Homeward Bound Ireland seek answers
It’s widely known that making knee-jerk retorts in a state of despondency is a futile and ill-advised recourse. It’s only natural to search for answers, assign the blame and probe for shortcomings when disappointment is still the overwhelming emotion, when defeat is still raw, but such a measure can so often be counterproductive and needless.
While there are cases when a thorough appraisal is warranted - take England after a miserable winter as an example - any successful team is built upon the solid foundations of stability, continuity, fortitude and most importantly bouncebackability. It’s entirely reasonable to yearn for success but there will be stumbling blocks along the way. Such blips must be seen as just that in the greater scheme of things. Failure to meet short-term targets is disappointing but should not inhibit longer-term ambitions.
An early exit from the World Twenty20 was never on the Cricket Ireland agenda but it doesn’t belittle the headway that has been achieved hitherto, the performances in Bangladesh or obstruct the clear pathway that has been paved to the ultimate goal.
Up until last Friday, Ireland didn’t know what failure was. For years, they had dished out the bashings, the embarrassments and achieved success after success. Suddenly, the tables had turned. The hunter become the hunted and when they were expected to win and reaffirm their stature, they didn’t.
Instead of packing their bags for Chittagong, they were organising premature journeys home. Niall O’Brien’s tweet encapsulated the plight. “Huge thank you to sarah @ICC for helping change my flight at short notice. #HomewardBound” It was unexpected.
As William Porterfield and his teammates abruptly packed their bags for the homeward voyage, the tournament went on. For the first time, the Boys in Green weren’t on the biggest stage when the spotlight was on, and it hurt, it still does but it’s often said a defeat can be more instructive than a victory. That one hour in the field as the Dutch batsmen swatted the bowlers to all corners of Sylhet accentuated the imperfections that the victories had masked.
For two and a half games, the campaign was following the scripts Phil Simmons had in his little black notebook: his side had battled their way into the Group B driving seat and were in control of their own fate. The performances against Zimbabwe and UAE were far from faultless but they did the job - the result far supersedes the means at a World Cup but what transpired thereafter nobody could have envisaged.
Ireland were on the wrong end of an incredible innings, comparisons have been made to Kevin O’Brien in Bangalore, there’s no getting away from that but you can’t polish a stain. The bowling attack was dismantled and the fielding slapdash. Ireland’s World Cup hopes were being torn to shreds by a side that they had not lost to since 2007 and nothing was or seemingly could be done about it.
In hindsight, questions are unavoidable. Why did Porterfield and none of the players know the Dutch had to chase it to down inside 14.2 overs to qualify? Why were Niall O’Brien and Max Sorensen carrying the drinks? Why did two off-spinners open the bowling? Why could none of the experienced bowlers execute their skills to stem the flow?
Such an implosion must have emanated from somewhere. Perhaps there was a ticking time bomb waiting to shatter an Irish performance; if so, this was certainly it. In the aftermath of Netherlands’ degrading reversal to Sri Lanka in the Super10, it was claimed the unorthodox bowling styles of Ajantha Mendis and Lasith Malinga was simply too much for the batsmen to subdue and pulverise like they did to the Irish bowlers.
And there is the difference. Ireland’s attack - following the retirement of Trent Johnston, loss of Boyd Rankin and even the absence of John Mooney - has become too conventional, monotonous and worryingly tolerable. There is nothing off-centre to the battery of bowlers. Tim Murtagh is and has been one of the finest and most consistent seamers in county cricket over the past decade but there is a reason why Middlesex have rarely deployed him in limited-overs cricket. Alex Cusack and Kevin O’Brien are reliable performers but aren’t frontline operators while Sorensen and Craig Young watched on from the dugout wondering what they’ve done wrong.
It’s a wake up call and learning curve for Simmons, the management and selectors. It’s often said you should fit your best players around the team and not vice versa. Ireland need to adopt that modus operandi forthwith so there is enough time to formulate a clear strategy and best XI before next February. That way, Niall O’Brien will be in the side, taking over the gloves from Gary Wilson and the latter deployed as a specialist batsman. The current situation is completely illogical. O’Brien is Leicestershire’s first-choice gloveman while Wilson has impressed solely with the bat at the Oval, there shouldn’t even be an issue when it comes to who takes the gloves come May and Sri Lanka.
There are other defects that need addressing. The composition of the lower-order remains up in the air and with limited game time between now and Australia/New Zealand, opportunities to experiment are few and far between. Young has been vaunted as a tall, pacy bowler who will suit the bouncy surfaces Down Under but the 23-year-old acted as perennial drinks waiter throughout the last four months, save for one run-out in the Caribbean.
The options are plentiful for Simmons in terms of personnel but questions remain over the capacity of some of those to cut it at the highest level. Andrew Poynter, Stuart Thompson and Andy McBrine all impressed over the winter, but are they the best option in their respective discipline? Niall’s record and experience speaks for itself at the top of the order while George Dockrell and Paul Stirling already offer enough spin resources. It’s all about ensuring the balance of the side and for many, it was slightly lopsided in Bangladesh. Sorensen and O’Brien sitting on the sidelines just didn’t work and it was ultimately exposed.
There is no reason to get carried away but the selection issues must be looked at. The side that takes to the field in a little over a month at Clontarf to face the likes of Mendis and Malinga will be interesting and go someway to revealing if Ireland have learnt anything from the Sylhet blitzkrieg.