On the afternoon of the 23rd March at the Harare Sports Club, Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai inside edged a ball from Barry McCarthy past leg stump to the boundary and brought to an end a glorious era in Irish cricket.
Granted there will be a postscript next week with Ireland’s inaugural male Test Match but that should be a reward for the players who were responsible for delivering the golden era. However once that match has run its course a serious rebuilding exercise is necessary if there is going to be another era remotely approaching the success of the one just ended.
Becoming a Test nation should be celebrated for achieving a status that few could ever have envisaged. The work of many administrators led initially by the late John Wright and carried on by Warren Deutrom and Ross McCollum found a pathway through the labyrinth that is the ICC. Many others also played a role and the day to day running of Cricket Ireland by unfailingly friendly and helpful staff has eased the path for those of us who have needed their assistance.
However there would have been no role to play if the players and their coaches hadn’t got the results that eventually made the case irresistible.
I make no apology for stating that the players (those still playing competitively) who guided Ireland through the golden era should all be selected for this match irrespective of recent form. They deserve this opportunity to receive the acclaim of a packed Malahide venue. Once the game is over only form should determine who subsequently gets selected for any of the three formats for which Ireland are now eligible.
The team, with number of Ireland caps, should be;
William Porterfield (Capt) - 273
Kevin O’Brien – 307
Gary Wilson – 253
Paul Stirling – 225
Niall O’Brien – 212
George Dockrell – 182
Ed Joyce – 150
Boyd Rankin – 109
Tim Murtagh – 78
Andrew Balbirnie- 76
The final spot should between Craig Young – 42 and Peter Chase – 28. Young made his debut in September 2013 while Chase made his in July 2014. Twelfth man Andy McBrine – 61.
Although he has more caps than Chase or Young the necessity of an extra seamer in May determines leaving McBrine out.
With Young in the team there would be a total of 1907 full Ireland caps between the chosen eleven.
There will be plenty of other Test opportunities for the likes of Barry McCarthy, Simi Singh, Stuart Poynter, the Tector brothers, James Shannon, David Delany, James McCollum and others of the new generation of players.
Ed Joyce will finally get the Test recognition that he richly deserves and at 39 years and 231 days will become the 19th oldest Test debutant of all time.
However for a number of the senior players this will be one of, if not the only, chance of Test recognition especially given that there will be limited matches over the next couple of years as staging a home Test stretches the current resources of Cricket Ireland.
I have always been an advocate of picking your best eleven in a competitive match but this unique occasion I believe justifies a one off relaxation of that rule.
My concern is that the squad that played against Somerset last month, which purported to be anticipated Test squad less the injured Porterfield and Joyce and the withdrawn Murtagh, did not include George Dockrell. My understanding is that Dockrell was omitted because of a lack of form in the recent World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe. If that is the case then there was absolutely no justification for Gary Wilson being in that squad much less leading it.
Both Wilson and Dockrell should be in the Test team and it would be a complete travesty if Wilson plays and Dockrell doesn’t. Whatever criteria is used Dockrell is ahead of Wilson. Against FM’s since May last year Dockrell, as a bowling all-rounder, has scored 156 runs at an average of 22.3 while Wilson in the same period as a specialist batsman has 138 runs at 12.5. Wilson has not passed 50 against a FM in any format since October 2015 against Zimbabwe. His highest score since is 38 against the same opposition in a T20I in March 2016.
Last December in Sharjah Dockrell had match winning back to back performances against fellow new FM’s Afghanistan. After a comprehensive defeat in the first of a three match series, Dockrell with an unbeaten 62 of just 48 balls supplemented Paul Stirling’s 82, driving Ireland to a very competitive 271-9. Barry McCarthy with 5-46 – the best ODI bowling figures by an Ireland bowler against a FM – completed the job while Dockrell opened the bowling and his nine overs cost just 42 runs and included the wicket of second top scorer Rahmat Shah who was stumped by Niall O’Brien for 32.
In the deciding ODI Dockrell again opened the bowling and this time took 4-28 in his nine overs. A century by Stirling rounded off a comfortable series victory. In the series Wilson totalled 14 runs in his three innings off 46 deliveries.
