A World Cup Journey Of A Lifetime
“They handled everything that was thrown at them and came away with an understanding of cricket at the top level and areas of their own game they needed to develop” – Ryan Eagleson, Academy Performance Coach and Head Coach of the touring team.
This review summed up an 18-month adventure for a group of Ireland’s most promising rising stars – an adventure which took the Ireland Under-19s squad from the backyards and suburban grounds of Ireland to the world stage in New Zealand.
With a highly commendable 13th place finish, the team finished with a 3-3 record in the tournament, competing with the elite of the world’s up-and-coming cricket talent.
While most of us see the on-the-field action and can follow the action online ball-by-ball, what is often unseen is the intense preparation, planning and training that goes into an endeavour like this.
That is where the team management, coaching staff and administrative support comes to the fore.
We asked Academy Manager, Pete Johnston, and Academy Performance Coach, Ryan Eagleson, for their reflections on the path to the Under-19s Cricket World Cup in 2018.
“You could say that the U19s actually began their World Cup preparation back in 2016,” said Johnston. “The squad completed a thorough Winter Program with regional practice and National Weekends across Ireland.
Preparations continued with the first goal to be the World Cup Qualifying Tournament in July 2017. A tough schedule of six games in seven days saw the team take on Jersey, Denmark, and fierce long-term rivals, Scotland.
“In match preparation for the Qualifiers the squad left no stone unturned in their preparation. We played warm-up games against the MCC, Emerging Knights and Warriors before touring Worcestershire and Warwickshire to play their U19s,” said Johnston.
“The squad turned over both the County sides, only suffering one defeat to the Emerging Knights. Results were great, but it was the performance that we were most pleased with.”
“The Qualifiers involved a busy schedule but the planning and preparations played out well with the team winning all six of their games on difficult playing surfaces in Jersey. World Cup qualification was milestone number one, and we achieved that handsomely.”
After a short break to recuperate, the coaches turned their attention to planning for the World Cup tournament itself. Come October 2017 the squad began an intensive strength and conditioning training programme.
“The physical preparations were crucial to allow us to evaluate fitness and endurance levels of the players. It was important that we built the squad up to compete for an intensive four-week tournament,” said Ryan Eagleson, who would also act as Head Coach of the touring team.
“The training programme was completed in three 4-week blocks with each block increasing in difficulty. The Dublin-based players benefited from Cricket Ireland’s partnership with DCU where they were able to attend supervised sessions beginning at 6am.”
“We also availed of the skills and expertise of Cricket Ireland’s Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach, Brendan Connor, who was very impressed with the squad’s progress.”
The full squad of 19 also attended an intensive week-long skill and fitness camp at the outstanding European outdoor training facility at La Manga in Spain.
“The La Manga camp certainly took everyone outside of their comfort zone, but was a great opportunity to bank some very hard work early,” said Eagleson.
In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, the squad continued to practice and train hard and benefited from senior men’s player Andrew Balbirnie attending a training session.
“The knowledge and experience of the senior players is key to preparing our emerging players coming through the ranks. Balbo shared his views on facing Afghanistan’s spinners, and offered advice on playing in a World Cup against subcontinental teams,” said Johnston.
“John Mooney was also on hand to run some excellent fielding sessions with the guys and again act as a mentor to the players.”
“The squad also benefitted from sport psychology support, and completed player profiles and goal setting. The idea is to get them not only physically in shape, but mentally.”
The squad set off from Dublin Airport on 28 December, spending a couple of days acclimatising, absorbing the culture and sights of Auckland with active recovery, before getting into training on New Years Day.
Two days of training on grass pitches followed with some good net bowlers. Unfortunately the final two days of the camp included matches against a strong Auckland XI (containing first class cricketers), but wet weather intervened and this opportunity was lost. The coaching staff did not miss a beat though, and replacement training indoors and gym work was arranged at short notice.
Wet weather again hampered a further warm-up game in Christchurch (where the temperature dipped as low as 12 degrees, despite being summer), but more indoor practice and fitness ensued and a rare opportunity to train on grass before playing England in a warm-up.
“The England game gave us an excellent test and the players performed admirably given it was their first game of the winter. Captain Harry Tector’s century was obviously a highlight, but just as importantly the game gave our bowlers a good run,” said Johnston.
Further wet weather curtailed preparations for the World Cup group stage proper, but the team again found some indoor facilities to keep sharp.
While the results and performances of the subsequent six competitive matches are well documented by now, the coaching staff saw some key positives in the team’s performances, which were testament to the detailed planning and preparation programme that was put in place.
“The team’s resolve and mental resilience was outstanding – coming back from a disappointing performance against a world-class Pakistan bowling attack and having missed some opportunities to potentially beat Sri Lanka, they showed a determination to bounce back in the win over Asia Cup Champions Afghanistan, holding their nerve in a close encounter,” said Johnston.
“Many observers, including our coaching team, rate this Afghanistan game highly. Personally, I believe given the level Afghanistan are now at and the experience they had in their side, that this was probably Ireland U19’s greatest day.”
“A tough draw meant we faced the West Indies in the Quarter Final of the plate, a fantastic game ensued which went down to the wire and we were unfortunate not to come out the right side of it, but it was another strong performance this time against the World Cup holders none the less. The last two games also demonstrated the results from the stamina and endurance work we put in early. We went on to defeat Papua New Guinea and then Namibia in authoritative style, which to me showed an ability to remain focussed as a team. These are all great signs of learning, development and experience that I believe the players will take forward in their playing careers.”
“To a person, the World Cup was a great success - competing and performing well in most of the competitive games. Aside from some individual and team highlights, I was most impressed how far the squad has come in 18 months. To a person the learned quickly and improved fast. Most pleasingly I think they also developed as people off it.”
“Touring and long tournaments are a thing that the players will need to get used to, if they want to succeed at the top level. To this end, the squad were open to soaking up the local Maori culture, and stood true to their values and lived good behaviours on and off the field. As coaches, we don’t see ourselves as just coaching players so much as developing people. Every individual on that tour seemed to enjoy and grow from the experience. Harry Tector has been an outstanding Captain throughout the journey, but he has been supported by many other leaders within the team too.”
Eagleson also provided a similar perspective: “The win against Afghanistan was the best in my time of coaching under 19 cricket and the quality of fast bowling they faced against Pakistan was a real test and showed the boys areas of their game they needed to develop and develop in a short period of time. This can only stand them well in their lives both on and off the field.”
Both Coaches now look forward to seeing the squad make the most of any opportunities that may come their way, be that with their Clubs, Academy, Inter-Pros, Wolves or even Ireland and they will be urging them to kick on from the tournament and continue their hard work because there has never been a better time to be an emerging Irish cricketer.
Image: 2018 Ireland U19 World Cup squad