Testing times leave 'young Stirlo' facing an age-old dilemma
Paul Stirling has a big decision to make. It's not one of those he makes every day, like whether to go forward or back to the spinner, or whether to hit Jimmy Anderson for four or six when he faces his first ball in Lord's in two weeks.
Stirling has to decide between the two great loves of his sporting life, and its not an easy call to make. He's been sharing his affections between Ireland and Middlesex for a decade now, but the Test status bestowed two years ago means he will soon be regarded as an overseas player in England, and forced to choose.
He could retire from internationals and continue as one of the most highly-regarded white ball players on the county circuit, perhaps even qualifying to play for England after a three-year wait. Or he could say goodbye to Middlesex and return home to play for Ireland.
"It's not an easy decision", he says. "I've been playing for Ireland and Middlesex for 10 years so they've been a massive part of my career and life so far. The decision has not been made yet - I'm chatting to Middlesex at the minute, and Cricket Ireland in the next couple of weeks. I'll try to get a feeling for what they think while I'm over here, so they'll either come back and say 'we don't want you', or we'll…"
He seems reluctant to articulate the choices, so genuinely torn is he over the life-changing call.
"There's no deadline as such but it's going to come to a head over the next couple of weeks just because the end of the season's not that far away."
It's a dilemma also faced by Tim Murtagh and Stuart Poynter. Team-mate Andrew Balbirnie is sympathetic and reckons the lack of practice infrastructure here could tell in their decisions.
"You can see their problem - they're used to Premiership standard practice facilities and we have League Two here. We have to fight to get a grass wicket twice a week. When Abbotstown is finished it will be world class but at the moment it's just astroturf which isn't ideal."
Balbirnie is his best pal in the sport.
"We were first picked together aged 11 years old for Ireland U13s in Denmark. We were always two years young for every age group and that competitiveness helped us both get better," says Stirling.
"I think you need that growing up, you need someone to keep challenging you. If you're out there on your own you don't have that competition to push you to be your best. The players who came through before us - Porterfield, Wilson and Morgan - worked together as a group to become the best they possibly could."
Stirling and Balbirnie's lives were linked all the way through youth cricket, and then at Middlesex where they both won contracts. They, and Shane Getkate, lived with Poynter's mother, Wendy, proxy mother to a quartet of future caps.
The Dubliner's Ireland and county career took longer to bed in, but they remained firm friends, and shared a century stand against Zimbabwe last Monday. "It's been great to see how Balbo has come on," says Stirling. "He had a tough time with injury and being let go by Middlesex - to turn that around has been unbelievable. He's always been talented and always scored runs, but he's really put that into place at the top level and become one of our best batsmen."
Stirling has been Ireland's leading bat for most of his career, which began aged 17 in 2008. The summer of 2011 saw a purple patch of four centuries in ten innings, including his most memorable knock.
"The hundred against Pakistan in Belfast was probably the best nick I was ever in. I wasn't trying to overhit the ball, it was chanceless, and everything felt good. It was a decent attack with Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal at his peak.
"I was younger, everything was simpler, more natural, just out of school. You feel like the bat is part of your body - you have to work a lot harder to make sure it's like that nowadays."
He was a good school student, before cricket took over.
"I never once thought I wouldn't be a cricketer, but now looking back as a 28-year-old I was pretty naïve to think that because anything could have happened. But from age 15 to 22 I had no doubt in my mind.
"Everything happened so young it just felt like part of the natural path, but in hindsight it had its own risks. But I'm still there, 10 years later."
His youthful looks and fearless batting meant he is still "young Stirlo" to supporters, but with age has come responsibility as the team began to evolve.
"I have felt a bit of senior pro in the last 18 months, just because we've had a lot of youngsters making their debuts. We had the same side for so long, rightly or wrongly, there was no need to step up. But as people retire you have to use your experience to help others to come on and grow."
With Gary Wilson injured, he stepped in as T20 captain this spring.
"It was great to be asked, and I loved it. It was only a month but to be asked to captain your country is a great honour.
"I never really captained, even at underage. I remember an Under-11 interpro and I just set the field in a ring because I'd no tactical awareness! But when you play for so long, and you hang around with Eoin Morgan, you just naturally pick it up. Then you start thinking 'I'd like to implement that somewhere.' And when you get the chance to do so it's great."
He's a huge rugby fan, unsurprising given his father, Brian, was a respected international referee. Paul played too, and follows the Ireland team whenever he can.
"I played at school but by the time I got to 16, 17 it was getting very physical.
"My brother (Richard) played Ireland Schools, and he was a loose head prop too. I really enjoyed rugby but when it got to the stage it was starting to feel the effect on my body, and the sports started to clash, I had to choose and gave up rugby."
Stirling is an uncomplicated man, describing himself as "happy-go-lucky". One team-mate described him as "very chilled - he loves pool and darts, he likes travel. There's not much to him outside cricket. He enjoys a pint and is great company".
Stirling confesses to enjoying a good row, often taking positions he doesn't hold to ensure a good debate. He struggles when asked to look back on his career and is just as uncomfortable contemplating the future.
"We're so lucky to play sport for a living and at some point that's not going to be the case, so you have to focus on the now, not on the past or the future. You have to play every innings because some day it's going to be your last, which will be a very sad day."
Whoever his main employer is in future, expect him to try his luck as a T20 specialist in the glamour leagues.
"In recent years I've really started to aspire to playing in the IPL or Big Bash. It's really tough though because you have to be at the top of your game and you need a little bit of luck and time it right."
He's keen to sample the EuroT20 Smash, which takes place in Dublin, Edinburgh and Rotterdam in September. "It's certainly in the pipeline, and I'll be talking to Middlesex and Cricket Ireland about fitting it in," he adds.
That his first Test in England comes at Middlesex's home ground makes the occasion "100% better" for him.
"You've got to enjoy the day. We're playing the first test of the summer, in England, it doesn't get much bigger than that. It wouldn't have been imaginable 10 or 15 years ago."
Despite being Ireland's pre-eminent white ball player, Stirling has yet to click in Tests, his four innings to date ending on 17, 11, 26 and 14.
"You can't really judge on two matches", he grins, "but the challenge of Test cricket is really exciting because it is my weakest suit - no doubt about it - it's definitely the toughest format, it's more demanding of you mentally, and of your technique.
"We know how tough a challenge it's going to be. The England Test team have done so well for so long. I was 12th man for Middlesex against Lancashire this year and watched a lot of James Anderson who was all over the batsmen. That's what we're going to be up against.
"You can look at that with trepidation or you can look at it as exciting - if I can get through that whenever I bat, and go on and get runs, well you never know…
"I'm sure all our batters are looking at that honours board and imagining how good that would be!"
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