For the second time this year Kevin O’Brien hit the winning runs for Ireland on a foreign field. On both occasions he was accompanied by Harry Tector as the old and the new combined for a famous victory.
Last night’s dramatic win was about much more than 10 points on the World Super League table. It was a triumph for the vision of Andrew Balbirnie and Graeme Ford, who following several years of stagnation, decided that Ireland cricket’s young guns should get a fair shot at emulating the feats of those who carried the torch from 2006-2015.
This year alone there have been victories in West Indies, India (against Afghanistan) and now Southampton. Indeed, there could have been one or two more but that is a small price to pay for the development of fine young talent.
It is possible that the seeds of this revolution were sown in Zimbabwe in March of 2018 when Ireland failed miserably at their attempt to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in England. Ireland played conservative and at times fearful cricket which carried on into that home summer when they did not once reach 200 in the course of three ODI’s. As recently as March of last year in the series against Afghanistan in India, Ireland did not have a single player aged under 25 in the series apart from James McCollum, who was dropped after making a golden duck in the first of five ODI’s.
Since Balbirnie took over the captaincy at the beginning of this year, the integration of younger players has gradually developed until we reached the point last night when six of that winning team were aged under twenty-five. As I have written previously, the Ireland Wolves finally getting matches against quality opposition has allowed younger players to develop and the Ireland senior team is now starting to reap the benefits of that policy. The Shapoorji Pallonji Academy setup, directed by Pete Johnston, deserve great credit for identifying emerging talent and investing in them.
This Ireland team is still at the stage where it requires a core of battle-hardened players to alleviate the pressure on the new brigade. After the first two games, which on paper, looked very one sided although the second match was less so that the scorecard suggests, there were calls to bring back the old guard. Indeed, the English members of the Sky commentary team were bemused by the absence of William Porterfield, Gary Wilson and Boyd Rankin from the team and while Rankin may have played if he had been fit, the others were deliberately left out. The usual lack of research from the Sky B team failed to notice that the performances of Porterfield and Wilson in recent times were far from stellar.
Porterfield’s back to back 50’s in May of 2019 were his only half centuries in his last 23 ODI’s while Wilson’s 53 against UAE in January 2018 was his only half century in his previous 37 ODI’s. Balbirnie and Ford are quite prepared to ignore social media and ill-informed commentators as they pursue their progressive policy. It appears that when it comes to a choice between a nonperforming older player and one with potential the latter is going to get the call and rightly so.
Last February I wrote an article about the top 25 players under 25 years of age. Seven on that list were in the 22-man squad for Southampton plus Curtis Campher who, while not in the 25, was identified as a potential bolter based on his performances against Namibia having been fast tracked into the Wolves squad.
In addition, David Delany would also have been selected in the squad had he recovered from his injury.
There is of course some distance to go before Ireland take the field as favourites in the majority of their ODI’s or indeed in other formats. But I firmly believe that Ireland are pursuing the correct policy and the benefits will become more apparent as time goes by. It is particularly frustrating that Covid 19 alongside financial issues has curtailed the development of this team. Hopefully in 2021 things will have improved to the extent that there is a full program of matches.
Over the past week Ireland initially suffered in the first two ODI’s from a failure to get enough runs. The three experienced players, Paul Stirling, Balbirnie and O’Brien, had an aggregate of just 56 in those two games and were outscored, albeit marginally by the young trio of Gareth Delany, Tector and Lorcan Tucker who accumulated 71 runs. Incidentally, each of that trio fell for a duck in one of those two innings but there was no question of Balbirnie discarding them as McCollum had been in 2019.
That Ireland got any sort of a reasonable score was down to the lower order and in particular, Campher. He batted with an assurance and technique which belied his age and he marshalled the tail as the last three wickets in the first ODI added 93 runs sharing an 8th wicket partnership of 66 with Andy McBrine. The Donemana man made 40 from just 48 balls and gave another glimpse of the batting talent that he possesses but unfortunately has rarely produced.
In the second ODI Campher again stamped his mark on proceedings being largely responsible for the addition of 121 runs for the last four wickets which included partnerships of 60 with Simi Singh and 56 with McBrine. However, it never seemed that the Ireland totals would be anything like enough to trouble England and so it proved in the first match, but it could have been very different in the second. England seemed to be cruising to victory, so much so, that Sky Sports decided that an interview with Paul Collingwood was a better option and while the cameras remained on the cricket, the commentators’ concentration was elsewhere. Josh Little blasting out three wickets in the space of six balls brought them, reluctantly, back to what they were being paid to do. England suddenly needed 76 with just four wickets in hand and one more wicket could well have brought victory for Ireland.
