Cricket: Road to Bangladesh presents new hurdles
Ireland cannot afford to be complacent in Twenty20 qualifiers, writes Ger Siggins
THE good thing about ICC World Twenty20 qualifiers is that if you miss one, there'll be another along in a minute. While most sports are happy with a four-year cycle between major events, the cash-hungry International Cricket Council has held four World Twenty20s since the first in 2007, and the fifth is due along in March.
And, of course, as with every big ICC event, there's an unseemly scramble for the crumbs by the Associate underclass. Ireland will hope to be first to the table after the tournament which starts in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, from which six teams qualify for Bangladesh.
As Associate top dog for many years, that task is well within Ireland's compass, which is just as well as Cricket Ireland's future direction and finances are geared towards continuing to qualify for every global tournament.
Coach Phil Simmons is anxious to refocus his players' ambition. "We are a team who don't take part just to qualify, we are going to win the tournament," he insisted. What the former West Indies star knows, of course, is that this tournament is a con job.
The six qualifiers will indeed be in Dhaka next March, but before they get to take on India, Australia and co, they must again play a round-robin among themselves and the weakest Full Members, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, for two places at the top table. And with Bangladesh enjoying home advantage (which, in their conditions, is the most advantageous home advantage of all) and finally showing some good form with a 4-0 win over New Zealand last week, it means Ireland must target the Africans to qualify.
But first things first, and this tournament will present a few hurdles. For once, the venue will not be one of them. Of the past 100 Ireland games, dating back to February 2010, no fewer than 21 have been played in the UAE (and 34 in Ireland).
The Sheikh Zayed Stadium complex, where Ireland play all seven group games, is a three-leafed shamrock of bright green ovals surrounded by inhospitable desert. Ireland have won on all five previous visits.
It was here, six years ago, that Eoin Morgan set the Irish record, an unbeaten 209, against UAE (and where, two years ago, that his England Test career came to a juddering halt).
Ireland should easily qualify for the second round as the draw keeps them away from next best sides Afghanistan, Kenya, Scotland and Netherlands. But once there they are swallowed by a bewildering system of play-offs and repechages which should ensure any slip will go unpunished.
Twenty months ago, in the previous qualifier, Ireland lost its opening game but claimed a place in Sri Lanka by winning the next 10 in a row. That defeat was at the hands of Namibia, who they face on Friday.
The Africans will again prove the trickiest opponents, and will ensure no complacency, says captain William Porterfield.
"It's something over the last couple of years that has happened when it comes to Associate tournaments: people look to us and the likes of Afghanistan to do well. I don't think it's a new pressure for us; we go into these tournaments knowing what we do well and looking after
ourselves and what we do. As long as we go in prepared well and with the right frame of mind, we'll be fine," he said.
It will also be the last tournament that Porterfield will be able to throw the ball to Trent Johnston, whose career is set to end just short of 200 caps. "The biggest thing Trent brings to the side is that new ball; he never lets you down with that new ball and really sets the tone for any game you play in and makes it easier for the lads around him," the captain said.
"I made my debut under him in 2006 and quite a few of the lads in the current squad would have made their debut under Trent as captain, and he's going to be a major loss. He's had a major influence on a lot of people's careers in the team. On a personal note, I'd like to wish him well and hopefully we can send him out on a high."
Simmons calls on 12 survivors from the Sri Lankan adventure, omitting Andrew White and losing Boyd Rankin (to England) and Nigel Jones (to retirement). Alex Cusack returns after missing much of the season with a back injury, while a lot could depend on rookie off-spinner Andrew McBrine. "He deserves an opportunity," says Simmons. "He's done very well this season and his bowling will be a useful asset on the slower pitches in the UAE."
With Ireland's women already qualified for their World Twenty20, the men can be confident that, by the end of the month, they will have joined them.