Sunday 22 October 2017

Balbirnie beginning to reap the benefits of the home front

Andy Balbirnie. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Balbirnie. Photo: Sportsfile

Ger Siggins

A visit by the West Indies is always something to savour, no matter how abject the current state of the side. There's something magical about the maroon caps, express pace bowling and six-hitting exuberance that made them so beloved long before T20 jaded our palates.

The 2017 West Indians, like most of their tourists since the early 1990s, aren't a patch on the Fire in Babylon-era side, but there is still plenty to strike fear into the Ireland bowlers when they walk out at Stormont on Wednesday.

For one thing, peace has apparently broken out in the notoriously fractious Caribbean set-up, and their world-beater Chris Gayle is back in the fold along with Marlon Samuels. Gayle is the finest white-ball player this century, setting many records in T20s and ODIs with his prodigious six-hitting. During the series with England that follows, the big Jamaican has his 38th birthday, the day before Ireland's best batsman celebrates his 39th.

Ed Joyce, and the man most likely to assume that mantle, Andrew Balbirnie, geared up for the game last week by helping Leinster Lightning to their fifth successive Interpro title. Joyce took the Knights' attack to pieces, making 167no, but a hip niggle forced his protégé to sit it out. It was the latest frustration for a man whose career has had its fair share of fits and starts.

After the watershed 2007 World Cup, with Irish cricket already looking hungrily over the horizon, I wrote a piece about the future stars. Three of those consulted mentioned a 16-year-old who was scoring big runs for Pembroke called Andrew.

That Trent Johnston-led Ireland side was hard to break into, but Balbirnie was called up while still a teenager.

"Looking back I was nowhere near ready for it," he admits. "I was out of my depth. It was my first year finding myself as a cricketer. I had been in a bit of a bubble in Dublin with people telling me I'm great, scoring loads of runs, but then I went to England and became a small fish in a big pond. I probably shouldn't have been capped till 2014, 2015 - by then I had got a lot of runs for Middlesex seconds, and played a few first team games, and was aware I could play at that level."

He picked up a handful of caps over the first five years, but with the 2015 World Cup looming, he upped his game and found himself in the team. But despite scoring 58 against South Africa and 97 against Zimbabwe, it all soon went wrong.

"That six-to-eight months was the purple patch, the best period of my career. But I fell into the trap of getting complacent about my place in the side. I had worked so hard to get to where I wanted to be - on the big stage at a World Cup, and done well - but I sat back rather than kick on."

The head coach was patient - blighted by injury, Balbirnie went 26 innings without a 50 after that Zimbabwe match-winner and was rewarded with four 50s and his first century for Ireland, 205 against Netherlands, just three weeks ago.

While his Irish career was still in the budding stage, Balbirnie spent five years in London with MCC and Middlesex. He played just a dozen times for the county.

"The limited game time was frustrating but I had great batting coaches, Mark Ramprakash for a couple of years. It was a very competitive squad with its sights on getting to the top of the County Championship, which it did last year."

When the time came for Middlesex to cut Balbirnie loose, former England bowler Angus Fraser did it face-to-face. "He texted to ask me where was my local coffee shop in Dublin, and could we meet there the next day." Browne's of Sandymount Green was where Balbirnie learned his contract was coming to an end. "He didn't have to come over. I'd played two first-class games for Middlesex and he was quite entitled to do it over the phone but it's the mark of the man that he did that."

Other county opportunities beckoned but he opted for Dublin. "I decided to crack on over here, get fully fit and play as much as I can. The way Cricket Ireland are going it's worked out pretty well and fortunately I'm able to play first-class cricket. I train a lot with Ed and at his age it's great to see such desire and willingness to learn. I tap his brain for as much info as I can." He's been checking out the West Indies on TV. "They're very different to the team we played in Nelson. Their morale will be high after that great win in Leeds."

Ireland's morale will be interesting to assess after a difficult summer which ensured Wednesday is coach John Bracewell's last game.

Friday's announcement that Graham Ford will succeed him was welcomed by players and supporters, coming as he does with experience of coaching South Africa and Sri Lanka. "Great appointment, have only heard good things about him and he has been successful with some of the best teams in the world," said Balbirnie. "I am looking forward to working with him over the next few years. Bracewell, he added, had been very good to him during his injury and "helping me on the road to where I want my game to be." He will hope to give him a good farewell.

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