The National Coach speaks to Peter Breen.
Ireland coach Adrian Birrell is, if nothing else, a pragmatist. Thankfully for Irish cricket he has a whole lot more to offer. Since his appointment in the spring of 2002 the perennial under-achievers have developed a more rigid backbone. Attitudes have been honed, weaknesses identified and vibrant youth encouraged. A year on, what are his initial impressions of the state of play of Irish cricket?
"There's a need to instil a greater sense of belief in the squad because, over the last few years, we've lost a number of tight games that we should really have won. But I'm looking forward to 2003 and the challenges ahead", he says bursting with enthusiasm. The adopted country has captivated this immensely proud and content South African.
There are notable signs of progression and central to these are the identification of a way forward, of a more distinct path to success. "Goals for the team include bowling fewer extras, increasing the pace of the game, tighter fielding, running between the wickets and expanding the range of shots. There is a long way to go but I do see the light at the end of the tunnel", he stresses.
Specific targets include scoring maximum runs in the first 15 overs, to become "more aggressive and ruthless" up front, consolidating the score in the middle order and to then have the capacity to score quickly in the last 10 overs. On the bowling front, he seeks "highly disciplined performances and good variety", citing how Gary Neely was one of only a small number of bowlers who consistently hit a good line and length last year.
Not overly blessed with the wealth of talent that our contemporaries enjoy, such consistency is vital. Sunday Independent/Hyundai Irish cricketer of the year Niall O'Brien is "a very versatile batsman with a great future ahead of him", but he is quick to point out that there is room for improvement for the whole squad. "I've been pleased with (captain) Jason Molins, and Kyle McCallan's all-round ability is crucial for us."
Having the South African born all-rounder André Botha and Phoenix's free-scoring Australian batsman Jeremy Bray available is a massive boost to the squad. "These are high quality performers and they will strengthen us hugely."
And to the future, I ask? Birrell is loath to shut the door on some of the other, less experienced prospects. "I'm not totally rigid", he explains. "Though we do have our winter squad up and running, it's not a closed shop by any means. If players come through and dominate the inter-regional competitions, it would be foolish of me not to consider them.
Players like Boyd Rankin and Johnny Thompson "two promising fast bowlers" and the likes of William Porterfield and Eoin Morgan "who, given a good year and a good start, could come through and compete for top honours", have it in them to progress.
"In fact", he continues, "if someone does burst through I'd say fair play to them because they're the kind of players I'm looking for. Guys who are hungry," he says oozing with grit and determination, "and who can perform under pressure will be welcomed and I'd encourage their enthusiasm. I look for good technique, versatility and a positive attitude in a player. They are all key attributes."
For obvious reasons the man from Port Elizabeth looks forward to the one-day internationals against Zimbabwe and South Africa. "I'd like to win at least one of the games against Zimbabwe and, although I don't think we have the capability to beat South Africa, in the games against the MCC and the Earl of Norfolk's XI I'd look for us to compete and win.
"Coming into the job", he later confesses, "I knew little about Irish cricket but I now feel as though I'm more familiar with the system. I think that I can achieve a lot more than I have done. Having worked with the squad over the winter, I believe that the mental toughness and the will to win can be improved. That's a long-term ongoing process but one which I believe is attainable." Belief and the will to win are the most glaring areas where Irish cricket has lagged behind its competitors in recent times. Birrell brings that South African conviction to the fore. Music to the ears …