Irelandís ODI series defeat against Afghanistan brought an end to Irelandís white ball summer which saw little in the way of either an improvement in results or an introduction of new players to the team.
With the next World Cup Qualifier not due to take place for at least another four years and the World T20 Qualifiers not pencilled in until late next year this should surely have been a summer of regeneration.
Instead we saw largely the same players responsible for the teamís decline selected again and again leading to a further deterioration in both performance and results. The summer began with two T20s versus each of the Netherlands, Scotland and India. A victory and tie against the Scots were sandwiched between four defeats to Holland and India.
Both defeats to a severely depleted Dutch team were characterized by a lack of power hitting by either the top or middle order.
Worse was to come versus India when two insipid bowling performances owing somewhat to a refusal to pick a third outright seamer let India rack up totals of 208 and 213, both of which Ireland never even looked like threatening, slipping to defeats by 76 and 143 runs.
Such poor performances could perhaps have been understood if some new players had been introduced to the team in a bid to arrest the T20 teamís decline stemming all of four years. But instead only Simi Singh, making his T20 debut (scored 57* from 29 balls v Holland) and James Shannon playing his first T20 for almost five years (scored 60 from 35 balls versus India) were the only new batsman introduced to the team. Before the series against India both the captain
Gary Wilson and coach Graham Ford spoke about the need to be focusing on the World Cup Qualifiers late next year. But instead of attempting to look at new bodies, players who have consistently struggled in this format over the previous few years retained their places contributing to a similar trend of results.
Both defeats in the T20 series against Afghanistan in late August proved disappointing yet unsurprising, with the second T20 seeing Ireland skittled for only 79. While losing to an Afghan T20 side currently ranked 8th in the world is no shame, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the series was that it directly impinged on the prior Wolves T20 series v Bangladesh A.
William Porterfield and Kevin OíBrien, both at the grand ages of 34 were chosen in the squad to face Bangladesh A in order to prepare them to face Afghanistan. This robbed the selectors of the invaluable opportunity to assess batsmen who impressed in either the previous Wolves matches or the Interprovincial T20 Championship.
Whatever about the merits of sticking with a seasoned cohort of veterans for the senior team fixtures, the inability to properly grasp and use the Wolves fixtures for what they are really intended (to help new players bridge the gap to International level) will have disappointed many supporters.
The following ODI series against Afghanistan was perhaps even more disappointing. The exact same starting XI with an average age of 31 took to the field for each match. It beggars belief that with the new ODI League not due to start till May 2020 and the next World Cup Qualifiers not due until 2022 that a team containing no debutants and only four players under the age of 30 could be selected for all three matches.
While it was understandable that the selectors stuck with the experienced core of senior players for the ultimately unsuccessful World Cup Qualifiers back in March, their refusal to look at new faces (David Delany had been selected in the squad but had to withdraw through injury) in what was essentially a meaningless series with no consequences for defeat is hugely perplexing.
Many of the same problems experienced back in March were on show again with a lack of incisive bowling to the Afghan lower order and laborious batting against spin bowling prevalent once again. While a look at the scorecards would indicate that the bowlers performed decently, it should be noted that 13 of the 18 wickets that Ireland took were taken by the veteran pair of seamers of Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin, both of whom are almost certain not to be still playing when the next World Cup Qualifier arrives.
How Barry McCarthy, a proven wicket taker at both International and County level, a bowler with the 6th lowest ODI career strike rate of all time canít get into a bowling attack that saw only 3 wickets taken by bowlers under the age of 30 across almost two and a half innings is truly staggering.
What should have been an opportunity to assess some of the players who had performed well for the Wolves during the summerís fixtures against Scotland A and Bangladesh A instead saw the same players who have been present throughout Irelandís drastic ODI decline since the 2015 World Cup commit the same mistakes and produce the same results.
Bar a pair of half-centuries from Andrew Balbirnie and a composed 36* from Simi Singh in a 3 wicket win in the second match, it is hard to see anything that was gained from this series in terms of the players who are going to be expected to take this team into the new ODI League and beyond.
The only plausible reason for the lack of change in the playing personnel is that the selector-coach axis is certain that the players currently not in the team will prove no more successful than those currently selected.
Graham Ford as much reasoned this when speaking to Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph). When asked about the selection policy, he replied; ďWe donít have a huge amount of options. In the inter-pros the older players who people are saying should be replaced are outplaying the younger players so if you make changes you want to know they are going to be there for a good period of time, because they are absolutely ready. If they are not ready you are going to go around in circles.Ē
This reasoning for failing to introduce new players is flawed on a number of levels. Firstly, the standard of the Inter-Provincial Competitions is so far removed from even the County Championship in England that it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty that a player is ready for the step-up to international level, regardless of how many runs scored or wickets taken in the inter-pros.
