That was the year that was

As promised CricketEurope has taken a look back at what was a year quite unlike any other, with Ireland having only 12 matches, six in the T20 format and six one-day internationals.

While on the face of it three wins, eight losses, and one no-result may not look much to write home about, but given the calibre of the opposition and the fact that all matches were played away from home, then there are more grounds for optimism than despair as we head into 2021.

The wins were against T20 World Champions West Indies, ODI World Champions England, and a one-over eliminator T20 game in India against Afghanistan. Certainly not a bad trio! It could have been even better as a DRS run out decision saw West Indies get the benefit of the doubt in a one-wicket win as well.

Innings of the year

While Paul Stirling’s 142 and Andrew Balbirne’s 113 were the only two hundreds of the year, neither gets my vote of the most important innings played in 2020.

For me, Curtis Campher’s unbeaten 59 on debut gets the accolade given the context of his knock. The young South African’s inclusion had caused much debate, given a tenuous link to Ireland through his grandmother from Derry, and the fact that he had yet to play any sort of game in the country before getting his cap.

This was a major diversion from past policy where players from abroad wishing to play for Ireland had to show a commitment first before consideration.

With this pressure on his young shoulders Campher strode to the middle with the Irish innings in disarray on 28 for 5, and commentators already questioning the point of playing Ireland in such a series. However Curtis looked technically assured and compact from ball one, and together with Kevin O’Brien and Andy McBrine brought respectability in a losing cause – a total of 172 being chased by England in a six wicket win.

I’ve no doubt that if Ireland had capitulated to an embarrassingly low total then the subsequent heroics in the third World Cup Super League wouldn’t have happened.

Faith in youth award

Tribute too must go to Head Coach Graham Ford for the faith and confidence he showed to another youngster Harry Tector in that epic run chase in Southampton. After the Stirling/Balbirnie stand of 214 – only bettered in ODI’s by Kevin O’Brien and William Porterfield’s 227 in Kenya back in 2007 – had ended, Ford resisted the temptation to promote O’Brien up the order and stuck with Tector at number four in just his third ODI.

The YMCA player repaid his faith as he and O’Brien guided the Irish over the line, as they put on the 50 required in just over five overs to win with a ball to spare.

Just what a positive influence that will do for Harry and the team can’t be under-estimated and hats off to the coach and his team for their faith in youth.

Perseverance award

Imagine preparing for an exam that never comes. It’s the stuff of nightmares but that is the case for Ireland Women, with Ed Joyce, Laura Delany et al spending 2020 practising for as yet unknown challenges.

It’s 480 days and counting since they last took the field in a competitive match, when they played Papua New Guinea during a placings game in the T20 World Cup Qualifier.

They were on the cusp of travelling to Spain to play Scotland when the latter pulled out at the 11th hour. That must have been a truly demoralising blow for the Girls In Green who will (hopefully) face at least two important qualifying tournaments during the course of 2021.

It’s no easy feat keeping motivation high when they have gone a quite incredible 931 days since they last played an ODI! The lack of 50-over cricket can be explained away by the priority of T20 competitions in recent years, but they will have to adapt to both formats in 2021 and quickly.

That’s not going to be easy, but hopefully Cricket Ireland have lined up plenty of match practice ahead of the main exams – they certainly deserve it for the work put in while in cricketing purgatory.

Longevity award

Former skipper William Porterfield was a notable absence from the squad which touched down in Abu Dhabi earlier this week. The 36-year-old has played 301 times across all formats, leading the run charts with 9255 runs at 31.16, including a record 18 hundreds.

It seemed to me a mistake not to have Porty on board in some context on the tour. He has made no secret of his desire to get involved in coaching when he calls time on his career and I would have thought this was an ideal opportunity to have someone of his experience around to help with the younger squad members.

It’s a clear sign though of the new direction being mapped out by Graham Ford and Andy Balbirnie. Perhaps having someone there who has been captain 253 times would undermine things? Balbirnie wants to make his own mistakes and judgements without having someone look over his shoulder similar to a maths teacher at secondary school.

I’ve made no secret of my position regarding the ‘Anglification’ of Cricket Ireland, feeling we should have more Irish involved in the set-up. There seems to be a reticence to trust Irish born or based coaches. When this changes I know Ireland has arrived as a cricketing country.

Getting it on award

Praise where it’s due and a big well done and thank you to Cricket Ireland and all the Unions for getting cricket played domestically during the season past. It would have been all too easy to just give it a miss similar to the way most domestic cricket was scrapped in the UK.

While there was certainly a motivation in that jobs could have been lost for professional administrators if no cricket had been played, the many unpaid volunteers in the Unions hadn’t. It’s a testament to their endeavours that we got as much cricket as we did, so thank you all.

Commonwealth Games

On a final note, cricket is due back in the Commonwealth Games in 2022 with a Women’s competition on the cards. Before then there will be a qualifying tournament held with the exact dates and format yet to be determined.

The last event in which cricket was held saw the NI Men take place in the 1998 event in Malaysia where they beat Bangladesh.

Is this an opportunity to really progress women’s cricket in Northern Ireland by entering a team in the qualifiers?

There has been some green shoots of players starting to emerge on the periphery of the senior ranks, which has been dominated (and rightly on merit) by Leinster based players over the last 20 years.

What better way to encourage participation and inspire future players by having the chance to play for Northern Ireland?

Certainly food for thought.

January Blues

Thank goodness we will have seven ODI’s to help banish the January blues next month. Fingers crossed for the team as they start an important year, and hopefully there will be many games to report on.

Happy New Year from all at CricketEurope.