Almost two years ago, the then ICC Chief Executive, Haroon Lorgat, trumpeted that the sport's governing body would be extending the number of teams in the ICC World Twenty20 to sixteen from 2014 onwards.
It was a widely acclaimed move that will and has given the Associate nations a greater opportunity to compete on the global stage. There are no arguments there. However, the remodelling of the tournament has given Ireland - among others - an additional hurdle to overcome if they want to qualify for the business end of the tournament. Suddenly, there is a platform for failure that has never been encountered before.
Ireland are expected to overcome the hurdle: there is a supposition that they are the front runners to advance. But, such expectations can weigh heavily on the mind. The perennial giant killing tag of bygone tournaments is in storage for the time being. Firstly, they must vanquish the stiff appraisal of the group stage with no room to manoeuvre.
There is little margin for error with one slip-up likely to prove fatal but Phil Simmons’ side are no strangers to such predicaments. The Associate’s qualifying process is of similar ilk and Ireland have surmounted their fair share of those scenarios. But, this is a different ballgame, this is a World Cup. The expectancy of a nation, the expectancy of a global cricketing public, the expectancy of the ICC and the expectancy from within the squad itself all weigh heavy.
Since that indelible day seven years ago, there has been triumph after triumph, trophy after trophy and achievement after achievement. Ireland don’t know what failure is, this side has an aversion to it. Once you’ve tasted the expensive stuff, prosecco just won’t cut it anymore.
Since what seems like the beginning of time, William Porterfield and his side have been toiling to demonstrate their credentials and attempting to push a decision from the ICC. Now that a pathway to the holy grail is beginning to be paved, an unremitting microscope has been placed over each and every performance. Sceptics will and are using substandard outings and disappointing results to add weight to the argument that ‘minnows’ like Ireland aren’t yet ready to join the top table. Premature elimination in Bangladesh will only strengthen their unfounded case - it’s just the way it is.
But, Ireland have nothing more to prove. They have outgrown their Associate status, flaunted the resources at their disposal and consistently jockeyed with the big boys. The onus, however, is now on sustaining those performances and fortifying themselves at the top level. If that opportunity doesn’t arise in Bangladesh, it can only be deemed as a misstep, regardless of the added hurdle.
“Yes, if we don't get through the first group it would be seen as a failure,” Niall O’Brien admits bluntly. “Every game in the group stage will be effectively a knock-out so they will be tense, tight affairs. But, we’ve plenty a lot of cricket and are fully prepared so we’re ready to take those teams down.”
“Gone are the days of just turning up to be the other team in a game we want to express ourselves and show how far we have come. Every time we play we expect to win so from our side there is no extra pressure and all our supporters expect us to win,” The batsman goes onto add.
Much has been made of the new format but that’s for another day. It is what it is and as O’Brien says “it’s something we have to deal with.”
“We are actually looking at it in a positive way,” Gary Wilson admits. “If we get through that first stage of the tournament, we will have played 5 games in the conditions (including warm ups). The teams joining for the second phase will only have played two. That can only help us. We know that it will be difficult but we are confident that we can get the results needed.”
“Elimination from the group stage would certainly be seen as a failure but I don't know if I would say it would be a stumbling block. We have certain expectations that as a squad we want to live up to. If it were to happen, I don't think it would necessarily set us back from what Cricket Ireland are trying to achieve in the longer term. We have planned to go through. That's what we expect of ourselves.”
Zimbabwe, who have encountered several off-field difficulties in the lead-up to the tournament, are Ireland’s first opponents and many will claim their rivals for the top spot in Group B. However, Netherlands and United Arab Emirates will have something to say about that and nothing can be taken for granted, especially in the Twenty20 format: it’s variable by nature.
“The fact that we have played and beaten the West Indies in that format of the game, in their own backyard gives us huge confidence going in to the tournament,” Wilson continues.
“We know we are a good side and it’s now just about sticking to our plans and delivering our skills. If we perform to our level and play like we know we can, I believe that we have the best chance of going through to the second phase.”