Thursday 19 April 2018

Bracewell facing selection headache as Irish seek to take significant scalp

Ireland head coach John Bracewell. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Ireland head coach John Bracewell. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Ger Siggins

Sri Lanka's cricketers come to town this week, but much of the talk has been about absent friends. The island has produced some brilliant players in the three decades since it was promoted to Test cricket, but has been struggling since their finest batsmen Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara bowed out last year. Sangakkara is still turning out for Surrey, but for one who studied Joyce and Beckett in college there must be some regret that he isn't playing in Dublin on Bloomsday.

The Irish side has also shed some members, with retirements and injury knocking out a third of the last World Cup squad. Several others have been battling for form and fitness, adding to the headaches for coach John Bracewell ahead of a game that has added significance.

That's partly because, for all the stirring giant-killings at each World Cup appearance, Ireland have yet to topple a full member on home turf. Three years ago Pakistan escaped with a tie, but the lack of a home ODI win has rankled with supporters and players. Eight of the Test nations have played 18 ODIs here, with only New Zealand and Zimbabwe yet to visit.

Sri Lanka are rebuilding and have struggled in the Test series in England. They have flown in some experienced players for the ODI leg of their tour, although absent is Nuwan Kulasekera who got runs and wickets in their only previous ODI here in 2012.

Ireland will miss Niall O'Brien, who tore a muscle last week, but the keepers' shelf is well stocked. It will be interesting to see if Bracewell opts for the senior man, Gary Wilson, who was out of favour at Surrey until the last fortnight, but has only made 43 runs in six games for the county. Stuart Poynter will demand a hearing, for although he has yet to force his way into the Durham team he has been scoring prolifically for the 2nds.

Both could play, as Andrew Balbirnie's hip has ruled him out for the summer, but the selectors will also look at John Anderson, whose 860 runs since mid-May - more than Sri Lanka made in the first two Tests - forced them to reconsider his initial omission. Seán Terry was fast-tracked into the Ireland 'A' side and rewarded that faith with a record 251no last week. He too might get a taste of international cricket this week.

Another the selectors were slow to elevate is Barry McCarthy, who is the first Irish-bred player since the 19th century to play in the County Championship before making his Ireland debut. His fielding and all-round ability makes him likely to earn his first cap this week.

Ireland's key batsmen arrive on the back of excellent starts in the English 50-over competition and while there are question marks about a bowling attack that was found wanting at the World Cup, there is a bit of confidence about this fixture in the Irish camp.

The Sri Lankans famously won the World Cup barely a decade after entering full membership of ICC. The CEO of the governing body dropped a big hint recently that Cricket Ireland's long-held dream of Test status could be about to be fulfilled if a proposed two-division format for the five-day game is adopted.

Under the plan, the top seven of the 10 full members would play each other over a two-year cycle, with a five-team second division allowing for promotion and relegation. These five, on current rankings, would include West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, while Ireland are best placed with four wins from four in the Intercontinental Cup, with Afghanistan looking next likely to qualify.

ICC's change of tack comes about out of fear for the direction of Test cricket, which is poorly attended outside England and suffers in the shadow of Twenty20. The organisation has also begun to shrug off the shackles of the 2014 power-grab by India, England and Australia, allowing it to refocus its ambition to become a global sport.

The plan still has to get through the potential turkeys-voting-for-Christmas attitudes on the ICC board, but the proposal has won support from ex-England captains Mike Atherton and Mike Gatting and a good win or two for Ireland this week will copperfasten the argument.

Ireland v Sri Lanka,
Malahide, Thursday & Saturday, 10.45am

Ireland: W Porterfield (capt, Warwickshire), G Dockrell (Dublin Univ & Leinster), E Joyce (Sussex), T Murtagh (Middlesex), A McBrine (Donemana), B McCarthy (Durham), K O'Brien (Railway U & Leicestershire), S Poynter (Durham), B Rankin (Warwickshire), P Stirling (Middlesex), S Thompson (Eglinton), G Wilson (Surrey).
Sri Lanka: A Mathews (capt), D Chandimal, D de Silva, N Dickwella, S Eranga, N Pradeep, D Gunathilaka, S Randiv, S Lakmal, F Maharoof, K Mendis, K Perera, S Prasanna, D Shanaka, M Siriwardana, U Tharanga, L Thirimanne.

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