Sam Wheeler (Irish Independent)
Andrew Balbirnie is determined to give "two fingers" to cricket's global authorities by helping Ireland qualify for next year's World Cup at the expense of one of the game's established powers.
The International Cricket Council controversially decided to shrink the World Cup from 14 teams to 10 - meaning a bigger slice of the financial pie for the old-guard countries who effectively run the game - leaving the teams ranked outside the top eight to scramble for the two remaining places in the upcoming qualification tournament in Zimbabwe.
Balbirnie, one of the stars of the Boys in Green's tremendous 2015 World Cup campaign, feels that the powers-that-be don't want the likes of Ireland at their showpiece event - and he is desperate to gatecrash the party.
"It's an extra motivation, absolutely," he agrees, ahead of Sunday's opener against the Netherlands.
"If ourselves and Afghanistan qualified ahead of the West Indies and Zimbabwe, I think that'd be a bit of a two fingers to the ICC. "It's a shame that they are shrinking the World Cup; we are hugely p***ed off about it, particularly as we were so close to getting a quarter-final place at the last WC.
"It's hard to understand how that makes sense in any way. But that's the way it is, and we've got to show that we're good enough to play in a 10-team World Cup."
The odds are against Ireland in Zimbabwe as they battle their way through an unwieldy format featuring two group stages and a final - a system that gives the favourites a safety net.
Heading the market are the West Indies, the reigning World Twenty20 champions, who are full of white-ball superstars, even if they are hamstrung by their perennial disputes with their board.
Zimbabwe are a Test nation of long standing, while Afghanistan recently beat Ireland to the InterContinental Cup title, and boast the world's No 1-ranked ODI bowler, Rashid Khan.
Ireland, though, have returned to form in recent months after a drop-off since their 2015 World Cup heroics, and new coach Graham Ford has the rare luxury of being able to name a full-strength squad.
"Losing had become a habit for us in the last couple of years, but we've found a bit of form, played the cricket we've wanted to play," says Balbirnie, alluding to a series victory over Afghanistan and a tri-nations clean sweep against the United Arab Emirates and Scotland.
"It's a tough tournament; we've got West Indies in our group - they're the World T20 champions but at the same time, we beat them at the last World Cup.
"We've just got to believe that our game-plan is good enough to beat these guys. We tend to play well in tournaments. And it's the first time we've had a full squad in a long time. It's exciting."
One of Ireland's strengths is the team's experience and stability - the 15-man squad travelling to Zimbabwe have a combined 1,925 caps. The other side of the coin is that, as Ford says, "the depth base is not where one would like it to be".
There is a shortage of young talent putting pressure on the stalwarts who have served Irish cricket so well for so long.
Balbirnie is the only batsman to break into the first-choice top seven since Paul Stirling stormed onto the scene a decade ago.
The Dubliner played four one-day internationals with little success in 2010, and after a four-year hiatus, forced his way into the team in the run-up to the 2015 World Cup, where he announced himself with a maiden ODI half-century against the might of South Africa, followed immediately by a rapid 97 against Zimbabwe.
Then injury and loss of form hampered his progress, and it was not until successive scores of 102, 67 and 47 in the tri-nations tournament in Dubai last month that he really began to deliver on his potential.
And at 27, he concedes, it is no longer enough to just show promise. He should be coming into his prime, one of the lynchpins around whom the Ireland batting line-up can be built once the likes of Ed Joyce finally retire, and he knows he needs to kick on now, rather than rest on his laurels, as he admits he did after his World Cup performances.
"That was the biggest high of my career," he says. "It was brilliant, and I loved it. But then I went back to Middlesex and I was playing seconds, I wasn't getting a look-in, and I probably got a bit lazy there. In the back of my head, it was 'you're an international cricketer, you'll be fine' and I didn't work on my game as hard as I should have. I was dropped from the Irish team."
At the end of the 2015 season, he was advised to have an operation to fix a niggling hip problem; that ruled him out of the entirety of 2016. Middlesex, where he had been playing since 2014, decided not to renew his contract - like most of his international team-mates, he is now on a full-time contract with Cricket Ireland.
"Being injured for a year was not ideal, but I was able to reflect and realise I probably didn't work as hard as I should have. I got complacent. So my mindset now is if you do well, you still work as hard, you don't settle on what you've done.
"Hopefully over the next couple of years you'll see a different player - someone who does well, then in the next couple of games does even better and pushes on."
After the World Cup qualifiers will come perhaps the grandest occasion in the history of cricket on this island, when Pakistan come to Malahide for Ireland's first Test match.
"It's something you dreamed of, growing up," says Balbirnie. "Whenever you were in the nets, you were imagining you were playing Test cricket. Obviously back then, you were an England Test cricketer, because we didn't have Test cricket…"
So did he ever think about switching allegiance to England? "Never!" he insists.
"Mainly because I wasn't getting in the Middlesex team! For me, it was never really… it would have been tough; I can see why lads have done it, but where we are now, it just doesn't make sense. We're a Test nation. I can't wait."
This article first appeared in the print edition of the Irish Independent and is reproduced by the kind permission of the author and sports editor.