THE Ireland players return to action today — but in the most unusual of circumstances. They will play an intra-squad game in the Ageas Bowl, Southampton, their home for the last four days and the next two weeks.

For some, the 50-over day-night match will be their first game of the year — no one has played since March, 134 days ago, and the last one-day international was in January.

It may be only a game between themselves but Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie promises it will be as competitive as an ODI, as the squad prepare for just that, three of them against world champions England on July 30, August 1 and 4.

“That’s the message we are trying to get through to the guys at training and tomorrow’s match,” said Balbirnie.
“We have to take this and our game against England Lions on Sunday as seriously as an ODI because we haven’t played any cricket.

“We need our competitive juices to be flowing so come the first ODI we will be ready to go.”

Balbirnie was speaking from the balcony of his hotel room, overlooking the ground “with the best view in the house” of the England players’ intra-squad game.

Along with the other 21 players, nine backroom staff and three Hampshire players, Balbirnie is now well into his latest spell in lockdown — but this one is more than bearable.

“We’re very lucky, the facilities are probably the best in England. You have the main Oval which is the ODI ground, behind that there is a second XI pitch with grass nets as well as separate grass nets behind it,” he said.

“You have everything on your doorstep, so you don’t need to go anywhere. The food is excellent, we have a golf simulator, pool table, table tennis, PlayStations for the young lads and a golf course which we have access to. The ECB have left no stone unturned and we’re really well looked after.

“We have our own floor in the hotel, it’s the second floor with our team room on the same level (England are one level down). We have our own restaurant on the Upper Ground floor and apart from that you can’t go anywhere else.

“You’re not allowed in the lobby unless you are going through to play golf and you have to wear your masks everywhere, although you can take it off in the restaurant, where we have our breakfast and dinner. Lunch is in our own area in the pavilion where all the tables are spaced out — only 18 at a time — but everybody has gotten used to it pretty quickly.

“Only four people are allowed together in the lift and you have to face away from each other. There are hand sanitisers pretty much everywhere you turn your head, so it is probably one of the safest places you are likely to be.”
The squad had their second training session only yesterday after a couple of false starts. Firstly, the charter flight bound for Southampton on Saturday had to land in Birmingham, as Balbirnie explained.

“As we were descending, the pilot told us that Southampton Airport had shut up shop so we ended up having to take two coaches (everyone socially distanced) on the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Southampton.

“We were tested on arrival but there was a delay in getting those so we were all stuck in our rooms for 24 hours. Even though we are all fit and well with no symptoms, it is a nervous wait for the test results but, fortunately, we were all given the all-clear and have cracked on.”

The teams for today’s practice game were selected after training yesterday, but Balbirnie is keen to captain both teams!

“I’ll probably be out on the field for the duration, when I’m not batting,” he said.

“Just to get a chat to the bowlers and practice doing it (captaincy) again, because I haven’t captained a team since March. So as Fordy (coach Graham Ford) is happy, that’s how we will go about it.

“No one has form behind them, everybody starts with a clean slate so selection for the Lions game, which will probably be as close as possible to the ODI team, could come down to how they are looking in the nets or how they perform in the middle.

“Everyone is aware of how big a series this is, not just because it is a World Cup qualification match but because people back home can watch international cricket when they didn’t think they would be able to. It’s important we know there is a bigger picture.

“Everyone is raring to go, even in the first training session you could see the bowlers had that extra venom and that’s what you want to see, guys running in without fear.

“It will be strange playing an ODI, something we haven’t done since January, but England will be in the same boat not having played any competitive cricket. It’s exciting for me and the group.”

And Balbirnie saw first-hand just how difficult the ODIs will be as he watched Team Moeen (Ali), who was yesterday confirmed as vice-captain for the Ireland series, pile up 325 for nine in just 40 overs — albeit the bowlers looked rusty — with Johnny Bairstow hitting 127 from 88 balls and the captain 85 from 45.

In reply, Team (Eoin) Morgan were dismissed for 225 in the 33rd over with the former Ireland international caught at backward point for 33 from 24 balls.

England have a second intra-squad game under the Ageas lights on Friday.

The Lions game on Sunday will be live-streamed on the ECB site and the three ODIs are live on Sky Sports.