CIARA METCALFE was born too early.

If the 45-year-old was in her prime and available to partner fellow leg-spinner Cara Murray, then Ireland would be a shoo-in not only to reach the T20 World Cup finals but to win this month’s qualifying tournament in Abu Dhabi.

Instead Metcalfe will follow the progress of the Girls in Green from Melbourne, having moved to Australia after winning the last of her caps in 2018.

So much has changed since she made her Ireland debut in 1999, with the introduction of central contracts, a full-time coaching staff, many more fixtures and the support of major sponsors.

“Of course I’d love to be 22 and playing in the current set up,” Metcalfe said. “But I’d want to be doing it with the same crew I went through my journey with.”

That crew included the Joyce twins, Isobel and Cecelia, (CORR) Clare Shillington and Mary Waldron - a golden generation whose efforts and dedication, at a difficult time for the women’s game, deserve far more recognition.

"There were lots of ups and downs, and lots of learning. We definitely went through the mill,” Metcalfe said.

“We thought we were doing the right thing but looking back there wasn’t the continuity or structure. In the 19 years I played, we had 13 or 14 different coaches.

“It was like ‘Johnny’ is coming over to be pro at Merrion, or wherever, and he’ll take the women this year. But ‘Johnny’ would only facilitate the nets, you weren’t learning, improving your skill or breaking things down.

“For the skill level that the Joyces had, and Shillers and Mary, their games could have been taken to another level with the right structure in place.

“We could all have been better players.”

One thing Metcalfe’s crew still have over the current crop is the experience of playing a Test match, a one-sided affair against Pakistan at College Park in 2000 that was memorable as much for the catering as the cricket.

“I took some wickets and we won by an innings but the thing I remember was we seemed to be going off for tea every five minutes,” she said.

Playing around five games a season on average, Metcalfe continued wheeling away - contributing to her eventual haul of 106 wickets at 22.7 - until 2012 when Jeremy Bray dispensed with her services.

Three seasons in the wilderness followed but she regained her spot under another Australian coach Aaron Hamilton at the same time as Cricket Ireland started to direct more resources towards the women’s game.

“Aaron came in and said he needed someone to bowl leg-spin, and he asked me if I was willing to get fit, and I said I was, and I came back in and the set-up seemed a lot better,” she said.

“We were given kit and training facilities, and the management was more organised. The communication was better. We could look ahead to where we had fixtures lined up instead of ‘we might have a game here or there’.”

An indication of how the women’s game has expanded can be seen in Metcalfe winning 94 caps in 19 years while her successor Cara Murray has already made 67 appearances at 23.

Metcalfe is pleased to have played a role in the development of the younger woman, and is a big fan.

“I saw her playing up north where for Waringstown, near Belfast, and said: ‘I see you can bowl leg-spin and you’re really talented, would you be interested in playing for my club?

“I was player-coach with The Hills and I thought it would be good for Cara to get down to Dublin, in among the international players, and get her seen - if that was the route she wanted to go.

“So her mum started driving her down to The Hills, and I worked with her a little as a teenager.”

Although still very raw, Murray made her debut for Ireland as a 17-year-old, and has gone from strength-to-strength since, with her best performance to date coming in January when she took an Irish best 6-31 against Zimbabwe in Harare.

“Cara has the right characteristics: she’s a bit loopy,” Metcalfe said, laughing.

“To be a good leg-spinner - or a goalkeeper at hockey - I think you have to see the world through a different lens, a little bit.

“She’s gutsy, she wants to improve all the time and on top of that she’s a really nice person.”

Murray is likely to be one of Ireland’s key bowlers in the World Cup qualifiers, but Metcalfe wants to see her on the big stage itself later in the year, testing her skills against the powerhouses of Australia, India and England.

“Cara needs more experience against better quality batters,” she said. “We can all rip the ball but it’s controlling it that’s key, going from four good balls an over, to five, and then six. 

“Each game she is getting better and better.”

Metcalfe certainly gave it a rip and her spells at the T20 World Cup qualifiers in Thailand in 2016 made a case for her being the best Irish leg-spinner of either sex at that time, although Andrew Leonard and the ageless Conor Hoey would likely take issue.

“That tournament in Bangkok was probably the fittest I’ve been and the best I bowled,” she agreed. 

“The 2018 World Cup in the West Indies was one too far, though. I was 40, the shoulders were clicking, and I knew it was the time to make way for the next person.”

Was she not tempted to push on for the century of caps - a feat achieved by the Joyces and Shillington, who retired on the same day?

“If you told me I could bowl for ever and not do the other bits - then yes - but I knew it was time to walk away.”

She now finds herself juggling a full-time job in IT with coaching a couple of evenings a week in the home town of her leg-spinning hero, the late Shane Warne, a fellow blond whose No 23 she wore on her Ireland shirt.

“SadIy I never got to meet him,” she said. “But I was in a group of young Irish leg-spinners who had sessions at Pembroke with his mentor Terry Jenner, a great guy who gave us some good tips.”

Metcalfe would like to move towards full-time coaching herself - following the lead of former Ireland colleague Cath Dalton who is bowling coach with Rajasthan - and hasn’t ruled out a return home at some point.

“I’ve done my level 3 coaching over here so finding a full time role is something I’ve definitely thought about,” she said.

“I applied for the Hong Kong job recently, and also Tasmania, and got to the later stages of the interview process but there are a lot of great coaches out there looking for work.

“Yes, I’d love to work in Ireland again at some point - I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. Leaving after all those years, with so many friends in the game there was hard. I’d compare it to the breaking up of a relationship.

“I feel I’ve invested so many years in Cricket Ireland it would be a shame if I didn’t go back at some point.”