Ian Callender (Sunday Life)
PAUL Stirling believes his best years are ahead of him and thatís great news for Ireland and an ominous warning for the top teams in the world.
Stirling hits the Big 3-0 in September and although cricket has come to a standstill, the hard-hitting Newtownabbey batsman is suitably refreshed and ready to go when the green light is given for a return to action.
It was quite a 72 hours last weekend for Stirling as his appointment as Ireland vice-captain was followed by confirmation that, when available, he will be playing Premier League cricket for North Down.
Unfortunately for the Comber side, the expected first two rounds of the new season are set to clash with the Ireland squad being in Southampton for three one-day internationals against England, which are due to confirmed this week by the ECB.
(Paul Stirling with his father Brian)
ďIím dying to get some cricket so hopefully they will come good and if nothing health wise happens, weíre pretty hopeful those matches will go ahead,Ē said Stirling.
ďIt was a great honour to be given the vice-captaincy. Delighted that Bal phoned last week to pop the news the news to me. Iíve known him for a long time and hopefully I can contribute on and off the field.Ē
If and when Stirling is called on to lead the team it wonít be a completely novel experience, as he was given the reins for six Twenty20 internationals in Oman and India in February 2019, but that is his total experience.
ďIíd never captained before, even through the age groups, but it was brilliant fun,Ē he adds. ďIt was a great challenge and Iím glad my form didnít drop as can happen to some people. It was interesting to put myself in that position and see what happened.Ē
He scored 71 in his first game, against Oman, followed up with another half-century in the next game, against Scotland, and also hit 91 from 50 balls against Afghanistan in Dehradun.
Stirling has yet to score a century in the shortest international format but he made his highest T20 score for Ireland in January, 95 against West Indies in Grenada and last summer smashed the Bangladesh attack for 130 in an ODI in Clontarf, in the middle of a run of six consecutive scores of over 50.
Little wonder, he believes his best days are still ahead of him.
(Paul Stirling batting against Zimbabwe)
ďThatís my motivating factor, that my potential hasnít been fully realised,Ē says Irelandís leading run scorer in both ODIs and T20 cricket. Thatís my challenge and thatís what keeps me going when I get up in the morning, that belief that I can keep improving, score runs more consistently and contribute more than just batting. Thatís my goals going forward, so hopefully better years to come.Ē
And fully committed to Ireland, after being forced to choose between country and county because of Irelandís Full Member status, it is the international side which is set to benefit most as he prepares to add to his 282 caps.
But while Stirling may now be classed as an overseas player in county cricket, it didnít stop Northamptonshire snapping him up for their T20 Blast campaign this season and while that has gone the way of all other cricket so far this season, Stirling is hopeful of getting a few trips over to the County Ground.
ďIím in quite a fortunate position, the way things have happened. Iím still signed for Northants and the T20 Blast is likely to be one of the last competitions that would get postponed or cancelled.
ďIím really hopeful I will get over to play although it will not be the T20 Blast as we have seen for the last couple of years. It could be more regionalised with fewer fixtures but I might get a chance to play the 'old enemy' (Middlesex), he says with tongue firmly in cheek.
"Itís looking like late August into September with the finals in October. Red ball cricket is, rightly, taking priority when the season gets under way because you can play T20 under lights or at any time of the day.Ē
As well as Ireland, Northants and North Down, Stirling is looking forward to making his debut for Northern Knights, something he has never managed despite the revamped inter-provincial series having been played for the last seven summers.
ďIíve never had the opportunity to play for the Knights so that will be fun, playing against your international team-mates will be interesting. I had a taste of it at Pembroke last year when Middlesex played a T20 match against Leinster Lightning and that was a great night. Really enjoyed that so looking forward to turning out for the Knights, whenever that may be.Ē