The below article first appeared on the Part-Timer and it and other articles by Nathan Johns can be viewed here: 

If in doubt, go harder - Devastating qualifying blow should not deter Ireland

Ed Joyce's T20 philosophy has brought enough success to suggest that Sunday was a blip rather than an indictment on the squad as a whole.

“Qualifiers are difficult, especially in T20 cricket, and we will be put in difficult situations, so we need to embrace those and be brave.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Ed Joyce sounds almost prophetic. On Sunday, Ireland’s bid to qualify for a second consecutive T20 World Cup was scuppered by a convincing defeat to Scotland. For all the recent development of this group, the form of the top order with the bat, the increased aggression levels, the dominant run against weaker sides, Ireland will not be in Bangladesh this year.

This is a better side than the one which struggled at last year’s T20 World Cup in South Africa. Yet they will now join the list of Irish teams of recent years watching the world’s best compete without them next autumn; a brutal reality brought about by one solitary batting collapse sparked by a side against whom Ireland have a good record.

Perhaps surprise, the overriding reaction to the defeat, shouldn’t be the default response. Ireland lost to Scotland in the build-up to this tournament. They also lost a T20 to the Scots in a series played in Spain last October. The gap between these teams is a lot closer than many realised.

But are Scotland actually better than Ireland? Player for player, which XI is more talented? One game doesn’t answer that question. But it does tell us who is going to the World Cup.

Given the upward trajectory Ireland were previously on, is one game enough to take the train off the rails? Does one defeat, however damaging, call for an in-depth post mortem? The short answer is no.

Ireland’s fatal flaw on Sunday was something everyone and his dog could have told you well in advance of the tournament starting. Given the make-up of the team, Ireland would only go as far as their top four take them. In recent times, that has been plenty far enough. Gaby Lewis and Amy Hunter were disdainful in their treatment of the bowlers of Zimbabwe and Vanuatu in the group stages. When they didn’t fire, Orla Prendergast showed flashes. When the top three couldn’t get the job done, Laura Delany had a career-best innings against the Dutch.

When all four fail to make a contribution, Ireland will struggle to win matches. Such was the case on Sunday. Lewis and Hunter fell in the first over of the game to Kathryn Bryce. Prendergast was run out shortly thereafter before Bryce got rid of Delany in the fifth over. The bulk of Ireland’s top run scorers were gone before the powerplay. Unless someone had a career day, the game was done.

Reading the scorecard in the cold light of day, the contributions of Ireland’s middle order were not enough. Eimear Richardson scored one off eight balls at a strike-rate of 13. Rebecca Stokell was dismissed for 8 off 14. Even Leah Paul, whose effort of 45 was just shy of a career best in T20I, still faced 51 balls. There is an argument that she had to take a circumspect approach, given the chaos down the other end. Yet will strike-rates of 13, 57 and 88 respectively win Ireland a match in which the top order has failed? Ireland got to 110, but was that ever going to be defendable?

In the warm-up defeat to Scotland, Ireland limped their way to 98 all out in just under 18 overs. According to their now-familiar T20 game plan, when struggling, you should continue with calculated aggression, you should prefer to lose being bowled out for nothing earlier in the innings rather than limping along to a total around the 100 mark which won’t be competitive in any case.

Sunday was marginally better, thanks in part to Paul’s rebuilding act and Arlene Kelly’s boundary-hitting, but it still wasn’t enough. Can Ireland look at this defeat and say that they stayed true to the ‘If in doubt, go harder’ mantra?

This reliance on the top order is a significant flaw can lose Ireland a game at any stage. Unfortunately for them, this was their most important T20 contest for some time.

How can Ireland fix it? There is never just one answer.

Part of the solution is games. Frustratingly, this defeat costs Ireland a significant number of matches. Not just at a World Cup, but also in the build-up. Had Ireland qualified and received a tournament preparation fee from the ICC, a planned homes series vs the Netherlands would have gone ahead this summer. Unless something drastic happens to improve the finances, that now won’t happen.

Also relevant is individual game time. Scotland, an associate nation, can send its players into the English domestic system where they don’t take up overseas slots. Ireland can’t. Only Lewis, Prendergast and Delany have had limited stints with English teams in recent years. Even in franchise cricket, Kathryn Bryce was a recent member of the Gujarat Giants in the Women’s Premier League, a competition where teams can pick an extra overseas player if they are from an associate nation.

No Irish player (Kim Garth aside) has yet been available or deemed worthy of a WPL overseas slot. Though not significant enough to be the sole reason for defeat, Ireland can point to not having as many players playing competitive, meaningful, context-filled cricket as often as the Scots. Ireland play plenty of bilaterals, but not a lot of knockout or league T20s where winning and losing has immediate consequences.

In terms of future competitions, it remains to be seen if Irish players secure contracts in England this summer. The Caribbean Premier League, a rare source of franchise games for Irish women, won’t be an option this year as it clashes with a home series against England.

Yet is the second solution to all of this is the more significant one: time.

Over a number of years, the new, attack-minded batting approach installed by head coach Joyce has borne fruit with the top three. Delany too has bought in and delivered results. In her match-winning knock of 70* against the Netherlands, her strike-rate of 156 was the highest of her career when surpassing 50.

Despite not grabbing the same headlines as the young trio ahead of her on the batting card, Delany is an embodiment of the team’s focus on scoring runs more quickly. Since returning from a serious injury in 2022, she has had a proper run in the post-Covid Joyce era to implement his philosophy. Since that return, her T20I strike-rate is 93. Her career figure is 83. Her career T20I average is 20. Since 2022, Delany is averaging 27. She is both scoring more runs and scoring them more quickly.

She’s not the only one. In that same span, Gaby Lewis is striking at 120 and averaging 32, both figures higher than her career totals of 115 and 27. We don’t need to look at the numbers to see that Hunter and Prendergast have also had success when trying to, in layman’s terms, whack it to all parts.

As far as the team is concerned, the rising tide has raised all boats. Between 2019 and July 2022, Ireland’s total batting strike-rate was 96. The team hit a boundary every 9.3 balls and saw a dismissal every 17.6 balls. The average of each player from 1 to 11 was 17. Since 2022, all of those figures are better. The batting strike-rate is 110 while the boundary rate is one per 7.5 deliveries. Balls per dismissal has gone up to 20.8 while the average has increased to 23.

Yet those are cumulative figures. In a one-off match which decided Ireland’s T20 future, the plan did not work. Ireland’s middle order have not had the same time to settle into this new batting style, purely by dint of their position. Batting lower in the order ensures fewer deliveries, fewer practice reps. When the top order goes well, as they have done so often in recent months, everyone celebrates, but it does nothing to fortify what can remain a soft underbelly in the event of a collapse.

Given the development of Ireland’s best batters, there is enough evidence to suggest that the coaching staff can bring up the middle and lower order to the point where they too can win Ireland matches.

It will just take longer. Without a World Cup or the money stemming from qualification, that timeline will likely lengthen given the decrease in the number of fixtures.

In many ways, given the shallow talent pool, Ireland have no choice but to invest in these players. Yet there is enough evidence that their own talent and that of the coaches around them will allow for future success.

For all the frustration, the answer is simple: stay the course.