In any discussion about Associate cricket, the place to start has to be Ireland. The Emerald Isle has done more to deserve Test status than any country since Zimbabwe, with progression to the World Cup Super 8s in 2007, victory at the 2009 World Cup Qualifier, continual qualification for World Twenty20 tournaments, and a hat-trick of Intercontinental Cups on their ever-growing CV. They now possess the sort of standing amongst the Associates and Affiliates that Australia attained in the early-’noughties’: almost super-human, occasionally humbled and defeated, but never beaten for long.
Never was the gulf between them and the rest of the Associate world more apparent than at the 2011 World Cup, against England. The Irish bowlers had an admittedly rough time of it, and the top order folded like a pack of soggy playing cards. At 111 for five, many Full Members would have given up the ghost, but the Irish fought. O’Brien (at six) and Alex Cusack (at seven) counter-attacked, and what may have started off as a bit of fun grew into a match-winning partnership of 162. John Mooney and Trent Johnston managed to finish the job, and showcased the two biggest factors in Irish cricketing success: fighting spirit and strength in depth.
Kevin O’Brien’s big hitting seized the world’s attention in 2011.
The Irish team has always tended to be very strong on bowlers. Trent Johnston’s canny medium pace is capable of outfoxing even the best batsmen, and George Dockrell’s left arm spin is floating around on the radar of the England selectors. Tim Murtagh of Middlesex and Max Sorensen of The Hills both add depth to the seam department, while Paul Stirling’s flighted off-spin adds another dimension to his talent.
Occasionally, the Irish middle order is a little frail. After the top three, the form of Niall O’Brien has recently been somewhat patchy. Gary Wilson, though, seems to be maturing into a high-class cricketer, and Kevin O’Brien provides impressive impetus. It is possible to question the depth in this department, though, as both Andrew Poynter and Andrew White have been less than resoundingly successful at international level, and talents like James Shannon are untested thus far.
It is difficult to select just one stand-out player from the Irish team, but the man with the biggest future is Paul Stirling. His explosive batting has brought him runs at an average of almost 40 in ODIs, 177 of them coming in a single effort against Canada in Toronto. In addition, his off-spin has grown to be useful in a partnership-breaking capacity, as he is unafraid to give the ball air. Still only 22 years old, he will become an Irish legend.
Paul Stirling has it in him to be an Irish legend.
The Irish domestic competition is the RSA Interprovincial Series. This year is its inaugural season, and if the one game so far is anything to go by, it will be as competitive as many of the other competitions from Full Member countries. The Leinster Lightning squad is the most star-studded, but the Northern Knights and North West Warriors will also be out for silverwear. The club structure is also thriving, and youth participation has skyrocketed.
The common answer to this question would be loss of players to England, the same way that Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin have been lost. However, I would say that Ireland’s progression will depend upon how well they replace Trent Johnston, who is coming to the end of his career. If another seamer can slot into his slot after he moves on, then the Irish will continue to be a balanced side.
So, I hope to continue this series every Wednesday. The next stop on the Road Trip will be in Afghanistan, home to one of the best fairytales in modern sport.