Ireland’s first Test match against Pakistan two years ago was seen as the end of an era, the culmination of decades of dreams and hard work. But many of those who got to enjoy it were near the end of their own road, seven of them aged over 30.
The contrast could hardly have been greater with the eleven that thumped England in the Rose Bowl, Southampton, on Tuesday – only Kevin O’Brien and Craig Young had passed that roundy birthday and more than half the side was under 24.
This rack of Spice Boys have been pushing hard to get into the side for a while, but their arrival en bloc only coincided with the changing of the guard and the appointment of Andrew Balbirnie as captain in January. Since then he has led Ireland to victories over the World T20 champions, West Indies, and the World Cup holders, England, on their own grounds.
Coach Briain O’Rourke has known Balbirnie since he was an Under 11. “I remember him smacking the ball all around him to beat the band in a blitz,” he says. “He’s very much a leader from the front. He has all the key attributes but he has their respect because he is a great player himself.”
The first person to recognise Balbirnie’s leadership skills at the top level was John Mooney. It was almost five years ago that the North County man retired after a stellar career that included three World Cups. Among Mooney’s roles was song leader, the man who decides when the team anthem is to be sung – a show of pride, passion and unity that is only invoked after a victory.
In the Sunday Independent, Mooney recalled his last game in the colours:
“We wrapped up the game next morning and got into a huddle and I told the lads. I got a bit emotional and had to cut short what I planned to say but I told them 'Balbo' was going to take the song over.
“Andy Balbirnie is perfect. He shares a lot of the same qualities as me. He's a great leader, a great speaker, he commands respect in the changing room even though he's only a young man. He has that passion too and he's going to be there for a while. So I asked him to take over and he nearly choked on his cornflakes.”
Balbirnie had only just bedded into the side after a long apprenticeship, winning just 16 caps in five years, most of them when Ireland were without the county-based players. He joined a side on the wane, and saw what it did to morale as players clung on long past their sell-by date, blocking the path of young prospects.
You can trace the new-look side back to last September and Graham Ford’s decision to sign on for another two years. At the time he said: “The last two years have been quite a journey, and we are only just starting to see the emergence of the new generation of players that will push Irish cricket forward over the coming years.
“I still feel we have a way to go, but I am committed to the task and didn’t hesitate in signing a new contract.
“As a coach, you want to see progress as a team, and you want to see development of individual players. We’ve certainly seen that in recent times and the potential is now there to push on further.”
Whether it was the hand of Ford gently ushering them towards the exit, or their own realisation that their time was up, but the departure of William Porterfield and Gary Wilson as captains in November opened the way for Balbirnie taking the helm in all three formats.
None of the six youngsters – opening bat Gareth Delany, No4 Harry Tector, wicketkeeper Lorcan Tucker, all-rounders Mark Adair and Curtis Campher, and seamer Josh Little – had played even ten ODIs before the start of this year, but all are now key elements of the Ford/Balbirnie plan to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
“Balbo wants to put his own stamp on the team”, says Alan Lewis, the former Ireland captain and previous chairman of selectors. “It’s very heartening to see the possibilities – you have to keep reminding yourself how young they are – Harry and Josh are only 20 – and with David Delany to come back in, the future is very bright. There should be battles for places which is the most exciting thing.
“There’s a very young spine now in the team heading towards the 2023 World Cup and some of the older guys won’t be there. Irish cricket teams have always profited from a gamble on youth”
The first two games at Southampton didn’t go according to plan – Ireland’s batting crumbled, even when the bowlers were on song. Only for the new cap, Campher, the results would have been embarrassing.
But the captain knows what he has, and is prepared to back them.
He said: “Curtis is a great person to captain, he knows what he wants to do and has the ability to change the game with the ball. He was such an impact player for us over the first two games, I can’t find any faults with him.”
The youngsters took their opportunities, none more than Josh Little who came in for the injured Barry McCarthy and claimed the scalp of Jonny Bairstow.
“You want to see your fast bowlers running in with a bit of aggression and Josh produced a spell to get two other world class batters out, so it was great to see him fired up, but he also kept his cool and stuck to his task”, said his captain.
On the eve of the third game there was plenty of talk about bringing back Porterfield and Boyd Rankin to give Ireland a better chance of those vital World League points. Boyd Rankin, Gary Wilson and William Porterfield have been fine servants but their captain has clearly signalled that they are no longer in his thinking for white ball formats.
He backed his young guns. “They are facing some of the best players in the world from the off and it’s a sink or swim”, he explained. “We haven’t had a big 50 or 100 from them yet but they have looked at home. But we have to give these guys a chance, they are so talented, much better than I was at that age, and getting the exposure and experience at this level can only help them.”
So Ireland sent out an even younger side and demolished Eoin Morgan’s world champions. Balbirnie showed how he has grown into the role, managing his bowling changes astutely and keeping the pressure on the England batsmen. To bowl that side out on such a good pitch was an enormous achievement.
But the job was only half done, and Ireland’s top order had failed all winter. In 16 innings between them against England, Paul Stirling and Balbirnie had failed to score even one fifty.
With all the optimism and positivity of the new era, they set about the England bowlers with gusto, and each scored a memorable century. And even when they got out, with plenty still to do, it was the youngest and oldest players who came together to finish England off. Working in perfect harmony, O’Brien bludgeoned huge sixes and Tector stroked glorious drives through extra-cover to finally give the Irish team something to sing about.