Thursday 23 November 2017

Team can rebound in one of the great occasions in Irish sport

Ireland’s Ed Joyce in action during Friday’s disappointing loss to England in Bristol. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters
Ireland’s Ed Joyce in action during Friday’s disappointing loss to England in Bristol. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

Ger Siggins

Ireland will run out in front of a packed house at Lord's today with delight at the occasion mixed with genuine trepidation at what could happen on the field. The scrapping, never-say-die heroics of the last decade have given way to a sloppy, resigned and dispirited side. And the evidence was there for all to see on Friday in Bristol.

"You don't become a bad side overnight," was the plea from captain William Porterfield, but that trouncing at the hands of England is no overnight phenomenon.

Since John Bracewell took over as head coach in 2015, just 21 out of 57 games have been won. The defeats include some shocking setbacks to Hong Kong and Oman, while the recent series with Afghanistan saw just two wins in nine games. That put a definitive end to a decade when Ireland was top dog at Associate level: Bracewell's win-loss record of 21-20 is pitiful set against his predecessor Phil Simmons's 98-13.

Off the field, Cricket Ireland has had successes, including persuading ICC to allow it play Tests, building training centres in La Manga and Abbotstown, and attracting a marquee sponsor in Turkish Airlines. But its prime assets have been going off the rails - the women failed to qualify for this summer's World Cup and today start a South African tour with six top players unable to travel. They can only hope to prevent India exceeding the 276-run victory margin that an ECB XI inflicted on them last month.

But the men's senior side is the one that brings in the crowds, the sponsors and the media attention, and all that - and ICC's support - will slip away if the team is not competitive.

Bristol won't want them back in a hurry, judging by the lorry-loads of unsold beer and a half-price sale on Cornish pasties when Friday's game ended before lunch.

Irish supporters were angry too, and most levelled the fury at the coach, who hasn't the same rapport with them, or the players, as his predecessor. "He's got to go, and soon," grumbled one former international, adding, "but the whole 'high performance' side is a shambles."

The high performance director, Richard Holdsworth, was been feeling the heat for a while, and Bracewell is seen as very much his man. Holdsworth, a former ICC Europe official, also oversaw the bizarre summer of 2016 when three Academy Directors departed in quick succession, eventually replaced by Bracewell's assistant Pete Johnston.

Having decided to come home from England, Ed Joyce voiced his frustration last week in none-too-veiled terms to a UK cricket podcast.

"We have a couple of indoor schools that we don't own, and outdoor practice facilities on grass wickets are non-existent. When I was at Sussex I could ring up and get a coach and a grass wicket any day I wanted," he said. "Here we are reliant on clubs to sort you out, and there is nothing 'high performance' about that."

Friday's heavy defeat prompted some commentators to question the ICC's imminent promotion of Ireland along with Afghanistan.

"It would be very harsh to judge us on a one-off game," insisted Porterfield. "Everything at home has been done to improve players and coaches to make us sustainable. With extra cash that will allow them to get more fixtures for us and the A-team. Last year they cut 400 grand off our budget, and that killed off the A-team programme."

The A-team point is valid, as the talented youngsters pushing to get into the squad are suffering from the lack of exposure to quality opposition. The 'Wolves' had a recent successful low-key tour of Bristol, a welcome development after just three A-team games in three seasons, but university and club sides are no substitute for professional opposition.

There are great hopes that the Hanley Energy interprovincial series will plug the gap between club and nation. Coming off nearly two decades of county cricket, Ed Joyce's perspective on his first taste is interesting. "It felt like a county List A game, which was pleasantly surprising. The quality of players isn't in doubt, the intensity of the game was really good."

With just three teams, however, there are too few games to give enough meaningful action to upcoming players. The lack of competitiveness is also a concern with Leinster's strength ensuring they are hot favourites to sweep the board again, having won 10 of the last 12 titles in all formats.

There are several other reasons for Ireland's decline: time's passage has robbed the golden era side of not only key players, but of those who led the fight when their backs were to the wall. Trent Johnston and John Mooney never took a step back, no matter the opponent, but their replacements to date just don't have that fire in them.

The ticking clock has also dragged several players into their late 30s. And if their imminent heirs are undercooked, that is because Ireland just didn't get enough big games over the last decade, and when they did they were too important to allow experiments.

One current player, who asked not to be named, insisted that problem stems from 2011-'15 when Simmons failed to identify and bring on the talent that would have ensured a better future.

The reality now is that Ireland are about to embark on a great adventure in Tests - and a hugely increased programme of ODIs - with their weakest playing strength of the professional era.

Bracewell has tried to tamp down the over-excited supporters who think because England were beaten at the 2011 World Cup they can be beaten again. "Everybody has high expectations and everybody wants to win," he said last week. "I don't have a problem with people wanting to win but we also have to face the reality that this is a very, very steep learning curve."

England had an awful 2015 World Cup - beating only two Associates while Ireland took down West Indies and Zimbabwe. But the two years since has seen Eoin Morgan's side get their act together so well that they are joint favourites for next month's Champions Trophy. Ireland have gone in the other direction.

"We're probably weaker and more inexperienced than we were, and England have more strength in depth," offered Joyce after Friday's game. "We played with the weight of expectation on us that comes with all the games we're getting at the moment, and I don't think we played like that when we were underdogs. Maybe we should go back to playing that underdog way."

Also on Friday, Porterfield looked startled by one reporter's question which carried an implicit insult. "I'd never use the phrase 'out of our depth'," he replied. "I think we started off pretty positively, especially after winning the toss and batting. We just couldn't get a partnership going once we lost those two wickets. It's something we have to address before Sunday."

'Out of your depth' was over-the-top, but there's no doubt several of Ireland's batsmen, bowlers and fielders didn't look international class on Friday.

Besides the injured Boyd Rankin (whose replacement was Ireland's top performer) and the inexplicably-overlooked Barry McCarthy, that was close to the best team that could have been fielded, but loose shots and dropped catches ensured a strong England side had it easy.

In a results game, the men at the helm will live and die by their on-field record, and Bracewell, Porterfield and Holdsworth will be desperate to turn things around today, and in the tri-series with Bangladesh and New Zealand which kicks off in Malahide on Friday.

But as a priority they need to look at why a talented group of players are so seriously underperforming. The mental toughness that defined Irish sides of recent years has given way to an environment described by two current players as 'toxic'.

"Having one bad day at the office doesn't make us a bad team," insisted Porterfield, who is now nine years in the job. "Losing the way we did isn't ideal but it's just a mental thing to turn it around - (we'll) just have an open and honest review of it and park it here and leave it in Bristol."

The bus journey his squad took down the M4 to London on Friday evening was subdued, but the players undoubtedly talked about the huge numbers of supporters in green expected to help fill Lord's Ground to its 30,000 capacity today. It should be one of the great occasions in Irish sport and one deserving of a great response by the 11 men who represent this island.

England v Ireland,

Sky Sports 2, 10.30

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