Top order must step up for Irish to make T20 progress
While other sports still crave mere qualification for major international events, Phil Simmons' cricketers have moved on. Just seven years after his first global event, Ireland captain William Porterfield is about to open the batting in his sixth, and is already planning for the 2015 World Cup down under.
They kick off against Zimbabwe tomorrow, just as they did seven years ago almost to the day in Jamaica. But while joy was unconfined when that game ended in a tie, nothing less than three first-round wins will be acceptable. "Everything is about progress," Simmons said last week. "At major tournaments, like the World Twenty20, our aim is to qualify from the group stages, not just pick up an occasional victory."
Victory was occasional in the run-up to this event – defeats to Worcestershire and Hong Kong in UAE were followed with a narrow win over Nepal and a thumping by Bangladesh. Ireland has traditionally started tournaments slowly and can expect to pick it up a gear when competition starts. In fact, although ICC has snubbed them by introducing two first-round groups for associates plus Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the format may play to Ireland's strengths.
Each winner – probably with three victories – will go into the SuperTen phase in good form hoping to catch the big teams cold. Should Ireland go through, they will face Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand before facing an England team who on form could be keen to get home ASAP.
Conditions will play a huge part in the calculations of every team. Ireland has played in sultry Bangladesh a number of times, losing an ODI series 3-0 in 2008 and going down to the hosts at the 2011 World Cup. On that occasion a superb bowling and fielding performance was ruined by poor shots and a feeble surrender to good spinners.
The slow bowlers will play a crucial role for Ireland, and none more than left-armer George Dockrell. It was at this tournament in 2010, aged just 17 and with his Leaving Cert three months away, that he sprang to prominence with 3-16 against West Indies. He had another impressive four-over spell against England and a county deal was his once the exams were over.
"This tournament is going to be big for us and we are probably going into it with a lot more expectation," Dockrell said last week. "Things were coming together quite nicely in the West Indies and we made some great strides."
The conditions will suit Dockrell, and fellow spinners Paul Stirling and rookie Andrew McBrine. "We'll be looking for George to put his hand up in this tournament", says Porterfield. "Any major tournament we've gone to, he's done quite well."
The captain has sometimes shown a lack of confidence in his spinners, however, such as at the qualifiers in UAE. While other sides were experimenting with spin early on, Ireland only bowled one over of spin out of 48 power-play overs. A U-turn on Friday saw Stirling and McBrine opening in tandem but such a late switch smacks of panic.
The main concern is the top order, which hasn't fired since Abu Dhabi. Stirling has missed games recently with a sore toe while questions remain over Porterfield's vulnerability at the start of his innings. In T20s against top-eight nations, Stirling has never made even 20 while Porterfield hasn't reached double figures since 2009.
The key to successful Twenty20 is having wickets in hand at the end of the innings so batsmen can take risks. But four times in the past five games Ireland have been five down after ten overs, necessitating repair jobs by the tail and lower than desired totals.
The coach has acquired an obsession with six-hitting which has seen Niall O'Brien slip down the pecking order in favour of far less experienced players. And while the likes Aaron Finch and Brendon McCullum trade in maximums, there are plenty of runs to be had for batsmen who work the angles. The tournament arrives at the end of a long, frenetic winter and there are inevitable casualties. Retirement, forced or voluntary, has ensured Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith, Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen won't be here, while injury has accounted for Joe Root and Kieron Pollard and cast doubt over the presence of Shahid Afridi, Mitchell Johnson and Stuart Broad.
Ireland too, go into a tournament for the first time without Trent Johnston, while the absence of John Mooney will be felt. With Niall O'Brien out of favour, the traditional Irish bollock and bite could be missed.
Ireland will regard the tournament as a failure if they don't get past round one, but success would still require a victory over a SuperTen side. It's over to Dockrell, Stirling and McBrine to make that happen.
First round fixtures
(Irish time, all in Sylhet)
Tomorrow: v Zimbabwe (9.30am)
Wednesday: v UAE (1.30pm)
Friday: v Netherlands (9.30am)
SuperTens (Group B winner)
(all in Chittagong)
Monday, 24th: v Sri Lanka (1.30pm)
Thursday 27th: v SA (1.30pm)
Saturday 29th: v NZ (1.30pm)
Monday 31st: v England (10.30am)
Ireland squad: W Porterfield (capt), A Cusack, G Dockrell, E Joyce, A McBrine, T Murtagh, K O'Brien, N O'Brien, A Poynter, J Shannon, M Sorensen, P Stirling, S Thompson, G Wilson, C Young.
Sunday Indo Sport