One only has to look at the amount of players with fine domestic records selected and later discarded by the England Test Team in the last few years to underline how great a chasm in standards exists.
Also, if performance in the inter-pros was a sure guarantee of selection and success on the international scene, then why was the recently retired John Anderson (comfortably the highest run scorer in the 3-day interprovincial competition since its beginning) frozen out of the national team since early 2017, despite holding a category A Cricket Ireland contract?
Secondly, Ford seems to forget that two of the most successful cricketers to come into the Irish team in the last 10 years (Paul Stirling and George Dockrell) were both chosen at a very young age with virtually no top-level cricket behind them. But more than anything else the repeated selection of the same ageing players suggests a desperation to ensure that Irelandís first few Test matches are somewhat competitive.
There is no doubt that the senior core of players with years of experience playing county cricket is crucial to ensuring that Irelandís introduction to Test cricket does not consist of complete drubbings. This was obvious in Irelandís excellent showing against Pakistan back in May.
As a result, however, these players must be centrally contracted and provided with other top-level cricket between Test matches to retain their services. Owing to age, Niall OíBrien (aged 36), Boyd Rankin (aged 34) and Tim Murtagh (aged 37) are unlikely to represent Ireland in another global ODI tournament.
The only plausible reason for their continued selection in Irelandís ODI team is that the selectors see these veterans as crucial to next yearís Test matches on what is likely to be an extremely tough match on a dust bowl in India v Afghanistan, before the daunting challenge of taking on England in Lordís. If these players were to be chosen exclusively for the red-ball format there would be no issue.
But with Ireland playing so few Test matches, the selectors see fit to retain them in the ODI team, which in turn means that the players who are going to be tasked with helping Ireland qualify for the 2023 World Cup will have less exposure and international cricket behind them by the time the important business of the ODI League and 2022 World Cup Qualifier arrives.
The issue of how to adequately prepare Irelandís next generation of International cricketers for the step-up from domestic cricket is only going to increase in the coming years as county cricket becomes unavailable for Irish cricketers due to Irelandís status as a Full Member. Although Munsterís encouraging first few seasons in the Interprovincial T20 Competition indicates that they may prove competitive in the 50 over and 3-day formats should funds allow this at a later stage, at the moment both the 50 over and 3-day competitions consist of a mere four matches for each side.
The idea that four first class 3-day matches a season (potentially coupled with more matches for the Wolves which at times feature a poor standard of opposition) can adequately prepare any player for Test Cricket is extremely questionable.
Of course, it is impossible to know whether this ruling from the ECB would stand up to a legal challenge from Cricket Ireland, as it would appear to directly contradict the Common Travel Area that exists between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Cricket Ireland donít appear interested in this however, with Performance Director Richard Holdsworth not appearing alarmed at the situation soon to be facing Irish cricketers. When asked by John Portch (LeadersTM) earlier this year about how this would affect the future development of Irish players, Holdsworth seemed unconcerned.
When asked about the restriction on Irish players in the County Championship, Holdsworth explained; ďWe always knew what was coming and how it would affect us. We cannot keep relying English cricket to develop our players.Ē
This attitude would be good and well if Cricket Ireland had anywhere near the resources to provide an adequate finishing school for aspiring international cricketers; but due to a combination of a lack of ICC funding, inclement weather and an overall lower interest in cricket amongst the general population, the Interprovincial Competitions will always struggle to produce anywhere near the standard of cricket nor quantity of fixtures that the County Championship has provided for Irish players when preparing them for International cricket.
While an increase in the number of Wolves matches may somewhat bridge the gap between the Domestic and International arena, these fixtures often prove hit and miss in terms of the standard of opposition provided, and they will also never prove as plentiful as a full County Championship programme.
2019 will feature Test matches versus Afghanistan and England, the latter of which may well see the retirement of a number of senior players. The ODI team is slated to play nine ODIs on home soil versus a combination of England, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.
Hopefully some new players will be introduced in these matches with a view to building a younger team for the ODI league and beyond. However, the T20 fixtures are no doubt the most important. The FTP has Ireland down to play only three T20s (all at home v Zimbabwe) before the World T20 Qualifiers pencilled in for late in the year.
More T20s (most likely another tri-series with Scotland and Holland) will provide more much-needed preparation for the Qualifiers. One thing that emerged crystal clear from this summer was that despite the appointment of both a new captain and new coach since the last World T20, Irelandís T20 team remains in a dire state with little signs of revitalization.
If a serious improvement (featuring either the same players selected this summer or newer players selected from the Wolves or Interpros) is not seen in this team, there is every chance the 2020 World T20 to be held in Australia will be the first in which a Full Member will not feature.
This would rob Cricket Ireland of some much-needed prize money for qualification and have dire consequences for Irelandís reputation on the International stage.