Test foot forward – Not content to simply make up the numbers
June 18th 2013 by Ryan Bailey | International
On that famous night in Bangalore, after Kevin O’Brien had launched a staggering counter-attack and smashed England’s potent bowling attack to all four corners, the dust began to settle on another remarkable achievement as another glorious chapter was etched into this country’s cricketing history.
Cricket Ireland’s series of articles continues to build up to the biggest cricket match ever to come to Ireland, the RSA Challenge, which sees Ireland play England at the new international ground in Malahide on September 3rd. Every Tuesday, cricketireland.ie will have a different guest author writing about something relating to one of cricket’s oldest rivalries. This week with 11 weeks to go, Ryan Bailey takes a look at Ireland’s current squad and how far they’ve come since the 2011 World Cup.
It was a moment few in the ground will ever forget as Ireland provided another emphatic statement of their intent to develop into a force on the international stage.
Last month’s narrow series defeat to Pakistan once again highlighted the progression Phil Simmons’ side have made in a relatively short period of time and their ability to compete with the best in the world on a consistent basis.
While extended and regular series against full member nations and eventually Test status remains the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Ireland know that showcase fixtures such as September’s RSA Challenge match against England are the perfect opportunity to push a decision from the ICC.
Gone are the days when simply giving the cricketing powerhouses a run for their money was a cause for celebration. There’s a new belief and confidence in Irish cricket which stems from results such as the one achieved at the Chinnaswamy Stadium two years ago. It’s brought home the realisation that the one-time minnows of world cricket now belong at the elite level.
It’s a sheer measure of how far Ireland have come that seven of the side that came agonisingly close to beating Pakistan in Clontarf are English county-based players. The headway made and the experienced gained by the county representatives is essential for Ireland’s long-term progression and will eventually lead to steady results on the big international occasions.
While the focus for Phil Simmons and his squad remains on the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Netherlands, all roads are leading to Malahide – Ireland’s new international cricket venue where Ireland will face England for the first time since that now infamous clash in 2011.
Despite the significant headway made in the two years that have followed since the three wicket victory over the old enemy, the side that takes to the field at the new 11,500 capacity national stadium in just seventy-seven days is likely to show just the solitary change from Bangalore.
However, the days of school teachers, postmen and bank clerks lining up in a green jersey are well gone. In fact, as many as twelve Irishmen have played first-class or List A cricket in England this summer already while several of the country’s most exciting young prospects are learning their trade across the water.
Simmons may have lost the services of Boyd Rankin after the Warwickshire seamer decided to retire from international cricket with Ireland at the end of last year but a more than capable replacement has filled the big void left by the 6ft 7in bowler.
Tim Murtagh has already taken thirty-seven wickets for Middlesex in the Championship this season, putting him joint top of the dismissals statistics while he showed his new ball ability we know he’s capable of with a fine spell in the second ODI against Pakistan last month.
The 31-year-old is perhaps yet to convert his club form onto the international stage since qualifying to play for the Boys in Green in just over a year ago. But judging by his recent performances, it’s only a matter of time before the Irish faithful see the best of Murtagh.
Meanwhile, if there were any doubts about 39-year-old Trent Johnston’s capability to perform at the highest level in the twilight of his career, then recent performances are a clear indication that the YMCA all-rounder has still plenty left to offer.
Johnston is arguably bowling as well as ever, taking fifteen wickets in his last six outings and continues to be a menace to opening batsmen of the highest quality while all-rounders Alex Cusack and John Mooney remain integral members of the squad despite not playing professionally across the sea.
The exposure of Ireland’s batsman in particular to regular first-team cricket in England has been a vital factor in the development of the side as a competitive force. The top-order was a relatively unknown and largely inexperienced quantity in India with only William Porterfield, Niall O’Brien and Ed Joyce enjoying first-team opportunities at county level.
While the trio mentioned above continue to be an integral part of their side’s set-up and enhance their reputation further through sheer weight of runs, Paul Stirling and Gary Wilson have established themselves at Middlesex and Surrey respectively.
22-year-old Stirling is highly rated by all at Lords and made his County Championship debut earlier in the summer. While he is yet to convert his limited-overs potential into consistent first-class scores, there is no doubt he is capable of playing all formats, an argument which was strengthened by his century against Australia A at the weekend.
Angus Fraser’s reluctance to use Stirling in red ball cricket is no doubt frustrating for the all-rounder but he continues to mature as a cricketer at a rapid pace owing to regular cricket at the highest level. His growing reputation was emphasised when the Syhlet Royals paid $30,000 for his services during the Bangladesh Premier League, a tournament which he shined in.
Wilson is one of the most undervalued members of the Irish squad after playing in the shadow of his wicket-keeping counterpart Niall O’Brien since making his international debut in 2007. The 27-year-old has excelled in recent seasons at the Kia Oval to the point where he’s been utilised solely as a batsman in all formats.
Wilson has enjoyed an excellent start to the season for Surrey, scoring close to four hundred Championship runs in the middle-order as well as recording his second first-class century. His development into a versatile batsmen, exceptional glove man and more than capable fielder has added an extra dimension to the Irish side in recent years and if he continues to improve, more success on the international stage won’t be too far away.
After forging a career for himself with a successful couple of seasons at Northants, Niall O’Brien decided to move onto a new challenge at the end of last year. The wicket-keeper batsman made the short switch to Leicestershire and has enjoyed instant success for his new club with the highlight being a superb century on front of the Sky Sports cameras against Gloucestershire in the Yorkshire Bank 40 competition.
His younger brother Kevin wrote his name into Irish cricketing folklore with that magical innings on a balmy March evening in Bangalore and his stock continues to rise. He has since blossomed in both departments of his game, and his name sits near the very top of both Ireland’s ODI batting and bowling record lists.
Contracts with Nottinghamshire and Somerset quickly followed the 2011 World Cup while he was part of the Irish trio who took part in the Bangladesh Premier League and is the only British or Irish player who was snapped up for the inaugural Caribbean Premier League later this summer.
The 27-year-old is in the form of his life with the bat after scoring piles of runs in club cricket as well as smashing a potent Pakistan attack to all corners of Castle Avenue a couple of weeks ago.
It doesn’t stop there however - the conveyor belt keeps churning out home-grown talent. Graeme McCarter (Gloucestershire), Craig Young (Sussex), Stuart Thompson (Somerset), Andy Balbirnie (Middlesex), Stuart Poynter (MCC) and Peter Chase (Durham) are all following in the footsteps of George Dockrell by emerging from the youth set-up here before heading to England.
Not forgetting the likes of James Shannon and Max Sorensen among others who have done enough in a green jersey to merit inclusion but face an uphill challenge given the settled nature of the side in recent years.
If the players’ ability to perform with the best has soared in recent years then so too have the expectations of the growing cricket loving public. The RSA Challenge will be the biggest cricket match ever to be held on these shores, with the new all-seater venue in Malahide being able to host a higher capacity than has ever been seen on the island of Ireland for an international cricket match.
It will be the sixth one-day international between the two countries and if Ireland’s first victory over their near neighbours revitalised and brought new life to the sport on the emerald isle then September’s much anticipated clash could just be the beginning of a new era for Irish cricket.
After all we can’t afford to simply be content with being top of the associate nation tree, bigger and better things await and the players must continue to show that Ireland belong at the top table of international cricket.
Ryan Bailey is a freelance journalist who writes for Eurosport, Goal & Cricket World and others - you can follow him on twitter @RyanBailey37 or check out his website www.ryanbaileysport.co.uk
It is just 10 weeks to the RSA Challenge at Malahide