Right time to face Windies but pressure is on Ireland
World Cup opener - like closing game against Pakistan - has become key in tournament fraught with format difficulties, writes Ger Siggins
It's hard to underplay the significance of Ireland's opening fixture in the ICC Cricket World Cup next Sunday night. Nothing less than the likely future of the sport in this country could be at stake in a game replete with layers of meaning.
Ireland's Trinidadian coach Phil Simmons takes on the team with which he made his name, West Indies, in yet another competitive fixture - the sides met at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups and 2010 and 2012 World Twenty20s. That defeat in 2011 saw Ireland miss out on the quarter-finals after a winning position was lost through poor shots and an umpiring howler.
The teams have met in six other internationals since he took over, but only once has Ireland been successful. Now they meet with West Indies cricket in one of its periodic states of turmoil - key players dropped, best spinner opting out under a cloud and a 23-year-old captain with less than two years international experience.
If ever there was a time to take down the Windies, it's next Sunday in Nelson, but the pressure to do so may overwhelm Ireland. That's partly down to the tournament format, which sees seven sides in each of the two pools. To reach the last eight, Ireland need to finish above three others - and while they will fancy UAE and Zimbabwe, they privately have little chance against South Africa and India.
Which means the opening fixture - and the closing one, against Pakistan - are key. The Asians were caught cold in 2007, but Ireland are no mystery now and they will have found momentum by the time the sides meet in Adelaide.
The real significance of next weekend stems from the recent ICC meeting which, on the surface, gave Ireland and Afghanistan a greater chance of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup. That event will shrink from 14 to 10 teams, a victim of the avarice of the Indians, English and Australians.
The two leading associates have been allowed join the top 10 on the official ranking table, from which the top eight on September 30, 2017 will qualify automatically for the 2019 finals. The rest, and the next best associates, will scrap for the last two places in a tournament in Bangladesh.
But a closer examination reveals just how hard it will be for Ireland to climb into the top eight. At the moment, they lie 12th, with 34 ranking points, behind West Indies (94 points) in eighth. Were Ireland to win all six group games at the World Cup, and beat England and Australia at home this summer, they will have 75 points, still not enough to overtake Bangladesh in ninth.
And if you think Ireland will be able to make up ground over the remaining two years, think again. Since the 2011 World Cup, Ireland have been granted just nine ODIs against top-eight teams, two of which were washed out. The hapless Zimbabweans and Bangladeshis cling to their exalted status by dodging every attempt by Ireland to give them a game, while the friendliest Full Members, Pakistan and West Indies, are precisely those most likely to slip through the trapdoor if Ireland succeed. Which all means the chances of Ireland getting enough games to climb into the top eight already look doomed.
The successes of 2007 and 2011 helped propel the sport forward nationally and internationally, so the current squad understands it has an important role to play. Wins on this stage can bring the game on to the front pages where the players' hair colouring can become part of the national conversation.
The numbers playing have more than doubled since 2007, but still struggles for air in the face of the big-four sports. The troubles at RSA Insurance put paid to a valuable sponsorship which, 16 months on, hasn't been replaced. The team will fly the Ireland.com flag Down Under, but it is a once-off deal for a sum described by an insider as "modest". The famous wins over Pakistan and England have spoiled supporters who now expect a giant-killing in every tournament, but that may be beyond this side. Five members of the squad, William Porterfield, John Mooney, the O'Brien brothers and Ed Joyce, will be at their third World Cup, while Gary Wilson, Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Alex Cusack all played in 2011.
That leaves six rookies in Andrew Balbirnie, Andy McBrine, Craig Young, Peter Chase, Stuart Thompson and Max Sorensen, of whom only the last two have even played against a full member.
But they are certainly the best-prepared Irish side ever to take the field, after an eight-game acclimatisation tour in October followed by two series in Dubai. The trip Down Under was disappointing, with just two wins and injuries and absences robbing key players of the experience. It did spring Balbirnie into contention, but besides Niall O'Brien, no other World Cup batsman made 50. Thompson was forgiven a dismal run (24 runs in eight innings) at the expense of Andrew Poynter (167 in seven). Wins over Scotland and Afghanistan have given the side a fillip, but the batting looks like it will depend strongly on Joyce and the O'Briens.
Porterfield is in an alarming dip, going 22 innings without a 50 for Ireland, and really should have been shunted down the order by now. The captain is an often brilliant leader, but opening the batting requires concentration and focus and there's little doubt that captaincy takes from that. His opening partner, Paul Stirling, is also in a poor run, without an ODI 50 since his stunning century against Pakistan in 2013, while Gary Wilson has just one ODI half-century in his last 17 innings.
The bowling unit has been hit by the loss of the injured Tim Murtagh and may struggle as the laws of the game continue to swing the balance of power towards batsmen. Twice this winter, 400 has been passed in an ODI, ominously by India and South Africa who Ireland play in two of the smallest grounds in the competition.
Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels will be the first test next Sunday. "West Indies cricket is in a bit of turmoil at the moment," says Ed Joyce.
"They've a few players that they haven't selected, and we're happy they haven't been selected, but they're still a formidable team.
"We really should have beaten them in 2011," recalls Joyce, who made 84 that day. "We bowled well to restrict them and we were in a good position, but that extra pressure told."
There won't be any shortage of pressure at the Saxton Oval next Sunday.
Sunday Indo Sport