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Cricket: Young guns spearheading Ireland's latest world odyssey

THE ICC World Twenty20 kicks off in Sri Lanka on Tuesday with Ireland's cricketers again creeping back into the public gaze.

With two games coming up against Australia and West Indies, the likes of Trent Johnston, Ed Joyce and Kevin O'Brien will need to be at their best to grab the nation as they did in previous World Cups, especially in All-Ireland final week.

But it's a signal of Irish cricket's progress that most international attention on the team centres not on the proven players, but on a pair barely out of their teens who were too young to watch even the 2007 World Cup in the pub.

Paul Stirling and George Dockrell are the spearheads of the generation that Cricket Ireland hopes will drive the game into the front rank, both at home and in the world outside. Dockrell, who has taken 63 wickets for Ireland in 47 matches, was yesterday named ICC Associate and Affiliate Cricketer of the Year

"Stirling can do things with a cricket bat that I've never seen anyone do before," says Joyce, "and the last man I said that about was Eoin Morgan."

The Belfast batsman is a belligerent hitter who can take an attack apart from the start. He has scored more international T20 runs than anyone else in the world this year -- albeit with more games -- and if he can get over his tendency to make unforced errors he could be a genuine global star.

"He's the most gifted Irish player I've ever seen", says Niall O'Brien. "He needs to realise that and reach the heights that he can achieve. The world is his oyster and he can do whatever he wants in the game."

Dockrell, too, has attracted wide acclaim, and the lascivious eyes of the English cricket hierarchy. Just out of his teens, and with 73 caps already, the Trinity science student last week signed a new two-year contract with Somerset.

It was in Colombo that he won the first of those caps, plucked from the Under 19 World Cup to plug a gap. His impact was instant and weeks later he was playing in the World Twenty20 in Guyana. His first game, against West Indies, saw him take 3-16 and a star was born.

His left-arm spin is not as dramatic as other bowlers, but his impressive control allows him to build pressure and pick up wickets with subtle changes of pace and flight. But perhaps his greatest asset is his clear-headedness and refusal to panic in tricky situations.

He had a few of them at the 50 over World Cup in India last year, but was still able to claim top scalps such as Andrew Strauss, MS Dhoni, and the biggest star of all, Sachin Tendulkar. Joyce was impressed: "He was bowling to the best in the world and was able to hold his own."

With the tournament in the sub-continent, there is an expectation that spin will play a major role, but the pitches have so far proved very different. "They've surprised us, as they haven't turned much," said O'Brien. "They have pace and bounce though, which will be good for batting and fast bowling."

Ireland has a well-balanced order, with Stirling and William Porterfield attacking at the start, followed by the best technical batsmen in Joyce and O'Brien, then the power-hitting of Gary Wilson, Kevin O'Brien and Johnston.

Twenty-over cricket is unpredictable, with games swinging in the space of an over, and Ireland have the players to do just that.

Wednesday: Ireland v Australia, 11am Irish time Monday 24th: Ireland v West Indies, 3pm

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