Friday 20 October 2017

Joyce: I hope we're the last to cross divide

Andy Balbirnie playing football during his warm-up at training in Bristol yesterday. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile
Andy Balbirnie playing football during his warm-up at training in Bristol yesterday. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile

Sam Wheeler

Ed Joyce makes no apologies for switching allegiances to England for the prime years of his career, but he is confident that no more Irish cricketers will be 'forced to make that decision'.

Bray-born Joyce returned to the Ireland ranks in time for the 2011 World Cup and, at 38, remains the team's premier batsman, the most likely source of the runs they will need to beat England in the historic two-match series which begins at Bristol this morning before moving on to Lord's on Sunday.

Ireland's results have dipped since the team's remarkable feats at the 2015 World Cup, but the set-up now, with contracted players and a burgeoning fixture list, is a world away from the shambles Joyce left in the early 2000s.

"It was a tough decision back then, but it was also a no-brainer. I have to explain it a lot. Anyone who's a proud Irishman, as I am, would find it hard," says Joyce. "Especially because it was England…

"But as a cricketing nation in the late '90s, we were nowhere. There was a shambolic trip to Canada for the qualifiers for the 2003 World Cup. We lost to USA, Denmark etc and finished near the bottom. I couldn't see us reaching a World Cup down the line, absolutely not.

"Ireland didn't play any games… I was living in England, playing for Middlesex, and it was natural step to try to play Test cricket. That was always the ambition; I was a pro, trying to earn a living, to get to the top of the game.

"But it certainly wasn't ideal that my first game was against Ireland - against my brother - and then playing against Ireland in the 2007 World Cup…

"If I was 23-24 now, you'd have a decision to make, which I never had. Young players now can say, 'Ireland are, touch wood, going to be 'full members', playing Tests matches, playing against the best sides, I can make a very good living out of this' - why would you want to play for England?

"All of us have played a part in that journey - I'm proud of that. Hopefully, Eoin Morgan (England's captain), Boyd Rankin (back in Ireland colours, but injured) and myself are the last Irish players that will have to play for England."

Joyce is not a man motivated by making a point of proving people wrong. He played 17 ODIs for England in 2006-'07, scoring a century in Australia; he is not bitter about missing out on Test cricket, even though plenty of lesser players have opened the batting for England instead of him, players whose figures come nowhere near his prodigious haul of 17,981 first-class runs at an average of 47.94.

"There was a period when England were looking for an opener and I was playing well for Sussex, but I was back with Ireland. I didn't feel I was missing out - I knew I was doing right thing. So I don't have regrets," insists the left-hander, who is excited about the possibility of making a belated Test debut for Ireland next year.

To Joyce, this week's two games are an opportunity for Ireland to reinforce the claim they have been making for so long, that they belong among the big boys.

"Regardless of the fact I played for England, it's still a brilliant thing; to be invited to play two ODIs shows what they think of us now. But we're not kidding ourselves: they're obviously a stronger team than us," he says.

"It looks like we've shown we can draw big crowds over there, which is huge if we're going to be invited back. And now we have to be competitive - and the way we've played over the last 10-12 years, you would expect us to play well."

To stand any chance in England, Ireland will have to improve on the levels they showed in defeat over three formats against Afghanistan in their most recent outings.

Joyce concedes that there has been a drop-off, and points to the retirements of Trent Johnston, John Mooney and Alex Cusack - all bowlers - and the injuries suffered by key paceman Rankin.

"You'd have been hoping that the new guys who came in around 2015 would be regulars now, but some of those guys haven't pushed on in the way they could have," says Joyce. "We've had to blood a lot of young bowlers; they are exciting but they haven't that experience.

"We've still got an experienced batting line-up, and that's been the most disappointing thing over the last 18 months, the way we've batted."

Joyce is now based at home on a full-time Cricket Ireland contract - like most of his team-mates - after nearly two decades in county cricket. There are advantages and disadvantages: the Ireland players train together, but unlike today's opponents, they have played very little competitive cricket since returning from the Afghan series in March.

Joyce has played two games, and although the beefed-up Interprovincial games help to bridge the gap, there is a big jump from club cricket to ODIs against Test nations. "It's going to be very tough," he concedes.

England are without Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler but will still play with the relentless aggression that has transformed their white-ball cricket since their 2015 World Cup debacle.

They should have too much for an Irish side whose key players are all past their prime, but the Boys in Green have plenty of firepower in their own battling line-up, and if veteran Tim Murtagh can take new-ball wickets and inspire his promising young bowling colleagues, they are capable of springing an upset.

  • England v Ireland, Live, Sky Sports 2, 11.0

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