In the tri-series against UAE and Scotland in February Wilson batted well and made 93 runs for once out. The dominance of Ireland with the bat meant Dockrell only faced 3 balls scoring 2 runs without being dismissed. He bowled steadily taking 5 wickets for 185 runs of 37 overs.
In the WCQ Wilson played in six matches, missing the UAE game to return home for the birth of his first child and in those games he totalled 59 runs at an average of 11.8 and a highest score of 18.
Dockrell was dropped after the third match of the Qualifier and wasn’t selected again. In those three games he scored 34 runs for once out. He bowled a total of 27 overs for 133 runs at an economy rate of 4.93 although he failed to take a wicket. His best performance was in his final match against the West Indies, the first of Ireland’s three matches against fellow FM’s. He only conceded 38 runs from his 10 overs, the best economy rate of the six bowlers used. Ironically he should have taken the wicket that would have in all probability won that match and sent Ireland to the World Cup Finals in the UK next summer.
Rovman Powell was on 18 and West Indies were 128-5 in the thirty-third over when Dockrell beat him in the flight and the ball skewed of the bat high to extra cover. Wilson ran back and got both hands to the ball as it came over his shoulder but it bounced out of his hands and hit the ground. It wasn’t an easy catch but at this level should have been taken. Powell added another 83 runs and the West Indies margin of victory was 52 runs. Dockrell was dropped for the remainder of the Tournament.
There were other reasons why Ireland failed to qualify, particularly in relation to decision making and selection. Following a series of pretty dismal performances in the spring of 2017 it was obvious that changes needed to be made. In my column last June I questioned the performance of the coach, captain and High Performance director. The coach John Bracewell was replaced although he was permitted to stay on until the end of the year when it would have been much more beneficial to have his successor take over earlier. It is one thing allowing a successful coach be part of the transition but a very different situation when the outgoing coach has led Ireland to its worst sequence of results in the professional era.
Back in July 2016 William Porterfield told Ian Callender that he had no intention of relinquishing the Ireland captaincy voluntary. Almost two years later he is still in situ despite 24 defeats in 45 matches since he made his declaration of his intent to remain in charge. There was a false dawn last December with a 2-1 series win in Ireland’s ODI debut as a FM followed by a clean sweep against UAE and Scotland in January. However it is now clear that matches when there is little at stake is very different to the suffocating pressure of a World Cup Qualifying Tournament.
Ireland failed to qualify because they were the only one of the four FM’s who lost all three of their matches against their fellow FM’s.
What was most frustrating was that in all three matches Ireland where in a prime position to win despite major tactical mistakes. Ireland had started the Tournament with a comprehensive win against the Dutch followed by win against PNG who they allowed to recover from 116-7. Unfortunately letting teams off the hook was to be a recurring theme. A breathtaking innings of 151 off 142 balls by Tony Ura allowed PNG to set a target of 236 the better part of a hundred more that it should have been.
Ireland got home with five balls to spare thanks largely to a fine hundred from Porterfield and fifty from Joyce.
Ireland turned up for the West Indies match to be greeted by what was the greenest wicket they had seen since that iconic St. Patrick’s Day against Pakistan in 2007. The gods seemed to be with Ireland when Porterfield won the toss and chose to field. However inexplicably Ireland went in with the same team as they had against PNG. This meant that Barry McCarthy was omitted from the team despite taking 18 wickets in his previous 7 matches stretching back to the Afghanistan series in December. Against the Dutch he had taken 2-28 off six overs including the wicket of the dangerous Ben Cooper. When he was left out of the PNG game it was felt that he was being rested for the bigger challenges ahead.
So on a wicket perfect for seam bowling Porterfield went in with only two front line seamers. To compound matters he opened the bowling with spinner Andy McBrine. While this was a tactic that had worked in 2015 against the same opposition in the World Cup that was on a very different surface. Although only 11 runs were conceded by McBrine in those first two they were 12 deliveries with a shiny new ball on a green wicket that should have been in the hands of Boyd Rankin. This was given even greater emphasis by Tim Murtagh at the other end beating Chris Gayle all ends up in six of the twelve balls that he bowled to him.
