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New Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie. Photo: Sportsfile

New Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

New Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie. Photo: Sportsfile

It's been interesting to see Phil Simmons and his well-drilled West Indies side battling England in the Test series last week. Since he parted ways with Cricket Ireland to take up his first opportunity to coach his native region in 2015 it has been a strange voyage for the team he left behind.

On the field they struggled - a disastrous World T20 in India was followed by failure to qualify for last year's World Cup in England as an ageing squad disintegrated. But off the field Cricket Ireland soared, with marquee sponsors and the long quest for elevation to full membership finally realised.

But that dream turned sour when the reality kicked in that it costs around €500,000 just to stage a home Test. The organisation was hit by a double whammy when its Indian broadcast partner went into administration owing it €275,000 and cyber criminals stole another €175,000. A redundancy scheme turned into an embarrassment, while the assistant coach was forced out of his job by inflexibility. That his replacement never started because he got a better offer from England last week has just compounded that error.

Still reeling, the home fixture list was wiped out by Covid-19, and the virus was cited by Turkish Airlines last week as the reason for ending its sponsorship early.

With belts being tightened everywhere, replacing the global airline will be difficult, but on Friday Cricket Ireland announced ITW Consulting as its "Exclusive Men's Shirt Sponsorship Rights Holder". Effectively it has sublet the shirt to an Indian firm which will sell it on - the upcoming series will have Mobile Premier League, a gaming platform, emblazoned across the players' chests. Swedish auto giant Skoda will feature on their arms.

So it's not all gloom, and last week's finance report showed new CFO Andrew May has cut a €203,000 deficit in 2018 to just €10,000 last year.

But money is an ongoing frustration for the governing body, especially as the playing woes seem to have turned around and coach Graham Ford has a fistful of sparkling talent ready to fill the big boots of their predecessors. New captain Andrew Balbirnie has already collected excellent away wins this year against West Indies and Afghanistan with youngsters Gareth Delany, Harry Tector and Josh Little to the fore.

And they will get their chance in a testing three day/night ODIs against England starting in Southampton on July 30. The captain is delighted Ireland have been allowed to bring a much larger squad of 22, to allow for players falling ill.

"It's great to be able to bring so many over," says Balbirnie. "It's a bit like starting from scratch because it's so long since we played. It's really competitive with no-one guaranteed their place. It will be good to see everyone have a good crack at the training camp."

The squad flew to Southampton yesterday, where they will train, live and play within the confines of the Rose Bowl stadium and its adjoining Hilton Hotel. The bio-secure bubble will guard against the virus and the players will have noted England's brutal axing of Jofra Archer for breaching protocols.

Balbirnie spent lockdown at home, a reverse-swept six away from his club, Pembroke, which remained frustratingly closed.

"My two brothers were here, and Kate, so it was annoying that we couldn't get in to do a few throw-downs. So we played a lot of chess, and the Michael Jordan documentary helped a lot."

The squad have been back working in small groups for six weeks now, with bowlers getting plenty of overs into their legs and batsmen getting into a groove despite not having played since March.

"We have a couple of warm-up games before the three ODIs," says the captain. "We've enough players to have a good intra-squad game, which will be really competitive, and then we play England A."

The larger travelling squad has allowed the selectors to bring over some net bowlers, as well as taking a look at more emerging talent. Ford's eye has been roving beyond these shores, and he snared a promising former South African under 19 international with an Irish granny.

Helen McDevitt from Derry was an RAF nurse during World War II who emigrated to South Africa in 1946 in search of work. There she met a local man called Campher. Helen died before her grandson Curtis was born, but she bestowed a precious gift on the boy who has held an Irish passport since 2008.

He first encountered Irish cricket in 2016: "Ireland were over here on a tour and I was asked to come along to bowl to them," he says. "At the time there was Niall and Kevin O'Brien, Paul Stirling, and I really enjoyed the environment. I didn't think much more of it, just decided to go to uni and then decide what to do in cricket. But from then on I was always thinking in terms of Ireland."

Ireland came back before the World Cup qualifiers in 2018 and played a warm-up game against a local selection. Campher made 49 and took the wicket of Balbirnie. At the game he chatted with another son of Gauteng who became an Ireland legend, and who had come along to watch his old pals.

"Andre Botha told me to go for it. He said it would be an amazing experience: 'you'll love it'. I had a chat with Graham Ford too and he suggested I come to Dublin that summer to play for YMCA but then I got picked to tour with South Africa under 19s."

Campher impressed against England, scoring an unbeaten 43 and taking the wicket of Tom Banton, who he could face again at the Rose Bowl next week.

"That was a great experience, I loved being in the camp. But I had a decision to make and taking everything into consideration Ireland was the right move for me."

The Ireland coach again encouraged him to come to Dublin last summer, but Campher was keen to complete his BComm at the University of Pretoria. He sat his last exam on Thursday and will complete his final semester over the winter.

Ford called him up for a series of Ireland Wolves games against Namibia in Pretoria in February. Campher did well, making 45, 62no and 54 and Ford offered him a Cricket Ireland contract.

"Everything just aligned," grins Campher, who considers himself a bowling all-rounder.

Covid-19 put paid to his plans to come here in April for the Leinster season but as soon as flying was allowed he flew to London and arrived in Dublin on June 1, spending a fortnight quarantining with the family of Ireland prospect Cillian McDonnell.

"I'm loving it here," he says. "The YMCA club environment is very good - I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to Irish cricket. The conditions aren't hugely different but it is a bit of a challenge and you've got to adapt quickly."

He's unlikely to get a run against England, but if he does well in the warm-ups anything is possible for a man clearly highly rated by the coach.

Squad: A Balbirnie (capt), P Stirling (vc), M Adair, C Campher, P Chase, G Delany, G Dockrell, JJ Garth, T Kane, J Little, A McBrine, B McCarthy, J McCollum, K O'Brien, W Porterfield, B Rankin, S Singh, H Tector, L Tucker, G Wilson, C Young, S Thompson.

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