Odran Flynn (CricketEurope)
May Day saw the welcome return of the best domestic cricket Ireland has to offer. The newly revamped Inter-pros, which saw the debut of Munster Reds who have been added as a fourth team in the 50 over format, are designed to ensure that all the best players on the island get the opportunity to convince the selectors that they deserve to be in the next Ireland squad.
The reality is that the change came about largely as a result of the overwhelming dominance by Leinster Lightning across all three formats since the Inter-pros were revived in 2013. The consequence of that dominance was that many particularly good prospects from Leinster could not break into the Lightning squad because there just were not enough places available.
It also meant that the standard of the competitions was diminished by the presence in the Northern Knights and North-West Warriors of some players who quite frankly were never going to be good enough to pull on an Ireland shirt.
The effective ban by the ECB on Irish players participation in the County Championship, unless they abandoned their Ireland ambitions, did see the quality in the domestic game improve with the likes of Paul Stirling, William Porterfield, Boyd Rankin and Gary Wilson returning home to play for their provinces.
However, this was not enough as Lightning continued to dominate. Cricket Ireland moved to try to level the playing field by introducing a system whereby there would be a core squad of twelve players allocated to each of the four teams. The composition of those squads meant that the best 48 players in Ireland would, barring other circumstances such as injury, be competing with and against each other in representative cricket and the best would challenge for places on Ireland teams.
George Dockrell century
While there was some concern that there would be a loss of identity across the provinces that really has not been an issue as the two Northern teams are still largely composed either of local players or players who had committed to those provinces prior to the revamp, such as Harry Tector.
Munster Reds are effectively a new team and although they have played in the IPT20 matches in recent years the exercise would have been pointless if they were not bolstered by the addition of quality players. There is now the equivalent of a full squad of Leinster players distributed over the other three sides. While it would be premature to judge the success of the new format based on just three matches there are indications that this will result on much more competitive cricket which can only be good for Ireland as they attempt qualification for World Cups.
There already have been some impressive performances in those three games to date. The standout performer has been George Dockrell who already has a century and a fifty to his name without being dismissed. Across the two games he faced all the bowlers who played for Ireland in the World Cup Super League against Afghanistan in January with the obvious exception of the Lightning players.
Despite the blustery weather over the first week and in Eglington it was also extremely cold (read Barry Chambers latest column for a graphic description of the artic conditions he endured. You will find yourself scampering for a fleecy jacket) there was a higher standard of cricket that you might reasonably expect given most players had not been in the middle for months.
The second best in terms of runs has been Jamie Grassi and that presents Lightning coach Nigel Jones with a dilemma. Grassi was only drafted in because Ireland skipper Andrew Balbirnie had to quarantine following his brief spell with Glamorgan. It is inconceivable that Balbirnie will not regain his place, but it would be very harsh if Grassi is shunted out. The player most at risk may be JJ Garth who has only bowled two overs in his two outings especially as there two other spinners in the squad.
The only other batter to pass fifty was Murray Commins when he threatened to take Munster Reds to a much more competitive total than they eventually achieved. Commins is a classy left-handed batter who has come over from his native South Africa to attempt to qualify for Ireland. Another potential qualifier who caught the eye was New Zealand born Irish passport holder Luke Georgeson who reminded me of a left-handed version of Curtis Campher. He like Campher is also a useful bowler operating at a tad above medium pace.
New Zealander Luke Georgeson
The Warriors batters have had a lot of scores in the thirties without anyone going on to play a substantial innings yet. It was a good initiative from their captain Andy McBrine to move up to three in the batting order. Too often in the past he has come in far too low which compromised his chance of playing a meaningful innings. It is surprising that he never got the chance to build on his innings of 89 for the Wolves against a strong Bangladesh A side in Clontarf in 2018. That day he did not look out of place in a second wicket partnership of 197 with Balbirnie which was instrumental in an eight-wicket win. In the past week he has got into the thirties on both occasions and has looked very composed. He has consolidated his position as Irelandís leading slow bowler and to increase his prowess with the bat would be a bonus.
As you would expect the conditions have been more conducive to bowlers and several have taken the opportunity to press their claims for inclusion in the Ireland squad which will take on Netherlands in the World Cup Super League early in June. The most impressive displays from the pace bowlers have come from Barry McCarthy, Graham Hume, Peter Chase and Graham McCarter. Unfortunately, Hume is not yet qualified for Ireland, especially as he is also very handy with bat in hand. He would be vying with McCarter to fill the Tim Murtagh role that the Middlesex man performed for most of the last decade.
McCarthy has been the standout bowler to date and his ability to move the ball at a good pace while maintaining an economy rate of 3.02 is reminiscent of the form he showed when he first burst onto the Ireland scene. McCarter, who has not played for Ireland for six years despite only being twenty-eight, was pinpoint accurate with some lateral movement when bowling his ten overs straight through against Lightning in Pembroke. Whether he can sustain that level of performance over the course of the competition, particularly when the wickets become more batter friendly, remains to be seen but if he can he too will be a very welcome addition to the Ireland ranks.
Chase has remodelled his run up and his bowling action is more compact and therefor more effective. His previous tendency to be too erratic in length has been largely eradicated and if anything, his pace has increased.
The Warriors duo of McBrine and Ross Allen have been the most effective spinners even though the wickets have been more conducive to seam bowling. Lightning pair of Dockrell and Simi Singh have also had their moments with Singh only going at an economy rate of 3.3 runs from his 18 overs.
The Knights never really got to grips with their run chase against Lightning, but they will know that if Irelandís top batter, Stirling, fires then they are always going to be extremely competitive.
The Reds are still finding their feet but they there were some very promising signs, but when they are in the ascendency, they will have to make it count. They also will hope to have Gareth Delany and Matt Ford available for their next outing.
It should also be noted that five full Ireland internationals, Gareth and David Delany, Balbirnie, Josh Little and James Cameron-Dow have yet to make their seasonal debut.
Yet despite all the changes Lightning are still top of the pile and they have no intention of giving up their crown easily.