The introduction of Rankin into the attack in the fifth over brought a wicket second ball. When Murtagh produced one of the balls of the Tournament to bamboozle Marlon Samuels West Indies were 45-3 after twelve overs with Murtagh’s figures 2-10 off six overs. On a green wicket Murtagh didn’t bowl again until the 38th over despite no back up seam option other than Kevin O’Brien who at this level his at best a fourth seamer and that on slow wickets. O’Brien’s two overs in his spell conceded 17 runs. McBrine came back and chipped in with two wickets reducing the West Indies to 83-5. The score had advanced to 95 when Stirling in his first over dropped a fairly straightforward return catch off the Windies captain Jason Holder who was on 17 at the time. As noted earlier Wilson dropped Powell on 128 which should have meant they were 7 wickets down. Instead the pair manufactured a match changing partnership of 86, more than doubling the score.
O’Brien bowled at the death and conceded 32 runs off his final two overs. But as TV commentator former West Indies fast bowling great Ian Bishop observed, the inexplicable absence of McCarthy allowed the pressure to be reduced and allowed the men from the Caribbean get about 80 runs more than they should have.
The loss of three early wickets for 32 left Ireland struggling but the evergreen Joyce and the O’Brien brothers got the total up to 166-4 leaving an equation of 92 from 83 balls to seal victory. However the loss of both set batsmen in the same over removed all hope and the innings petered out with the last six wickets falling for just 39 runs.
In the next game Ireland bounced back with their most comprehensive ever win in an ODI when they demolished UAE by 226 runs. Wilson had gone home and Dockrell was dropped and McCarthy came back in while Simi Singh made his Tournament debut. An opening partnership of 205 at exactly a run a ball by Stirling (126) and Porterfield (92) and a rapid 50 off just 26 deliveries by Kevin O’Brien, who was promoted to number 3 got Ireland to a mammoth 313 in a match reduced by rain to 44 overs.
Four wickets for Rankin, 3 from Singh, 2 from McCarthy and one from Murtagh overwhelmed the UAE batting line up and they were dismissed for 91.
As Ireland began the Super Sixes they appeared to be back on track and knew that if they won their three games in this phase of the Tournament they would be in the Finals next year.
Their first opponents were Zimbabwe who had managed to scramble a tie against Scotland in their previous match and were feeling the pressure of being the home team in front of large enthusiastic support. The wicket was the exact opposite of that for the West Indies game and it turned more than any other at the Harare Sports Club ground. Porterfield then compounded one mistake with another. Despite having no form in the Tournament and just completing a round trip to the UK for the birth of his son Wilson was brought back into the team at the expense of Simi Singh. This despite Singh taking 3-15 in six overs in what was Ireland’s best performance in the UAE match since the World Cup of 2015.
It meant that Ireland only went into the match with one front line spinner on a rank turner while Dockrell and Singh were left to carry the drinks. Then to make matters worse Porterfield won the toss and put Zimbabwe in to bat first. This on a wicket that could only deteriorate. Throughout the Tournament at this ground a score anywhere around 220 was challenging particularly as the wickets had to be reused as the Tournament entered the Super Six stage.
Despite reducing Zimbabwe to 87-5 and 112-6 Ireland again failed to apply the coup de grace and thanks largely to Sikandar Raza, who made a match winning unbeaten 69 from just 83 balls, Zimbabwe scrambled their way to 211. McBrine bowled well in his ten overs taking 2-42 but other than two unproductive overs from part timer Stirling, the lack of at least one more front line spinner helped Zimbabwe to get off the hook.
Ireland’s reply was shambolic. They disintegrated to 104 inside 35 overs with only Stirling showing any real fight and whatever slight hope that remained was extinguished when he was run out for 41. The Zimbabwean’s recognised the nature of the wicket and went with four spinners. Although none could be described as world class they were sufficiently skilful to rout the tentative Ireland batsmen. Between them in 25.2 overs they took 8-68 and underscored Ireland’s tactical errors. Sadly Ed Joyce has almost certainly ended his very distinguished ODI career with a second ball duck. He was unable to play in the rest of the Tournament with a niggling injury.
