ED JOYCE can look back on 2023 with quiet satisfaction as a year of steady and measurable progress for his Ireland women’s team, but also as one of missed opportunities.

The head coach has overseen improvement in nearly all of his charges but the tangible rewards have eluded the Girls in Green as they failed to win a game at the World Cup in South Africa or get the better of the West Indies in St Lucia.

“There were some good bits and some disappointing bits - like most years,” Joyce admitted, as he prepared for a tour to Zimbabwe this month..

“We played some really good stuff in the World Cup and didn’t win a game and we were really hopeful of doing that having come off a successful tour of Pakistan at the end of 2022.

“That was disappointing, especially given the position we got into against the West Indies, where we should have got another 15 runs and then dropped a very easy catch - but even with that we should still have won.

“There were glimpses in other games too. The group has so much potential and I have to keep reminding myself how young they are, and how little cricket they’ve played relatively.”

Of the 15-strong squad that Joyce took to Spain for a five-match series against Scotland in October, only captain Laura Delany had reached 30 (soon to be joined by Arlene Kelly) and 11 of the others were 23 or younger, including five teenagers.

While 18-year-old Amy Hunter is long established as a regular in the line-up, and recently took on the wicketkeeping duties when Mary Waldron retired, Joyce has high expectations of several other teenagers on the fringes of the national set-up.

“We’re always looking to add to our spin bowling options and fast track youngsters like Aimee Maguire and Freya Sargeant, who is very inexperienced but has a lovely action,” he said.

‘Spin bowling is very important in women’s cricket. You can get through the overs quickly and if you bowl consistently it can be hard to get away.

“Also there are shots against the spinners that carry more risk than they do in the men’s game, and that’s somewhere we can build up pressure.”

Another teenager showing great potential is Joanna Loughran, from the Leinster club, who kept wicket in five matches at the U19 World Cup in January.

“Joanna’s got lovely hands, she’s a natural and has put in a lot of work on her batting in the last few month,,” Joyce said.

“If Amy gets injured, she’s the next cab off the rank. It’s probably still a bit early for Joanna in international cricket but we need to see how she performs, rather than just thrusting her in at the last minute when there’s an injury.”

Although it hasn’t always shown in their results, Joyce believe the ‘Big Three’ at the top of the order - Gaby Lewis, Hunter and Orla Prendergast - have all improved in the past 12 months, but wants to see more from his lower middle order.

“Amy has made a big leap this year in her all-round game. She maybe didn’t have the best World Cup but she batted really well against Australia and made them sit up and take notice,” he said.

“The proof is in the pudding with the middle order, though, and we’re looking for them to contribute more. Rebecca Stokell has been injured for a large part of the year but has played some really good innings. We need her to stay fit.”

A big disappointment was the tour to the West Indies where Ireland failed to win a game in St Lucia against a team Joyce feels they should be competing with and beating, but the season ended on a high with victories over the Netherlands and Scotland.

“We had a very good series with Scotland in Spain that we managed to win 3-2 without playing particularly well,” Joyce said.

“Scotland have improved a lot, with some very good imports who have come through the English system, where they’ve been playing either professionally or semi-professionally.”

Bolstering the side with Irish-qualified players from England is not such an easy option for Joyce since Ireland’s elevation to Full Membership of the ICC in 2017.

“The problem we have is that once a youngster plays for us, they are then classified as an overseas player in English competitions, whereas with Scotland still being an Associate [the second tier of ICC Membership] that doesn’t apply.

“Take someone like Olivia Bell, a very good off-spinner. She can play for Scotland, still play in the English competitions as a local and if she does make the grade she can switch and play for England almost overnight.”

Joyce himself benefitted from that rule back in 2005 when he helped Ireland qualify for the World Cup and then made his debut for England that same summer.

“It’s a tricky one for us,” Joyce said. “We’re far more likely to get women in their late 20s and early 30s who feel that their chance to play for England has gone, and who are eligible for an Irish passport.”

Does he have anyone in mind?

“There are a few who have made contact and are interested. Then it’s a question of how soon can they get a passport - because that takes a while - and how do we make it work from our perspective and theirs.”

“We’re definitely open to strengthening the squad that way but the logistics are hard.”

One such import already having an impact in the colours of her adopted country is Arlene Kelly, an Irish-qualified New Zealander, whose bowling all-rounder skills have made her the Ms Dependable of the squad.

“As a ‘death’ bowler Arlene has been outstanding,” Joyce said. 

“When she looks to bowl a yorker, it’s either a yorker or a very full ball or low full toss that’s difficult to get away for more than one. She’s got a good slower ball and is mentally strong too in those pressure situations.”

Joyce could certainly do with a few reinforcements on the field with a busy 2024 in prospect, including a T20 World Cup qualifier, and possibly the tournament proper, home series against Sri Lanka and England, and tours to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.