Who could have imagined that when Kevin OíBrien smashed Rashid Khan back over his head for six from the final ball of the Super Over against Afghanistan last March, Ireland would not play another international until the end of July?
It would have been even more bizarre to imagine that the next three games would be behind closed doors in a spectator free bubble in Southampton with the players, officials and media living in the hotel on the ground and being regularly tested for Covid 19.
At the end of 2019, Ireland anticipated a crowded year of challenging and exciting cricket. There were four Tests to savour including the second home Test, which was to be against Bangladesh in May, 12 ODIís, 22 T20Iís with the year culminating in the T20 World Cup in Australia in October and November.
While Covid 19 dealt a devastating blow to peopleís lives across the world and decimated the sporting calendar, Irelandís cricketing itinerary had already seen drastic changes pre-Covid caused by financial difficulties rather than a killer virus.
All four Tests were postponed without definite dates for re-fixtures. The five T20Iís in Zimbabwe and the three against Afghanistan in August went by the board and four additional games against Bangladesh were switched to grounds in England. Covid took care of the rest including the T20 World Cup which has been postponed for a year.
However, the three ODIís against England, originally scheduled for Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and The Oval in September now take place over the next five days in Southampton. England needed to have some live cricket or they would have had to refund a significant amount of the broadcasting fee from Sky Sports which as reported by ESPNCricinfo would ďoffset a loss that Tom Harrison, the ECB Chief Executive, had estimated could have been upwards of £380 million had no cricket at all been played this year.Ē
Probably only England, India and Australia would have the resources and infrastructure to allow international cricket to be played in the current situation. England constructed a bubble in Southampton and Manchester, which both have a hotel on-site, and will play all twelve matches this season at these two grounds. Yesterday the 3 match Test series against West Indies was completed and commencing next week Pakistan provide the opposition for three Tests and three T20Iís. England also hope that Australia will tour for an ODI series in September.
The fact that these games are the first in the World Cup Super League, which is the primary qualifier for the 2023 50 over World Cup in India, has probably contributed to Ireland being offered the matches now. England are prepared to risk playing these matches without several of last years World Cup winning squad who are confined to the bubble in Manchester prior to the Pakistan series.
England will be without Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood while Liam Plunkett is now in neither squad. However, Eoin Morgan, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Tom Curran, Adil Rashid and Jason Roy are some of that World Cup squad in Southampton this week.
Ireland will have their work cut out to keep pace with this England side but over a three-match series it requires just one good day to take 10 points towards World Cup qualification. Ireland were in a similar position in the West Indies last January and should have won the second ODI but for two bungled run outs in the final over. Ireland must take every chance on offer if they are to come home with something to carry them into next year.
The original squad of 21 players saw two contracted players, Stuart Thompson and Shane Getkate being left out as was David Delany because he was not considered fit enough following his knee injury in the World T20 Cup qualifier in UAE last year. Hopefully, he can play in the inter-pros in August and September. Thompson was subsequently added to the squad as Hampshire couldnít supply all the support players promised.
The fourteen-man squad announced following the warm-up match against the England Lions saw two new men in an ODI squad. Harry Tector is no surprise as it was only a matter of time before he progressed from the T20I squad where he has demonstrated that he has both the technique and ability to play the game at the highest level. Any lingering doubts were squashed with a 49 ball 55 which include three fours and three sixes last Sunday against the Lions.
The other inclusion was a surprise to many who donít follow Irish cricket closely. Curtis Campher is an exciting 21-year-old seam bowling all-rounder who although born in South Africa and played for the national u-19 side, has taken advantage of his grandmotherís Derry birth and therefor access to an Irish passport to declare for Ireland. While some purists have been upset by the introduction of someone who has never played a match in Ireland, they were probably equally upset when Tim Murtagh made his debut eight years ago. He had played only once on this island either before his Ireland debut but were they still complaining when he was instrumental in demolishing England before lunch in the Test match last July?