Ireland now had two matches left and they were both must win and even that may not be enough.
The first game was against the old enemy Scotland who have invariably struggled against their Celtic neighbours. The bare facts are that Ireland won by 25 runs. The reality is that but for a horrendous mistake by Australian umpire Paul Wilson, Scotland almost certainly would have won the match and joined the West Indies in the next year’s Finals. Scotland opening bowler Brad Wheal had dismissed Stirling for a duck in the first over of the match and with the second ball of his next over produced an in swinger that hit Balbirnie below the knee low in front of middle. To the astonishment of everyone, not least I suspect judging from his body language, Balbirnie himself, Wilson said not out.
As Barry Chambers said on Twitter perhaps Wilson thought it was going under the stumps. Balbirnie was on 1 at the time and he made the most of his outrageous stroke of good fortune by making a very fine hundred. Together with Niall O’Brien who made a swashbuckling run a ball 70, the pair added 138 which was followed by another thunderous innings by the younger O’Brien who smashed 46 off just 27 balls.
When Scotland were still in contention at 112-2 in the 24th over with skipper Kyle Coetzer on 61 Rankin returned to the attack and immediately ripped out Coetzer’s stumps . He took wickets in each of his two overs and effectively settled the contest.
Scotland’s Tournament ended in their next match when they lost to the West Indies by 5 runs in a DLS victory although again the Scots felt aggrieved by another LBW decision by the same Paul Wilson which they believe cost them that match.
That result left Ireland with the seemingly forlorn hope of the UAE beating Zimbabwe, the same UAE that Ireland had demolished the previous week. Astonishingly the pressure of the match amidst the huge expectation of the support proved to be too much and they lost by 3 runs.
So Ireland were given one more, and probably, underserved chance. They had to beat Afghanistan who had themselves come back from the dead having lost their first three matches. If Ireland could repeat their performances from December then they could still make it through. However Afghanistan had Phil Simmons in their corner and now they also had John Mooney. The capacity that the Afghans had shown to keep going when all seemed lost mirrored the tenacity that Mooney had displayed throughout his Ireland career which stretched back to that 2007 World Cup.
Their captain Asghar Stanikzai had also returned to the squad having had to withdraw on the eve of the Tournament because of appendicitis and their world class leg spinner Rashid Khan had deputised for him. Even for the mercurial 18 year old the pressure was too much and his bowling suffered. However the return of his captain had an immediate impact on Rashid’s form and he garnered a 5 wicket haul against UAE.
Porterfield won the toss and this time batted reckoning quite reasonably that if Ireland could set a decent target the scoreboard pressure would prove too much. The theory was fine but unfortunately the execution was not. It took Ireland until the penultimate ball of the 24th over to get to 77 with Porterfield’s 20 eating up 45 balls and then Balbirnie was even slower with his 11 consuming a further 34 deliveries. Yet again Niall O’Brien came in and accelerated the run rate. Together with Stirling they added 44 from 51 balls before Stirling yet again got run out having scored another half century against Afghanistan. Unfortunately O’Brien followed soon after and but for another rapid innings of 41 off 37 balls by Kevin O’Brien Ireland would have fallen well short of 200.
As with the Zimbabweans Afghanistan had played four spinners and while this was far from the raging turner of the Ireland – Zimbabwe match they were still able to exploit Ireland’s insecurity against decent class spin. Led by Rashid’s three wickets the quartet finished with combined figures of 4-137 from 35 overs.
The target for Afghanistan of 210 seemed about 20 runs short and when Mohammad Shahzad and Gulbadin Naib had galloped to 86 by the 17th over it did not look good for Ireland. However a superb spell of off spin from Simi Singh brought Ireland back into contention. He took three wickets while conceding just 30 runs in his ten overs. McBrine was steady conceding just 38 runs but the absence of Dockrell was crucial. In his previous outing against this opposition in December he stifled the Afghans with 4-28 which was instrumental in that win.
