Sunday 18 November 2018

Lack of skill and experience in short format exposed

Ireland have a lot of work to do to improve our low ranking among T20 thoroughbreds

William Porterfield is bowled out by Umesh Yadav of India during the T20 International match at Malahide Cricket Club. Photo: Seb Daly
William Porterfield is bowled out by Umesh Yadav of India during the T20 International match at Malahide Cricket Club. Photo: Seb Daly

Ger Siggins

Imagine you organise an inch-perfect party - great venue, perfect weather, nothing spared on catering and everyone you invite turns up, including the boss and all his mates. And then it all goes horribly wrong. The kids start acting up, one of the uncles throws up in a flower pot and Auntie Mabel falls asleep in the apple pie.

Around 7.0 on Friday evening that's what it felt like to be a Cricket Ireland blazer. Shoulders were shrugged and thin smiles forced at the hundreds of dignitaries in town for the ICC's annual conference, as the team bearing its white-ball logo slumped to its heaviest defeat in Twenty20 cricket. And, worst of all, to the team most dismissive of Ireland's attempts to be acknowledged as worthy of a place at the top table in the sport.

One of India's finest batsmen, Sunil Gavaskar, drew plenty of online abuse for suggesting that the World Cup was fine and dandy as a select top-ten affair which would eliminate mismatches. Given how Australia are getting on these days, Sunny's argument is deeply flawed, but Ireland's cricketers certainly did themselves no favours in the debate.

The game's rankings are also flawed, but the gap between third and 17th looked like an unbridgeable gulf. And with first Nepal and then every other nation about to join the T20 table, Ireland may soon hanker for the good old days of 17th.

The reality is that Ireland are really not very good at all at the shortest format. Having made their name at 50-over cricket, the same squad has shown for years it just doesn't have the skill-set for T20. Our spinners are tidy, and like Irish pitches, but lack the guile and mystery to trouble a quality batsman on a good pitch. Our seamers are meat and drink to such players too and while both last week's games saw a late flurry of wickets for Peter Chase and Kevin O'Brien, no bowler was able to trouble the Indian top order, as interim scores of 160-0 and 128-1 show.

Cricket Ireland coaches are excited about a crop of young seamers who may fit the bill, and injury probably cost Josh Little a chance to show why people are talking about him. David Delany, too, has that extra pace that could make him feared by future international opponents.

But the biggest problem for Graham Ford, and his batting gurus Ben Smith and Ed Joyce, is going to be how to get that batting unit firing - the ten wickets fell in just 75 balls on Friday.

The elevation of Gary Wilson, especially after a dismal 50-over World Cup qualifier, raised many eyebrows. Wilson has been one of the few to make runs recently - against associates, as its 2014 since Ireland faced a full member - but his flaws are consistently exposed at the top level, according to a distinguished recent international.

"His dismissal (on Friday) was horrendous," he explained. "He got nowhere near the pitch of the ball. That's a typical failing of our guys, they get nowhere near it, or go deep in the crease. They revert to sweeping because they have no other options; good players of spin use the sweep sparingly, not as a first option."

James Shannon, a prolific scorer at club and interpro level, was the one success of the mini-series. He was given a couple of lives by India's fielders, but he took his chance and made a very impressive 60. Astonishingly, that was the first time an Irish batsman has ever made a 50 against a top eight full member - only William Porterfield, against Pakistan in 2009, has even topped 40.

There's clearly a gulf in class, and experience, to an Indian side that has just finished its IPL season and has players completely attuned to the rhythms and tactics of the format. Ireland has two who play T20 in England - but not yet this summer - and the others have played a maximum of three interpros, some on poor pitches.

Besides Paul Stirling, who had one season in Bangladesh five years ago, only Kevin O'Brien has T20 experience in foreign parts, but for Ireland he is buried down the order. O'Brien once held the world record for an opening partnership but has only twice been allowed open in his 94 caps in the format.

If Ford is serious about experimenting until it comes right, then O'Brien must get a run in the top three. And he must invigorate or discard that moribund middle order of Porterfield, Andrew Balbirnie and Wilson, none of whom have a strike rate over 120 - even lower against the type of opposition Ireland will face in the coming seasons. There are more than 60 T20Is scheduled against full members over the next five years, but more importantly the World Twenty20 late next year which will show if Ireland has any hope of hauling itself up the table.

The work starts now, and next weekend's Hanley Energy IP20 festival in Sydney Parade is the starting point for ambitious batsmen. The team that plays in that next World Twenty20 might look something like this: Stirling, Shannon, K O'Brien (capt), Balbirnie, S Thompson, Sorensen, Grassi (wkt), Singh, Dockrell, Young, Little, with options of McBrine, Chase and Doheny.

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