While Ireland achieved their goal of qualifying for the First Round of the World T20 in the UAE, their performance in the tournament was not without hiccups and a third-place finish may disappoint both players and supporters.
It should not be taken for granted that Ireland secured qualification, given how woeful their T20 form had mostly been until this year, and the fact they languished at 18th in the rankings as recently as last year.
However, both team selections and deployment of playing resources puzzled at times, with improvements needed in both if Ireland are to progress to the Super 12 stage in Australia next year.
Irelandís top-order generally got the team off to a positive start in what was mostly a low-scoring tournament. 45 runs were on average scored in the powerplay and excluding the facile chase of 67 against Nigeria, more than 1 wicket was lost on only the solitary occasion.
On the other hand, the performance of the middle-order left a lot to be desired. Those in the collective number 4-7 positions in the batting line-up could only muster 198 runs (the match v Nigeria is excluded as they were so much weaker than any other team in the tournament) at an average of 11 and a strike rate of 96. Though it must be remembered that Ireland did play 6 of their 8 matches at Abu Dhabi and Dubai Sports Club which both featured slow wickets and huge boundaries, these numbers are simply unsustainable if Ireland are to make a splash in Australia next year.
The middle-order could be blamed hugely for all 3 defeats, with overs 7-to-15 producing returns of 46-3, 50-3, and 45-5 against the UAE, Canada and Holland respectively. 4 players (Tector, Adair, Gareth Delany, and Wilson) batted between numbers 4 and 7 on more than one occasion, with none of them managing a strike rate of more than 104.
A possible remedy to this ahead of next yearís tournament is to move Kevin OíBrien back to the middle-order. Although his returns opening the batting in T20Is this year have been superb, (588 runs at 39.20 prior to the start of the qualifiers) Gareth Delany has also emerged as a viable opening candidate for Paul Stirling.
In 6 innings in the top 3 in T20Is this year, Delany scored 205 runs at a strike rate of 179, compared to 109 runs (SR 118) when batting elsewhere. With Ireland struggling so badly for boundaries in the middle overs, swapping OíBrien with Delany may be the solution.
Irelandís age-old nemesis of spin - both bowling it and batting against it - was on show once again. It was a tournament favourable to spin bowling throughout, with spinners from the other nations averaging 22.83 at an economy rate of only 6.49 per over (Nigeria excluded).
Excluding the Nigeria match, Irelandís spinners collectively averaged 22.64, but their economy rate of 7.45 was far too high in conditions clearly receptive to spin bowling. Considering he is Irelandís leading wicket-taker in the format, George Dockrellís 3 wickets from 6 matches (Nigeria excluded) at an economy of 8.81 per over was extremely disappointing.
Gareth Delanyís leg-spin proved more effective, his 8 wickets coming at an economy of 6.58. Simi Singh may feel unfortunate to have played only one match considering he returned figures of 3-25 in the 3rd place play-off against the powerful Namibian batting line-up. The batting against the opposition spinners was mostly turgid throughout the tournament. Both an inability to rotate the strike and a tendency to lose wickets in clusters were characteristic of batting collapses against the UAE, Canada, Netherlands, and Namibia.
In these matches, the opposition spinners recorded figures of 66-5 (12 overs), 3-50 (8), 5-36 (8), and 3-67 (10). Each time an initial promising start from the openers was ruined by an almost total inability to score runs and prevent the opposition spinners from taking wickets.
While the standard of cricket on show throughout the tournament was superb, the standard of slow bowling will be incomparable to what Ireland can expect to face should they progress to the Super 12 stage next year.
Without a serious improvement in how Ireland both bowl and bat against slow bowling, expect some expensive bowling figures in the middle of the innings as well some laboured batting against wrist-spin.
Team selection was a constant issue throughout the tournament. Ireland frequently went into matches effectively a player down with their continued selection and use/misuse of Dockrell and Stuart Thompson. Both are superb all-round cricketers who have enjoyed fine moments across formats for Ireland in the past. But with neither trusted to regularly bowl near their full quota of overs nor deemed suitable to bat in the top 7 by the team management, itís hard to make a case for either featuring in Australia next year.
With truer batting wickets and faster outfields lying in wait, the selectors are going to have to seriously consider strengthening one of the batting or bowling, even if it comes at the risk of weakening the other suit. Gary Wilson does deserve credit for marshalling Irelandís path to qualification. However, it is hard not to conclude that since he is now no longer captain his position as a middle-order batsman has become untenable. Although he wasnít the only middle-order batsman to struggle, his return of 33 runs from 4 innings at a strike-rate of 86.84 was desperately disappointing for a player of 78 T20Is.
Although Ireland did labour through the group stage and lose in the semi-final, there is much reason to be positive ahead of next yearís group stage in Australia. For starters, Ireland have been placed in what is on paper the weaker of the two groups. A top two finish in a group containing Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Oman is a very realistic aim.
The qualifiers did also see the emergence or further development of a number of young players. Gareth Delany played possibly the innings of the tournament with his 89* v Oman. Harry Tector showed glimpses of potential and will be all the better come next October after another year on the international circuit. David Delany also demonstrated the raw pace that will be needed to trouble stronger batting line-ups on truer batting wickets before injury ended his tournament prematurely.
While there are no obvious cures to Irelandís middle-order woes, the bowling attack is in dire need of some greater variety if it is to avoid being hit to all parts in Australia. Boyd Rankin and Mark Adair both had economy rates of under 6 and provided all goes well should be certain starters next year.
The rest of the bowling attack however lacks variety and penetration. The all-round duo of Thompson and Dockrell have struggled to contain the opposition of late. Elsewhere in the spin department, Simi Singh looks a far better option moving forward, albeit having played only one game in the UAE. While Delanyís leg-breaks proved useful, it is worth remembering that he is still only a part-time option and having another wrist-spinner would be beyond vital.
A bowling attack of Adair, Rankin, David Delany, Singh and Jacob Mulder (should he regain full fitness) should in theory provide the team with swing at the top of the innings, height and bounce, raw pace, as well as slow bowlers who turn the ball away from both right and left handers.
While a number of the same issues that have dogged Irelandís T20 cricket over the last few years were evident in the UAE, thereís no reason why with improved middle-order batting and a greater variety in the bowling attack that Ireland shouldnít be able to progress from the First Round and challenge some of the Full Members in the Super 12.