In the end Ireland couldn’t create the collapse that was necessary and although the match went to the final over it was never that close and those extra 20 runs would have meant more pressure on the batsmen and potentially more wickets.
So almost thirteen years on from qualifying for the 2007 World Cup the end of the road was finally reached. The one last hurrah for this great team that seemed possible after the wins in December and January failed to materialise when the crunch matches came.
Apart from poor tactical decisions the age of the squad became a factor in the crucial closing stages of the Tournament. When Ireland were at the height of their powers not only were the best Associate fielding team they were also superior to many of the Test sides. Now too many players have to be hidden in the field. At an average age of exactly 30 Ireland had the oldest squad in the Tournament while the winners Afghanistan was only 25.7. Eight of the 15 man Ireland squad were over 30 years of age with only Zimbabwe with nine having more and that undoubtedly contributed to their failure.
Ireland’s neighbours Scotland, who came within a correct umpiring decision of qualification, had an average age of only 25.3 and significantly only two players over thirty. In many ways Scotland are now reminiscent of where Ireland where a few years ago. A talented young team who given the opportunity can kick on to greater things. However unlike Ireland, thanks to their opportunity to beat Bangladesh in 2007, Scotland is not on the ranking table and will have limited chances to progress. If ICC really wants to increase standards they will have to come up with a solution to give teams outside the top 13 meaningful fixture schedules. However ICC seems fixated on developing the game through T20 cricket which is fine for the many countries that have no real interest in any other form of cricket.
For the many others such as Scotland, Nepal, Hong Kong, PNG, UAE etc more opportunities are essential if any real progress in developing the game is to succeed. As always money is cited as the reason to move cautiously yet we see extraordinary amounts for Media rights and a fraction of the money generated by the Big Three, especially India, would do wonders for the game outside of what is now the elite club of 12 Test sides and 13 ODI countries. Ireland and Afghanistan now have a permanent place at the ICC top table and given where they have just come from it is incumbent on them to actively instigate and support measures to improve the lot of those countries less fortunate than themselves.
The Test match will be over in two weeks time and while it will be a great occasion which I have no doubt will be superbly organised and choreographed, the necessity of a transition period must take priority. In fact this process should be about two years in progress by now but the failure to grasp the nettle by those who are responsible for developing the National team has got Ireland to where it is now – looking on from the outside next year in the UK.
When you study Ireland’s averages for the Tournament they look decent enough. However a very different picture emerges when only the three games against Ireland’s fellow FM’s are analysed. Porterfield topped the runs aggregate with 294 at an average of 42 but he only managed a total of27 runs against West Indies, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. Balbirnie had 209 runs at 29.9 but totalled only 22 runs in the three innings that really mattered. 44 of Wilson’s 59 runs were against the FM’s.
Joyce with 63 against the West Indies got Ireland’s highest score in those three matches with Stirling the only other batsman to pass fifty. Indeed Stirling with 114 runs in these matches is now demonstrating his ability to be consistent over an extended period which now extends back to December.
The O’Brien brothers both had a good Tournament. Not only did Niall score 202 runs at 28.9 he pretty well maintained that average in the three FM games. He also scored his runs at a strike rate of 95. Most importantly he was by some distance the best wicketkeeper in the Tournament.
Kevin got 198 runs at 33 and his average in the FM games was 28.7. His strike rate of 124.5 was the third best of any batman who scored 50 or more runs. He also had to shore up an innings or give it momentum to achieve a defendable target. While he had some good bowling spells, particularly against Zimbabwe when he had 1-22 off eight overs, using him in death overs was as equally unsuccessful as it was in the 2015 WC. Although given his middle overs bowling against Zimbabwe it was a surprise that he was never called upon against Afghanistan.
Rankin topped the wickets table for Ireland with 15 at an average of 17.9 and he suffered from quite a few errors in the field off his bowling. Murtagh was his usual steady self snaring 13 wickets at 19.8 and an economy rate of 4.2. When he had a helpful wicket in the West Indies match he was devastating and if he had have been kept on when the men from the Caribbean were reeling the outcome might have been very different.
