Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
IT SAYS much for the dreadful times we are living through that 16 Ireland players have had to go to Abu Dhabi to meet up for the first time in almost five months.
When Ireland skipper Andrew Balbirnie was reunited with the rest of the squad yesterday morning at Dublin Airport, ahead of four one-day internationals against UAE, followed by three World Cup Super League games against Afghanistan, it was the first time he has seen Paul Stirling and Craig Young since the memorable win against England in Southampton on August 4.
They should all have been to Australia and back after playing in the T20 World Cup but that was one of the first casualties of the pandemic and the only reason this upcoming series can take place is because of regular testing and self-isolation.
On arrival in the UAE, the players will have to wait a further three days before meeting up – stuck in their hotel room, albeit with gym equipment in the room.
“It will be much like Southampton,” explains Balbirnie, “although this time after our self-isolation we have an outdoor pool and a nearby beach which will have to cordoned off for our use. There will then be numerous (Covid) tests while we are there, I think it is eight or nine throughout the whole period, and we were all tested on Christmas Eve just to make sure we were able to get on the plane.
“But in these times it’s nice to get a bit of a break from what’s going on here. Dublin went into Tier 5 at the weekend and we consider ourselves very lucky to get away to play cricket.”
So what have the players done since the summer which ended with Balbirnie, Stirling and Gareth Delany playing in the T20 Blast and the remainder playing in the inter-pros?
“Lots of indoor training, lots of gym work,” added Balbirnie, although everybody had to stay in their own union, so I haven’t seen any of the northern guys since Southampton as I didn’t play in the inter-pros, so it will be nice to see a couple of familiar faces.”
Stirling is the only member of the squad who has been involved in competitive cricket in the last three months – albeit restricted to 13 balls in three innings in the Lanka Premier League – although Curtis Campher, who made his mark in his ODI debut against England, is flying direct from South Africa where at least he has been able to have nets and training outdoors.
It’s hardly ideal preparation for such an important series when 30 more points will be available towards qualification for the 2023 World Cup although the four games against UAE – the first in 11 days’ time – should make up for it, according to the captain.
“The boys haven’t played in so long and in that sort of heat it will be tiring on the body, but the UAE games should make sure we are ready and fresh for the Afghan games,” said Balbirnie.
“The UAE have some very good spinners so that will give us good prep, but lots of the squad haven’t played ODI cricket in the UAE so it will give them time to get used to the conditions. Harry Tector and Curtis, for example only started their ODI careers in England, two very promising players who did well and will look to kick on, same with Gareth who hasn’t played an ODI there.
“Fortunately we have plenty of experience in the batting with Paul, Kevin (O’Brien) and myself who enjoy batting there and some of us have good records.
“As for the bowlers, Craig, Josh Little, Curtis and Mark Adair, when he came in (against England), are really exciting players for us. We are expecting spin friendly conditions but they have the skill set to have an effect in any conditions, so hopefully they will take that confidence from Southampton.”
The bowlers will also be reunited with new Lead Bowling Coach Stuart Barnes, who was formally appointed as full-time successor to Rob Cassell just last month, but who spent three weeks with the squad in the Southampton bubble in the summer.
“We were very fortunate to get him in Southampton as he was the Somserset bowling coach at the time and the guys really gelled with him. When he got the job, a lot of the guys were excited to work with him full time,” said Balbirnie.
"They were lucky to work with Rob, as indeed was the whole squad, but Barnesy has taken up the mantle and done a really good job since he has been involved.”
It promises to be a huge four weeks for Irish cricket but in these times, as newly engaged Balbirnie – “yes, I got down on one knee in Phoenix Park” – admits, it’s just nice to get the opportunity to play cricket.
Back that up with victories against Afghanistan and it will be the perfect start to 2021 when hopefully, sooner rather than later, something near normal life can resume and Ireland can assemble with 15 other countries for the rescheduled T20 World in October.