Unfortunately, the ability to finish teams off is an issue that remains unresolved for Ireland. The absence of genuine pace, such as David Delany, or a wrist spinner who imparts real turn inhibits Ireland from limiting the oppositions’ totals on too many occasions.
While this was still an issue in yesterday’s game, the ability to get a few wickets in bursts does have the capacity to slow down the scoring. The fact that Ireland had to chase 329 and that the game went to the last over inevitably drew comparisons with Bengaluru in 2011. The most important comparison, in my view, was the Ireland bowlers restricting the final England total and giving their batters some chance of chasing down a victory. In 2011 England only mustered 49 runs off their last seven overs while losing six wickets thanks to Trent Johnston and John Mooney.
Yesterday England were restricted to 112 off their final 17 overs and instead of chasing something around 380, the batsmen could look at 2011 and convince themselves that Ireland have done this before, and they could do it again.
Stirling has never really performed against England in the past but in Southampton he more than made up for it, blasting the England attack, especially Adil Rashid, to all parts of the stadium. Balbirnie is more low key than the Belfast man but is highly effective and drives and sweeps the ball with aplomb.
When Stirling fell the expectation of many was that the experience of O’Brien would result in the hero of 2011 being moved up the order. However, the steely determination of Balbirnie to challenge the younger players in the white heat of meaningful battle meant that Tector kept his number four spot in the order. The young YMCA man delivered for his skipper and when Balbirnie fell, opening the possibility of the run chase falling short, he smashed the next ball through the covers for a crucial boundary and deflated the attack. At times yesterday he reminded me of Balbirnie when he made his real breakthrough into the Ireland team in 2014, particularly with his focus and his stroke play.
Together with O’Brien they saw it through without ever looking like they would panic. The young players will have gained immensely from this famous win and will realise that anything is possible in the coming years. They will also know that there is still plenty to work on. Gareth Delany is a great striker of the ball but does not yet look to have the technique of an opening batsman. His best position is in the middle order and he may well end up slotting into the O’Brien slot when he finally calls it a day. He also needs to work on his bowling because if he can get the ball to turn appreciably in at least one direction then he will help copper fasten his place in the ODI side and add to his prowess in the T20I team where he is now deservedly a regular selection.
Tucker has really sharpened up his wicket keeping skills and if he can add more runs, he will also be difficult to replace. He demonstrated his batting ability last year against Zimbabwe and having started the last nine ODI’s at the expense of Wilson, his biggest threat may well come from hungry young keepers behind him.
Campher was a very unexpected but very welcome bonus and he will be pushing for selection in all three formats. He has a very cool temperament and this together with his technique might make him an ideal opening partner for Stirling, thus swapping places with Delany.
Craig Young is getting better with age and together with the unfortunate Barry McCarthy they are now the first-choice strike force for the foreseeable future. Young has also added extra pace to his ability to move the ball and in the past week was regularly in the mid 80’s in MPH and touched 88 MPH at one point.
Little is not short of aggression or confidence and is always capable of a spurt of wickets when he hits a rhythm. He has been around for some time but is still only twenty. A good bowling coach can work wonders with him making the loss of Rob Cassell even more unfortunate.
Mark Adair returned to the side yesterday and made his presence felt early when he ripped out Bairstow’s middle stump. However, I am not convinced that he is fully fit and for most of his bowling spells he was down in pace by 5 or 6 MPH. Fully fit and firing he is a decided asset to this team as he proved conclusively in 2019.
The two spinners McBrine and Singh were steady but rarely looked threatening. Unless the conditions are conducive to spin, they do not really turn the ball. Both showed that they have batting talent and being able to deliver late order runs regularly may well determine who keeps their place, at least until a more threatening option with the ball emerges.
As mentioned earlier it is very unfortunate that this great win can’t be an immediate catalyst for another series. But that is out of Cricket Ireland’s hands. The best that can be offered is the Inter-pros starting in a couple of weeks and presumably the stars of the past week will be there. Hopefully, the absence of home International matches this year will encourage as many as possible, within the Covid limits at games, to watch this new and exciting generation of players.
The young players in clubs throughout the island have new heroes to emulate, in the likes of Tector, Campher, Delany, Tucker, Adair and Little and others on the fringe of recognition.