National Coach Phil Simmons says Ireland are the team to beat in the qualifying tournament for the World Twenty20 which begins in the UAE on Tuesday 9 February. Ireland completed their five-game warm-up for the tournament with an encouraging 11 runs victory over Canada in Sharjah, gaining revenge for the defeat to the Maple Leafs in Sri Lanka last week.
On a slow pitch, Ireland could only total 138, bowled out off the last ball of the innings, but thanks to a four-wicket haul from 17 year old slow left armer George Dockrell and three wickets for Alex Cusack, the Canadians could survive only 19 overs. "In Colombo, Canada beat us (by four runs), but it wasn't a worry because we knew we had to come here, a different country and a different atmosphere. Now we have started like that, it proves we are the team to beat," said Simmons.
There was an injury concern over wicket-keeper Niall O'Brien when he left the field in the 15th over of the Canada innings nursing an injured thumb, the same one he broke a couple of years ago, but Simmons confirmed it was only a precaution and he will be fit to take his place against Afghanistan in the grand setting of Dubai Sports City. O"Brien"s younger brother, Kevin, will become the 10th Irishman to win 100 caps in the game and the good news is that he goes into it in form after reaching 30 for the first time in an innings for Ireland since the victory against Bangladesh in last summer's World Twenty20 at Trent Bridge.
"I wasn't really worried about the batting," said O'Brien junior last night. I've been here before. Last year in the qualifiers (for the 2011 World Cup) my form wasn't great in the warm-ups but it turned out all right in the big competition. (He averaged 148!). "I'll try to get back to that stage mentally. It was a difficult enough wicket to bat on today, it was quite slow, but once I got in I tried to hit my areas and luckily enough it came off. It's always good to win against any side and in the manner we did. We are always looking for 160 in Twenty20 but we assessed the pitch well and revised it down." Simmons has also confirmed that despite Paul Stirling giving Ireland another option at the top of the order, William Porterfield and Niall O'Brien will open the batting tomorrow.
They had a partnership of 38 in 33 balls yesterday to launch the Ireland innings and although Stirling was bowled the ball after O'Brien senior was caught at deep square, and Cusack followed in the next over, Andre Botha and the captain led the recovery before O'Brien ensured what Simmons described as a "fighting total". O'Brien's self-adjustment meant he hit only one boundary in his 24-ball innings and if the Canadians had followed suit then Ireland might have been troubled.
But John Davison, who has joined the Canada team here in UAE, has a reputation to keep up and when he swung and missed at Dockrell, the youngster, in only his fourth game, had the big wicket. He followed up with one in each of his next three overs, including the experienced Ian Billcliff and captain Ashish Bagai so there were no "gimmes' in his quartet. With great timing, Peter Connell bowled two good overs with the new ball, also claiming the wicket of the big-hitting Riswan Cheema although he wasn't asked to come back at the end, as Kevin O'Brien joined Cusack in that role.
Ireland had teams five and six down regularly last week but couldn't finish them off. This time they did and they are a confident side ready to take on the mantle of favourites in their bid to reach a fourth successive world event. Ireland's other group games this week are against the USA on Wednesday and Scotland and Thursday. The top two then meet the top two in the other group, consisting of Canada, Kenya, Netherlands and UAE in the Super Four with the leading two in that table contesting Saturday night's final and guaranteed a place alongside the 10 Full Members in the West Indies in April/May.