Ireland make their first steps towards a fourth-successive World Cup when they take on Netherlands in Harare.
With the 2019 finals to be staged in England, qualification could give Cricket Ireland its best chance to fulfil its aim of growing the game – but failure could set it back years.
It promises to be a fiercely-fought tournament, too, with a potentially delicious side-dish of egg flung all over the faces of ICC’s decision makers.
The untrammelled greed with which England, India and Australia cornered the sport’s riches led to a shrinking of the World Cup from 16 teams in 2007, to 14 in 2011 and 2015, and just 10 next year.
With the eight top-ranked sides qualifying automatically, that leaves just two more spots to be fought over by four full members and the rest of the associate world.
The ICC was shocked however by a surge in fortunes for Bangladesh which saw them overtake West Indies, a traditional powerhouse with greater box office appeal.
The Windies were forced to qualify, and their slide has continued – last week they were dismissed for just 110 by Afghanistan and 115 by the United Arab Emirates in warm-up games – suggesting this tournament is wide open.
And while it may not help the fragile eco-system that is Caribbean cricket, their failure to qualify could be a boon to the game as a whole, especially if Zimbabwe were to miss out too. Such a shock, and the absence of the likes of Chris Gayle from its showpiece tournament, is probably what is needed to convince ICC to reverse its policies.
Six months ago, Ireland looked to have little chance of qualifying but a change of coach appears to have worked wonders.
After a turbulent last 18 months under John Bracewell, the arrival of Graham Ford, and bowling coach Rob Cassell, has seen an immediate improvement in terms of results with the side on a 12-game unbeaten run.
Fast bowler Peter Chase is enthusiastic about the new regime. “Graham has a lot of experience and he’s a great people person, so onwards and upwards.”
He is also grateful for the efforts of the previous coach. “Bracewell had a lot to do with the improvements – I know the performances are coming together now but the work he did with us got us here. I can’t speak highly enough of John. All the work he did is coming to fruit now.”
As 33-year-old Boyd Rankin’s heir apparent, Chase is key to Ireland’s future as they take their first steps in Test cricket this summer. He says Cassell has also made a big difference.
“Rob is probably my first real out-and-out bowling coach. I’ve been improving all the time, improving skills. We’ve done a lot of work on slower balls and different change-ups rather than being a pure pace bowler.
“He’s being getting me used to the mental side of being a bowler like setting fields, taking ownership of it so I don’t have to rely on Purdy all the time.”
Purdy – captain William Porterfield – leads an experienced side including five men who played their first World Cup back in 2007.
“As a group of players we're very confident going into the Qualifier,” he says, “and that confidence comes from a lot of hard work, and performances over the past 10 or 12 ODIs.
“We're a pretty balanced side, which gives us great confidence going into the tournament. Regardless of who we come up against, I believe we can match anything and perform in all aspects of the game.
“Whether it's our seam attack, our batting or the spin department, we have the bases fairly-well covered and we're just looking forward to cracking on now and getting into the tournament,” said Porterfield.
Today’s first game pits Ireland against an old rival who have recently become a tricky opponent. They hadn’t lost to the Dutch in 16 games from 2007 until the infamous T20 qualifier in Sylhet, the watershed moment of the Phil Simmons era. Of the four games since, the Netherlands have won three and drawn one.
“The Dutch – who we're up against first – are a strong team,” notes Porterfield. “They can be a very dangerous side, with a few match-winners in the team, and like any game in the group we're going to be at the top of our game to beat them.”
Chase echoes his captain’s concerns. “We’re all realistic, we know it’s going to be very tough and every team there could beat anyone on their day. There’s only two places up for grabs but we’re confident at the minute. Everyone’s performing well but it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Ireland are in the toughest group, and no slip-ups will be permitted as results at this stage against their fellow qualifiers will carry into the Super Sixes, where Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Scotland are likely to lurk.
Porterfield’s men have good ODI records against Netherlands (7-1) and UAE (5-0), while they have beaten Papua New Guinea five times in other formats, with just two narrow T20 defeats.
The West Indies are Ireland’s favourite full member opponents, with famous wins in 1928, 1969, 2004 and 2015, the latter kicking off the World Cup in New Zealand with a bang.
They have been badly hit by defections of four key players who have opted to play in the Pakistan T20 league. However, they still have Gayle and Marlon Samuels who can win any game single-handed, while George Dockrell may not enjoy bowling to his former Leinster CC clubmate Carlos Brathwaite, who destroyed Ben Stokes in the final over of the WT20 final in India last year.
Chase is a member of the Malahide club, which learned this week that Cricket Ireland will be abandoning its plan to build a dedicated stadium there in favour of Abbotstown.
That project will take years to complete, so Chase will get the chance to play plenty of international cricket in his home village, starting with the inaugural men’s Test in May, against Pakistan.
“The dream of everyone in the squad is to play Tests, but for me – I live around the corner – just to walk out on that park will be magic.
“I’ve being going to the club since I was five and to think that Ireland’s first Test match could be there is pretty surreal to be honest.”
Chase is Malahide’s most-capped player since the great Dougie Goodwin retired over 40 years ago – although he says he doesn’t get any extra attention in his native village since he started playing for Ireland.
Were he to help Ireland qualify for the 2019 World Cup however, his profile in Fingal will surely rise.