite a few wickets. While much work still needs to be done and there will still be bad days, there is no doubt in my mind that progress is being made. A measure of that progress is that in their last seven innings, two in I Cup match against Scotland, three ODIís against Afghanistan and the two ODIís against UAE, Ireland have not conceded more than 238 runs in any of those innings.

The return of a fit Boyd Rankin has given a cutting edge to the attack and his bowling in Sharjah and the first UAE ODI last week demonstrated how much his firepower was missed last March in Greater Noida. Even that old war horse Tim Murtagh has proved you are never too old to learn new tricks when his economy rate in Sharjah was 2.9 compared to 5.1 last March.

However the biggest difference was that Barry McCarthy got an extended run in the side. It is inexplicable to me how McCarthy was regularly overlooked by the Bracewell/Porterfield axis. From his debut against Sri Lanka in Malahide in June 2016, when he got a wicket with his second ball, he was not selected for ten of the 23 ODIís up to and including the first Afghanistan match last month. He has now played in 17 ODIís and has taken at least one wicket in all but one match which was against Australia in Benoni in September 2016.

In the entire history of ODI cricket which as of today (15th January) stands at 3952 matches, 689 players have bowled at least 100 overs. Of all of those bowlers only EIGHT have a strike rate of less than 25. Top of the list is former West Indies all rounder and current South Africa coach Otis Gibson whose 34 wickets came at a strike rate of 21.7. Gibson is followed by the young Afghanistan wrist spinning sensation Rashid Khan who strikes at a rate of 22.2 balls for each of his 70 wickets. In third place is Barry McCarthy who has taken 37 wickets at 23.4.

Yet McCarthy was not considered good enough for almost half of all the ODIís for which he was available. In case anyone thinks that his figures up to last month were justification for his omission then consider that his strike rate for those first 13 matches was 25.5 which would still have left him in 10th place on the list. Also bear in mind that until the UAE games last week all of his previous 15 matches were against Full Members or Afghanistan the year before they attained that status.

His economy rate may be almost 6 runs per over but he gets people out because he attacks the stumps and the outside edge from a full length. The great Michael Holding has always maintained that he would rather take 5 for 60 over 0 for 30 any day. Greater experience and a captain who shows confidence in him will inevitability improve his economy rate and let us remember that if every bowler in the team was striking at the rate that McCarthy achieves Ireland wouldnít concede more than 240 in a match.

Despite taking 48 first class wickets for Durham in just over a year McCarthy has never been selected for a red ball match for Ireland.

Incidentally on that list of strike rates at number six with a rate of 24.3 is Craig Young who has been bedevilled by injury and occasionally selector brain freeze. It is remarkable that in the top six strike rates of all time there are two Irishmen and an Afghanistani.

The only thing that matters for the next two months is getting the preparation right for Zimbabwe.
The two UAE matches gave valuable and much needed runs for Andrew Balbirnie and Gary Wilson while Ed Joyce and William Porterfield reinforced how crucial they are to this side. All the bowlers performed well and Niall OíBrien set a new Ireland record for catches in a match. Hopefully this surge of form will continue in the Scotland games and rebuild the confidence levels that were so essential to the success of this side from 2007-2015.

Todayís Qualifying draw is not easy but as Ireland is ranked below West Indies, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan it was always going to be tough. The new 13th addition to the ODI table Netherlands will be formidable but Ireland has prevailed against the odds before. Whether or not everyone agrees with the squad I hope that with the new Management and coaching structure in place most of the mistakes of the past two years can be avoided and the Blarney army will light up the grounds in England next year.

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The under 19ís have been very unfortunate in their preparations for their World Cup campaign. Weather prevented them getting on the park for three of their four warm up matches and the lack of sharpness told in their defeat against Sri Lanka in their opening match.

However they gave an excellent account of themselves. The Fingal openers Jamie Grassi and Mark Donegan give them an excellent start but a couple of run outs stalled the progress and the final score of 206 for 8 was probably some 70 short. Two early wickets by Munster speedster Aaron Cawley give initial hope of an upset but a fine century by opener Lakshan took the game away from Ireland.

In the one warm up match that was played Ireland fought hard against a very strong England team. Josh Little with bat and ball stood out while the skipper Harry Tector scored an excellent century against an attack that with one exception have all featured in County Second XIís with their Captain Harry Brook playing five games for Yorkshire firsts.

Ireland should be able to be competitive in their remaining two group games against Pakistan and Afghanistan. This experience will stand all of this squad in good stead for the future and I fully expect several of this team to feature in the Wolves team later in the year.

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There is no doubt that ESPNCricinfo has been a tremendous asset to the cricketing world. Now that Ireland is a Full Member it would be reasonable to expect more detailed and focused comment and articles.

In light of this it was extremely disappointing that in their review of 2017 for each of the countries the Ireland piece was written by someone who is a very infrequent visitor to this island. To be able to write a coherent analysis he draws upon much of the work of home based writers and commentators.

Ireland cricket deserves better and there is no shortage of experienced writers who actually go and see matches at all levels so as to properly gauge the future prospects for our International sides. For example there is Ger Siggins who has thirty years writing about cricket and has been a contributor to Cricinfo. There is of course Ian Callender who has been the text ball by ball commentator on over 500 Ireland matches not to mention countless under age, A team and Interprovincial matches and club games. He is also a well respected cricket journalist who contributes to many newspapers on the island.

They also have their own excellent Cricinfo ball by ball text commentator Justin Smyth. All of these and many others have much more relevant and insightful knowledge of the Ireland cricket scene than someone who rarely sees in the flesh the events and characters associated with the game here.

Let us hope that as Ireland moves towards its first Test Cricinfo gives it the respect it deserves by showcasing the talents of those who kept cricket in the public domain here for many years often against the odds.

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The shocking sudden death of Davy Holmes at just 54 years of age has sent tremors though the cricketing community on the island. While I had occasionally came across him in Belfast I never really had a conversation of any note with him until the abandoned West Indies match in Stormont last September. It then transpired that the following month we were both on the Cricket Ireland awards panel and after the official deliberations were over, we together with Cricket Ireland President Brian Walsh spent a very enjoyable couple of hours chatting mostly but not exclusively about the game we all loved.

His enthusiasm and knowledge of the game was a joy to behold and the mischievous glint in his eye when telling stories of various events enhanced every sentence.

I last saw him at the awards night itself in Dublin in November where he was in his element with that glint to the forefront. Fortunately Brenda Hand took a photograph of the cricket writers on the night and it is on the Cricket Europe website.

Many people knew him a great deal better than I did but I can see why there was such an outpouring of genuine tributes. Hopefully his family can take some comfort from these.
May he rest in peace.