Sunday March 13, 2011
It might mainly be coming from internet nutters, greedy bandwagon-jumpers and biased begrudgers but it’s been slightly surprising to see some sharp criticism of Ireland’s World Cup campaign in spite of the historic victory over England and far-from-humiliating defeats against two teams playing in their own backyard, including tournament favourites India, plus twice former winners West Indies.
The team may be hard on themselves for failing to beat Bangladesh or overcome West Indies and we should applaud and encourage that ambition, but in the cold light of day we really have no right to expect Ireland to be beating ICC full members on a regular basis, or demand that every player performs to their full potential every time when that doesn’t even happen with top teams in any sport. Disappointment is one thing but actual accusations of underachievement are a bit much.
Of course we want Ireland to do well and the team’s extraordinary exploits in recent years in turning dreams into glorious reality has spoilt us by creating enormous expectations. So it’s natural, and in fact a tribute to the team, that we would think them capable of beating Bangladesh – even in their own buzzing backyard – as they’d tamed the Tigers in both previous competitive clashes on the world stage. Likewise, that the crunch clash with the Windies could be branded a winnable game.
That Ireland didn’t do either seems set to cost the team a place in the last eight in spite of eclipsing England and maybe even if they stun South Africa on Tuesday it won’t be enough to keep quarter-final qualification hopes alive. But even if Ireland make an early exit this time – for a change – their campaign certainly couldn’t be branded a failure providing they don’t slip up against the Dutch in the final group game. After all, we must not forget that, for all their heroics and ambition, Ireland remain one of the sport’s minnows – an associate nation not allowed at the top table and thrown a little loose change rather than the big bucks the ICC shells out to the established elite. It isn’t anywhere near a level playing field and anything achieved at a tournament like this is against overwhelming odds.
With extra exposure and some success comes closer scrutiny – as someone said, if you want to be noticed you must also accept being judged – and it is a mark of what is now expected of the men in green, of the unprecedented profile the team has gained and how far Irish cricket has come that they’re increasingly the subject of considerable comment among media, pub punters and anonymous keyboard warriors alike. In terms of heightening the expectations of a previously disinterested and ignorant Irish public and shedding their surprise package perception in the eyes of the watching world, the present players are essentially victims of their own success in that they are now being judged by ridiculously high standards which take little account of context.
Although those involved wouldn’t want it any other way as they seek to push their boundaries still further, for the rest of us to use any slight setback as a stick to beat them with would be utterly unfair. It is inevitable that patriotic hearts will try to rule rational heads, but blind faith and day-dreams shouldn’t shut down our facility for fair-minded acknowledgement of realities. So although beating Bangladesh and the West Indies was a legitmate target for upwardly-mobile Ireland and these were essentially must-win matches if the team was to back up the precedent – as already said, they have set a very high bar – of reaching the second stage in top tournaments, they weren’t favourites for either game.
While we were disappointed that they couldn’t claim either or both scalps, much of the criticism of Ireland’s ‘failure’ to take them is ill-informed, unnecessary or over-the-top – not least because it takes no account of the glaring gap in playing numbers, resources, experience and cricketing culture which makes even the weaker of the established sides veritable Goliaths to Ireland’s daring David.
Moreover, a lot of the specific criticisms levelled at Ireland individually and collectively could as easily be directed at supposedly superior sides and higher profile players. For example, Ireland aren’t the only team to have faltered in pursuit of an apparently modest target as against Bangladesh – think South Africa against England – or be blown away by one devastating display of big-hitting. Our own Kevin O’Brien did to England what West India Kieron Pollard inflicted on Ireland.
We can consider this match-by-match analysis at greater length later in the campaign and also assess individual players with reference to counterpart performances. For example, those who would pillory Paul Stirling for failing to make much mark so far at the top of the order could readily find more obvious under-achievers than the 20-year-old opener. Likewise, while our best batsman Ed Joyce didn’t deliver the weight of runs expected in Ireland’s first three fixtures before blossoming against the Windies, he had easily outscored one of the game’s global giants in South African counterpart Jacques Kallis.
Although Ireland’s opening bowler Boyd Rankin was expensive in the first two matches and had to wait until the fourth for his first wicket, he has subsequently shown impressive improvement in contrast to his heralded English equivalent James Anderson who has remained a liability. Most of William Porterfield’s players have chipped in usefully at some stage, either contributing consistently like Niall O’Brien or doing something spectacular on a one-off basis like his brother Kevin. And hopefully there’s much more still to come, starting on Tuesday!