There is one and hopefully two T20 World Cups to come in the next two years for Ireland but their journey to the 2023 50-over global event starts in Southampton today (2pm) and the daunting prospect of facing England in the opening game of the inaugural World Cup Super League.
Andrew Balbirnie, captaining Ireland for only the 10th time today, said that if Ireland qualified automatically for the World Cup, by finishing in the top seven of the 13-team league, it would be “our greatest ever achievement” but privately knows that finishing in the top two of the 10-team qualifying event in early 2023 is, realistically, their only option.
One year on, Ireland players and supporters are still devastated at missing out on the finals in England and although seven of the team that lost out on the last place to Afghanistan could be involved today, how many will still be around in three years time?
Kevin O’Brien, William Porterfield, Simi Singh and Boyd Rankin are already comfortably the wrong side of 30 and it is likely to be the new guard which will take Ireland forward. Getting that balance right must start now.
“You don’t want to discard the guys who have put so much into Irish cricket and are still performing but at the same time, 2023 is the goal and we have to make sure we have a conveyor belt of kids, early 20s, who can come in and do a job from the off,” said Balbirnie on the eve of today’s first ODI in the bio-secure Ageas Bowl.
“We don’t have the county cricket route to fall back on anymore, for them to gain experience and we’re going to have to find out about these guys in the heat of battle against the top teams in the world like England.
“But that’s how you find out if they have got what it takes, not just technically but also upstairs and how they react to not having a great day.
“So it’s important to have the balance of experience and youth and exuberance and I think we have that at the moment, but it’s getting the guys to be confident to put in those performances that qualify us for a World Cup.”
No-one is more confident at the minute than Harry Tector – almost certain to be Balbirnie’s successor as Ireland captain whenever that might be – who has picked up after lockdown where left off in India in March, where he averaged 49 in the three-match T20 series against Afghanistan.
Today he will make his ODI debut and Balbirnie, without putting pressure on the Dubliner, is excited by what he can bring to the team.
“He has ticked all the boxes and made two 50s in our warm-up games, one at a good rate (off 46 balls) against the England Lions at the weekend. He is only 20, but is always thinking about the game and doesn’t shy away from asking the difficult questions.
“He’s cricket-smart and also adds another dimension for us in the field. He has all the attributes to be around for the next 10-15 years and I’m excited for what he can potentially do for this team. I’ve no doubt he will be successful, he is an impressive young man.”
Balbirnie was reminded at yesterday’s Press conference that Ireland went close to beating England the last time the teams met in an ODI, in Malahide last year (101-6, chasing 199) and was asked if they can take inspiration from Scotland’s famous win over Eoin Morgan’s side in Edinburgh in 2018. He didn’t take the bait.
“I remember watching that game an saying ‘we can do this as well’, but you have to turn up. Scotland turned up on the day, put in one of their best performances and if we are short of that at all we will be under the pump, and will struggle, so we have to make sure all 11 of us are on point come the start of the game.
“But, you just look down this England batting line-up and all of them can hit the ball out of the park and we have to be smart in what we do, be busy and active in the field and enjoy ourselves.
“It’s an outstanding opportunity for me as a captain and this team, the first Irish international side to play since lockdown, so it’s exciting but we have to make sure we don’t get overawed by it.”
Ireland’s opening bowlers from that Malahide ODI, Tim Murtagh and Mark Adair, are both missing today but Josh Little took four wickets and, despite his expensive seven overs against the Lions could get the nod today with his left arm variation.
But no-matter what combination Ireland take the field with, Balbirnie knows that they have to be much, much tighter with the ball than against the Lions, who roared to their victory target of 297 inside 35 overs.
“Our batting is in a good place but it will count for nothing if we can’t turn the bowling round,” adds the skipper.
“Undoubtedly, the batters available to the England squad are world class and they have an almost over-aggressive way when they come out to bat. It might be great to watch but it puts our bowlers under the pump and tomorrow hopefully the guys can put that out of their mind, go out and enjoy themselves and execute their skills.”