Odran Flynn reports ahead of the match against England
Tomorrow will see the culmination of years of work by Cricket Ireland as the picturesque Malahide Cricket Ground will play host to the largest attendance ever to witness a cricket match on this island.
Some 10,000 spectators will fill the grandstands and hospitality pavilions to watch the Ireland team renew its rivalry with England in the RSA Challenge ODI and the spectacle will also be watched by millions more on television through Sky Sports who are broadcasting the entire match. Ten years ago if anyone had opined that tomorrow would come they would have been advised to lie down in a darkened room to recover. However thanks to the foresight and the Trojan efforts of a cadre of dedicated administrators Ireland now has a ground of truly international standard. To the forefront of that group was the late John Wright, then secretary of the Irish Cricket Union, who convinced one and all that his beloved Malahide was the ideal setting for the flagship of Irish cricket. His vision has been implemented by many, not least CEO of Cricket Ireland Warren Deutrom and also driven by the ongoing support of RSA and Fingal County Council.
There would be little point in this of course if Ireland hadn’t developed a golden generation of very talented cricketers many of whom can legitimately stand alongside players from any nation and not feel inferior. When the England squad was announced last week there was much angst in sections of the media and on cricket forums about the “insult to Irish cricket” by their sending over a much weakened team following their Ashes triumph. There is no doubt that their team is weaker than it could be but it would be foolish to perceive it as a weak team. Five of the squad were in the Champions Trophy last June which lost narrowly to India in the final and many of the others will be regulars in England colours in the near future. Some will be disappointed that there is no Cook, Pietersen, Broad, Anderson et al. There is however a much better reason to go to Malahide tomorrow and it would still be valid even if all of the aforementioned players had shown up. Go and revel in the talents of the Ireland players who have no fear of any team. Ireland are capable of beating anybody and while they may not yet be able to beat everybody that day may well come if the rate of development matches that of the past six years. This is arguably the most successful Ireland sports team internationally of this and possibly any generation having just qualified for their sixth successive World Cup.
Go along to watch Ed Joyce, one of the classiest batsmen in these islands, who accumulates runs with a flick of his wrist and only ever stokes the ball as firmly as is needed to send it to the boundary. Yet behind that seemingly carefree unfazed style there is a gritty competitor who invariably delivers when he is most needed. His hundred against Pakistan in May and undefeated 96 in Amsterdam in July, to help ensure World Cup qualification, represent the most recent examples of his skill and determination. He is currently in the form of his life and averages 70 in Division One of the English County Championship, the highest of everyone who has scored at least 500 runs.
Then there is Paul Stirling, who would surprise no one if on his 23rd birthday he smashed another of his rapid fire centuries. He has already done it twice this summer, once against Pakistan and then against an Australian side that contained four of the bowlers who caused England many problems in the recently concluded Ashes.
How about Kevin O’Brien who launched the much vaunted England “full” attack to all parts of the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, the last time these teams met, on that glorious night in Bangalore. Then there is Niall O’Brien, Gary Wilson, John “Boy” Mooney and the just turned 21 year old George Dockrell who has already taken 134 wickets for Ireland. These and the rest continue to be led by one of the most astute captains in international cricket in William Porterfield.
If none of the above reasons are enough to persuade you then pay your respects to one of the main architects of the success story of Irish Cricket, on his last appearance in an Ireland shirt in his adopted city. To borrow a Munsterism, “Australian by birth, Irish by the grace of God”. Trent Johnston brought a professionalism to Irish cricket at the time it was most needed. Alongside Adi Burrell he convinced a talented group of young club cricketers than they would be good enough to compete with and potentially beat any team if they were prepared to be as dedicated to the sport as much as he was. It was appropriate that he hit the winning six in Kingston in 2007 against Pakistan, as he led his team by example and would never ask one of them to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. Now in his fortieth year his body can no longer cope with the physical demands of professional cricket. He has taken that loping run to the bowling crease almost 10,000 times and snared 264 victims. Supporters of Irish cricket owe him one more round of applause.
Ten of the Ireland team that evening in Bangalore will be playing tomorrow, although it is unfortunate from an Ireland perspective that one of their strike bowlers then, Boyd Rankin, will be now be making his ODI debut in an England shirt. However Ireland have played six ODI’s this year without him and their only defeat was to Pakistan and that by only a narrow margin. The one player missing from Bangalore is the injured Alex Cusack and who will replace him is one of the few selection decisions that Ireland coach Phil Simmons has to make. Nine of the team effectively pick themselves which will leave four players for two places. If Simmons decides that he wants a like for like replacement for Cusack then North County’s Eddie Richardson may well be in line for his first cap. Richardson has done all that could be asked of him in the Interprovincial series where he has got both runs and wickets. The enormity of the occasion may mitigate against him and Simmons may delay his debut to the Scotland games later in the week. The coach doesn’t tend to take too many risks and his last blooding of a new player at this level, James Shannon in the second Pakistan ODI, wasn’t exactly a roaring success.
Another star of the Interprovincial, Max Sorensen is still awaiting his first ODI cap and he too might have to bide his time, although the imminent retirement of Trent Johnston, will ensure that his wait will not be too long. Sorensen is in direct competition with Tim Murtagh and the Middlesex paceman has been in fine form this year taking over 50 wickets in the County Championship. However Murtagh is very much a red ball bowler and apart from a superb opening spell in the second Pakistan ODI has failed to convince with the white ball in his hand. His attributes of line and length with the new ball can become a liability when the ball is older and he lacks the variation that is essential in the death overs of an innings. It may be prudent to dispose of his overs before the late slog. His experience of bowling to virtually all of the England batsmen should be enough to ensure his place. By default the final place may well go to the very experienced Andrew White, who although primarily these days is viewed as a four day player, will not be fazed by the occasion and can consolidate down the order and bowl a few overs if required.
England do not have a single player left from Bangalore and while some have naturally gone from the side such as Andrew Strauss and Michael Yardy, others have been rested after the Ashes. The captaincy for this game has been given to former Ireland player Eoin Morgan, who ironically began his senior club career with Malahide, and at his pre match press conference today sounded very much as if he had been born to the England role. Despite the furore caused by the defection of Rankin to England colours, Morgan added fuel to the fire and sent shivers down the spine of the Irish press corps by declaring that it was disappointing that Paul Stirling had to wait another eighteen months before he becomes eligible for selection for England. Be careful what you wish for Eoin for unless your form improves it may be Stirling who replaces you, although it must be stressed that Paul has never given any indication that he is interested in going down that route.
There are a number of very exciting young England players on show tomorrow such as Ben Stokes who has been compared to Ian Botham and while is a seriously big task to emulate Botham’s achievements Stokes has scored 1000 runs and taken 50 wickets for Durham this season. Gary Balance is a hard hitting Yorkshire player, who left Zimbabwe to play in England and has scored over 1600 runs this reason. There is also Ravi Bopara who has achieved much more in the one day game than he managed at Test level and wicketkeeper batsman Jos Buttler another rapid scorer. These players are supplemented by the pace of Steven Finn and the all-round skills of Luke Wright.
These England lads are hungry for success especially as the build up to the next World Cup starts now.
It would be untrue to say that the result tomorrow doesn’t matter, it is all about the occasion. It is very much about the occasion but the result always matters. Ireland to win for the first time at home against a major Test playing team.
Images by ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne