Nick Royle (Times Ireland)
On every March 2 since 2012, the International Cricket Council has posted footage of Kevin’s O’Brien’s match-winning century against England at the 2011 World Cup on its social media feed. And every year, the ICC’s “on this day” feature highlights how little the Ireland cricket team has changed over the past seven years.
Eight of the players who starred in that historic three-wicket win over England in Bangalore are likely to start Ireland’s opening World Cup qualifier match against the Netherlands in Harare, Zimbabwe, tomorrow. But Ed Joyce, who represented England at the 2007 World Cup and Ireland in the 2011 and 2015 tournaments, says that the unique demands of eight must-win matches over 21 days require a battle-hardened 15-man squad.
Ireland face West Indies, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea and the United Arab Emirates in group A of the qualifying tournament, which takes place from March 4-25.
The top three teams in each of the two pools progress to the super six stage of the competition, with the leading two teams from the super sixes qualifying for the ten-team 2019 World Cup in England and Wales.
“Our experience and the knowledge that we can win in big tournaments is probably our biggest advantage,” Joyce, 39, said.
“We’ve won games at big events in 50-over cricket especially and also come through many qualifying tournaments at associate level.”
Ireland seem revitalised since South African Graham Ford replaced John Bracewell as head coach at the start of 2018, and go into the qualifier high on confidence, with ten victories from their past ten completed matches including a series win over Afghanistan in the United Arab Emirates in January.
And Joyce believes Ireland’s present player of the year, Paul Stirling, is hitting peak form at just the right time with back-to-back 156s in the warm-up matches against the Northern/Easterns and Hong Kong.
“The wins against Afghanistan in Sharjah were particularly satisfying because of the nature of the pitches there and the improvement that we showed with our fielding and bowling in particular.
“The mood and confidence in the camp is far more upbeat than it was six months ago, that’s for sure,” Joyce said. “Paul Stirling’s form is also a big plus and if we are to qualify, we need Paul to be firing.”
Joyce intended to retire at the end of last summer after an 18-year county career in England with Middlesex and Sussex, and one final season of domestic cricket with Leinster Lightning in 2017.
And the Dubliner hinted that he may consider postponing his retirement plans for a second time if Ireland qualify for next year’s World Cup.
“I’m completely focused on the next four months in terms of my cricket,” he said.
“We have the qualifiers and then the lead up to the first Test match against Pakistan and then the big game itself in May.
“After that I’ll see how I feel and make a decision on my future from there.”