Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
A NEW year, a new captain and Ireland will hope a new beginning for a squad still very much in transition.
It wasn’t quite an annus horribilis in 2019, saved by qualifying for the World Twenty20 which will bring this year to a climax in Australia in October, but there is plenty of improvement needed, although life as a Full Member was never going to easy, or straightforward.
With Test cricket effectively put on the back burner, following the cancellation of Ireland’s only home Test match this year — their only five-day action will be in Zimbabwe in April — at least it gives the squad a chance to concentrate on their white ball cricket with 24 Twenty20 internationals and 12 one-day internationals in the confirmed schedule.
They start next week in the holiday island of Barbados, but it will be no holiday for the 15-man Ireland squad when they face West Indies in two day/night ODIs on Tuesday and Thursday.
A third game will be played in Grenada on Sunday week followed by the first of three T20s, the last two, sending an Ireland team to St Kitts for the first time.
Jason Holder is the only player missing from the hosts’ line-up whose batting, in particular, impressed in last month’s 2-1 defeat in India, the West Indies Test captain rested “to manage his workload”.
It will be exactly six months on Tuesday since Ireland last played a 50-over game, when they completed a 3-0 clean sweep of Zimbabwe and two players have failed to survive the extended interlude, Shane Getkate and Tim Murtagh, who will end his playing career in county cricket with Middlesex.
The return of Barry McCarthy, who took his 50th ODI wicket last year in his 26th ODI, is the only addition to a familiar Ireland squad with the one significant difference being the lead man, Andrew Balbirnie taking over from William Porterfield after the Donemana man’s 11-year, 253-match reign as captain.
The 29-year-old Dubliner will want to put his stamp on the team early and his bowling changes in the Caribbean heat if the Windies batting threatens to get out of control will be his first challenge. Ireland will always have their 2015 World Cup win in Nelson as encouragement that it will not be a one-sided series but, on home ground, West Indies are formidable opponents and big runs will likely be needed from Ireland’s experienced quartet of Paul Stirling, Balbirnie, Porterfield and Kevin O’Brien.
James McCollum, who scored his first two ODI centuries in his last two games, will retain his opener’s role and assuming Gary Wilson returns to the 50-over side as wicket-keeper — Lorcan Tucker had the gloves against Zimbabwe — the deposed T20 captain knows he could be in the last chance saloon unless he contributes significantly to the team’s runs.
Boyd Rankin may be 35 now, but he missed only one of Ireland’s 14 ODIs last year and played every match at the T20 World Cup qualifiers, and has fond memories of the Caribbean, albeit 13 years ago, when he took 12 wickets at the World Cup finals.
Mark Adair, 23, burst onto the scene last year and this promises to a huge year for the new-ball bowler, who has also proved he can score quick runs at the end of the innings and it would be great if Craig Young can take his improved form at the qualifiers last year into the 50-over arena. His last ODI was in May 2017 but he has taken wickets in all 13 internationals.
West Indies pitches have been traditionally prepared for their fast bowlers but spinners have in recent years come more to the fore and Gareth Delany, hoping for his ODI debut and also a big-hitting option, and Andy McBrine will be keen to make an impact.
Delany was the most impressive yesterday when Ireland enjoyed a 45 runs win in their first match action — a friendly warm-up against Wanderers CC in Barbados — taking two wickets in an over, a feat matched by Rankin with the first five balls of his second spell.
Tucker and Wilson shared the gloves, 25 overs each, with the latter completing a stumping and breaking the opening partnership of 109 from his first ball as keeper.
Wilson also starred with the bat, blasting the club attack for 76 off 35 balls, including six sixes, as Ireland plundered 87 off the last 40 deliveries to finish on 338-5 in their 50 overs. Openers Stirling and McCollum both hit 64 and were retired after an opening stand of 133 in 21 overs.
Adair was the only player not involved yesterday after a sickness bug kept him in the team hotel but he is expected to be available for Ireland’s official warm-up game against a West Indies President’s XI tomorrow, a side captained by Darren Bravo and the experienced Kieran Powell is another of seven internationals named in the 13-man squad.