With such a relatively small pool of players who must be spread over three formats, it would be foolish to not seek out decent players who have Ireland qualifications. That is a quite different matter to packing your side with overseas players while neglecting the development of home-grown players. In any case Campher has already shown his worth when he was called into the Wolves side in February when they played a series against Namibia in Pretoria where he batted in two T20ís and one LA match scoring 161 runs off 135 balls with 11 fours and 8 sixes. He considers himself as a bowling all-rounder but his bowling figures to date for Ireland suggest the opposite.
As was the case to some extent at last yearís WC T20 Qualifier and was reinforced against both West Indies and Afghanistan earlier this year the introduction of so many younger players has revitalised this Ireland team. However, a core of experienced and battle-hardened players is still essential to deal with the vagaries of international cricket and to aid the development of younger players.
Skipper Andrew Balbirnie and his vice-captain Paul Stirling are as talented a duo as has graced Ireland cricket in the modern era. Add in Kevin OíBrien, who judging by what I saw on the streaming service from Southampton, is as fit as he has been for some time, together with former captain William Porterfield who can dig in and shepherd some of the younger players, Ireland can still hold their own with the bat. Gareth Delany together with Tector and Lorcan Tucker add youth and flair.
Delany will probably open alongside Stirling thus replacing James McCollum but whether he is a natural opener in this format remains to be seen. He is certainly an exciting and flamboyant talent which may be better suited to the middle order, although opening does give him access to the power play. McCollum is too good a player to be on the side lines for long, he is just in a poor run of form, and as he is one of the eight players on standby it would not be a shock to see him before the series in concluded.
I suspect the batting will hold up fairly well during the series so success or failure will come down to the bowling attack. It is fair to say the attack was savaged by the Lions last Sunday which has cost Mark Adair his place in the squad for the first game. Fitness following on from his ankle surgery is clearly an issue otherwise you couldnít contemplate leaving out the most successful bowler of 2019 when he took 48 wickets. Boyd Rankin remains the key man in this attack and although he suffered last Sunday, I would be confident that the competitive juices will be flowing tomorrow afternoon and he will again step up to the mark.
Backing him up will be a choice between Josh Little, Craig Young and Barry McCarthy with Campher also in the reckoning as an all-rounder. Each have their merits, but it is likely to come down to experience and who Graeme Ford and Balbirnie believe are best equipped to handle a very alien environment and how they have coped with the lockdown.
The question is will Ireland retain both Andy McBrine and Simi Singh in the starting eleven. While they both performed well in the West Indies, the Southampton wicket may be a luxury to play two spinners plus Delany. Fitting all three in would mean that only three pace bowlers could be chosen without sacrificing one of the batsmen. The wicket will probably determine the final call on that.
England to win the series 2-1 which in terms of the Super League 10 points would be a particularly good result for Ireland.
Following the West Indies series which finished yesterday WI skipper Jason Holder made an interesting point. He said that given the sacrifices made by his side to come to England in the middle of a pandemic, a tangible recognition of this would be for West Indies to receive 20% of the broadcasting fee for the series. As the three Tests brought in some £60 million to the ECB, giving some £12 million of that to the WICB would help alleviate the financial difficulties of cricket in the Caribbean. The West Indies are returning home to pay cuts and an uncertain future.
By extension, his remarks are equally valid for Cricket Ireland and the Pakistan Cricket Board. It is in Englandís interest to host these games and their opponents deserve more than a pat on the back.
I donít know how much each of the three ODIís will generate in broadcasting fees but if CI were offered even a couple of million it would be gratefully received and richly deserved. Cricket Ireland had financial difficulties prior to Covid 19, and it is unlikely that the absence of any cricket until now will have improved the situation.
ESPNCricinfo has reported that the half yearly allocation of funds from the ICC were paid in July. However, ICC funding is very dependent on broadcasting fees from World Cup tournaments and with the postponement of the T20 WC it may have a detrimental knock-on effect when the January allocation is due. This would have affect all cricket nations but all but the big three will probably be disproportionally impacted.
Only time will tell on the outcome regarding finances but unless the pandemic is eradicated in the next year things can only get worse.
Meanwhile enjoy the live cricket while you get the chance.