Making most of Indian summer
There's something other-worldly about the cricket ground at Arundel, 50 miles south of London. Like Malahide, it is built on the estate of a Norman castle, but with respect to the picturesque Dublin village, Arundel is in a different league.
A roadway through woodland takes you to the boundary's edge, where a natural amphitheatre hosts an immaculately-groomed meadow. Almost entirely surrounded by ancient oak and elm, a gap in the trees provides a dramatic view that sweeps over the Sussex Downs to the Channel.
Ireland won't have time for much of a nature walk today however, as their visit is strictly business. The game against Sussex has a dual purpose - it gives the locals a chance to pay tribute to one of their favourite recent players, Ed Joyce, while providing Ireland coach Graham Ford with a last opportunity to come up with a formula to take on India, the third-ranked T20 team in the world, in Malahide this week.
It's another important step for Ireland as they bid to get out of the doldrums of T20 cricket, after last week's curate's egg of a tournament in the Netherlands. After two defeats to the hosts, Ireland turned it around with a demolition of Scotland before they let the same side off the hook in a tied game.
Ford's utterances reveal that he knows he's in a battle to haul Ireland up from 17th in the rankings, but he was positive about the raw material he has to work with and open about the state of Irish T20 cricket.
"We are trying to find answers but we are starting from almost nowhere; we are not a settled team, we don't know what our best combinations are," he admitted last week. "The pleasing thing is that there were signs of progress over the four games. I just wish we had a few more games so we could give a few guys a fair crack."
The debut 50 by Simi Singh, and dominant innings by Andrew Balbirnie and Paul Stirling were the highlights, while spinner George Dockrell's return to form after a year of struggles was perhaps the most significant. Kevin O'Brien also found the ropes frequently, and he's looking forward to taking on India.
Given that his two finest hours as a batsman came in ODIs (against England) and Tests (against Pakistan), it might surprise some that O'Brien enjoys the shortest game more.
"Twenty20 is definitely my favourite format", reveals O'Brien. "It's probably the one I've played most of, too," referring to his CV as a have-bat-will-travel recruit for sides from Bangladesh to New Zealand and the Caribbean, as well as five English counties. "It suits the type of player I am."
Coming off those heroics in Malahide, when he scored Ireland's first Test century, is a big adjustment needed to the crash-bang-wallop format?
"Maybe for some," says O'Brien, "but I try to bat the same in all formats. Obviously in T20 you take a lot more risks, so that takes a slight shift in the mental side of it."
O'Brien's love for T20 spurs his desire to get Ireland moving again in the format. "We'll get a lot more opportunities in the near future, so we can get back to where we were back around 2012, 2013 when we were almost unbeatable. "We came together well in Holland and we showed great improvements over the 10 days - we probably should have won three of the games, which was a little disappointing. But it was great to see George back to his best as a bowler."
There is a natural changing of the guard taking place at the moment, and Ford has been keen to introduce new blood to the set-up. O'Brien has taken a keen interest in the upcoming generation and likes what he sees in batsman Neil Rock ("a great future in an Ireland shirt"), bowler Fionn Hand ("very talented, doing well with Somerset") and quickie David Delany ("he's got raw pace, 85-88mph, which everybody wants").
He is particularly excited by Josh Little, the Pembroke fast-bowler who has been called into the Ireland squad for the India series.
"I like Josh, he's got a lot to offer," he says. "He played a couple of low-key games a couple of years ago, but there's something about him. He had two very good under 19 World Cups and he's a confident player, not afraid to try things. And he's a useful bat too."
"India is going to be tough," Ford acknowledges, "but my eye is not totally on India it's more about the qualifiers, trying to answer questions and get direction as to how we want to go for that. It's all a process."
Ireland's women also have fixtures against Asian opposition this week, with the second of three T20s against Bangladesh being staged as a double-header with the India game on Friday.
Laura Delany's side were badly bruised by New Zealand earlier this month but will be boosted by the return of Clare Shillington, Kim Garth and Isobel Joyce. Although Bangladesh are directly above Ireland in the ICC rankings, last week they stunned India with a last-ball win in the final of the Asian Cup.
Cricket Ireland will also be keen to use the occasion to market Ireland as a destination for the major sides as the games coincide with the ICC's annual conference in Dublin next weekend. With 200 of the game's top administrators from more than 100 countries expected at Malahide there are opportunities on and off the pitch for Irish cricket.
IRELAND’S HECTIC WEEK OF CRICKET
- Today (Men’s T20) Sussex v Ireland, Arundel, 1.30pm
- Wednesday (Men’s T20) Ireland v India, Malahide, 4pm
- Thursday (Women’s T20) Ireland v Bangladesh, YMCA, 2pm
- Friday (Women’s T20) Ireland v Bangladesh, Malahide, 11am
- Friday (Men’s T20) Ireland v India, Malahide, 4pm
- Sunday (Women’s T20) Ireland v Bangladesh, Pembroke, 2pm
- IRELAND: Laura Delany (captain), Kim Garth, Cecelia Joyce, Isobel Joyce, Shauna Kavanagh, Gaby Lewis, Lara Maritz, Ciara Metcalfe, Cara Murray, Orla Prendergast, Eimear Richardson, Clare Shillington, Rebecca Stokell, Mary Waldron.
- BANGLADESH: Rumana Ahmed (captain), Shamima Sultana, Salma Khatun, Nahida Akter, Nigar Sultana, Panna Ghosh, Fargana Haque, Lily Rani Biswas, Khadaija Tul Kubra, Sanjida Islam, Fahima Khatun, Sharmin Sultana, Ayesha Rahman, Jahanara Alam.
- IRELAND: Gary Wilson (captain), Andrew Balbirnie, Peter Chase, George Dockrell, Josh Little, Andrew McBrine, Kevin O’Brien, William Porterfield, Stuart Poynter, Boyd Rankin, James Shannon, Simi Singh, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson.
- INDIA: Virat Kohli (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Suresh Raina, Manish Pandey, MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Washington Sundar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah, Hardik Pandya, Siddarth Kaul, Umesh Yadav.
Sunday Indo Sport