McCarthy who has been the most successful bowler in ODI’s in the past two years picked up 8 wickets at an average of 28.6. Despite being omitted from 12 of Ireland’s 35 ODI’s since his debut against Sri Lanka in June 2016 he has taken 47 wickets at an average of 24.6 and a strike rate of 25.4. However his economy rate remains something of an issue at 5.8. I believe that he suffering from always having to prove himself and is trying too hard and is searching for wickets. His anxiety is understandable as he has been omitted so often and despite bowling well against the Dutch was left out of the PNG game and crucially not reinstated for the West Indies match.
Given that McBrine was not even in the squad for the Afghanistan series in December his elevation to number one spinner during this Tournament speaks volumes for his hard work and tenacity. He took 7 wickets and while they cost an average of 30 runs he only conceded 3.8 runs an over.
The revelation in the bowling attack was Simi Singh. On his debut against New Zealand last May he didn’t bowl a single ball. Indeed by the time he played in Ireland’s demolition of UAE he had only bowled 18 ODI overs. He proceeded to take 3-15 in that UAE match and then became the sacrificial lamb for Wilson in the Zimbabwe match. Brought back in for the final two games he excelled and his spell against Afghanistan almost turned the tide in Ireland’s favour. A measure of his success is that for any bowler in the Tournament with at least 10 overs he had the best average with his 8 wickets costing just 9.75 apiece almost 2 runs per wicket better than the next man. He also topped the economy list with a rate of exactly 3 which was 0.23 better than the runner up. His strike rate of 19.4 saw him finish 4th on that table.
A year ago in this column I wrote that William Porterfield’s time as captain as opposed to as a player had run its course. One year on the failure to deal with the issue then has arguably cost Ireland their place in next year’s World Cup. His flawed decision making in terms of tactics and selection were crucial elements in the losses to the other three FM’s. Unfortunately his seemingly blind loyalty to his close friend Gary Wilson is also a factor. Quite bluntly Wilson, described recently by Ger Siggins in the Sunday Independent as a walking wicket, does not deserve his place in the Ireland ODI team.
A transition period needs a new captain with fresh thinking and he has to be allowed to take risks and not be concerned about losing matches. The majority of what were the great players in the team are now good while those that were good are now for the most part no longer worthy of their place.
Ireland is now at the pinnacle of the cricket world and don’t have to dread the consequences of failure as was invariably the case when it was at Associate level. There have been many captains of International teams who had not played a significant number of matches when they took on that role. It is I believe a time to move to a new generation to lead Ireland into a new era.
With the likes of Stirling, the O’Brien brothers and Rankin still around for a while yet to support a new younger leader is essential. The likes of George Dockrell, Andy McBrine and James Shannon must be contenders as they lead their respective sides in the Interprovincial championships. Younger players such as the Tector brothers, James McCollum, David Delany, Josh Little and Aaron Gillespie need to get a run in the team and not be discarded after a couple of poor games. Shannon, for example, has only played 13 matches for Ireland since his debut in 2012 and his last outing was a T20I two years ago.
If the Inter-pros have any meaning and they must have as, with the rapid winding down of Ireland players in County Cricket, it will not be long until virtually every player will be playing on this island. Therefore these performances will become the benchmark for selection rather than, as it has been at times recently, on reputation.
Resources and encouragement must be dispensed to all corners of Ireland. On that note it was very disappointing to see that one of the bastions of Ireland cricket – the North West were not given a single part-time Academy contract a few weeks ago while players from that part of Ireland didn’t have a single man on the subsequently aborted Wolves pre season tour to South-West England. Surely Aaron Gillespie was worthy of a contract and Stuart Thompson of a Wolves spot. As I write this Thompson has just been dismissed for 148 having shared a record partnership of 308 with Niall O’Brien against Leinster Lightning while Gillespie made a fluent 57 yesterday.
Irrespective of the outcome the Test will be memorable and hopefully will be a catalyst for new people wanting to play the game and see their names on the pages of Wisden alongside the greats of the game.