Young talent can propel buoyant Ireland towards the big time
There's a new mood around the Ireland team that kicks off tonight in their first game of the ICC Women's World T20 in Guyana. A superb win over Sri Lanka - ranked three places higher - in Wednesday's warm-up has buoyed a seasoned side with an exciting sprinkling of young talent.
Much of the buzz revolves around Gaby Lewis, still only 17 but already with over 50 caps after four years in the side. Her immense promise saw her spend two winters with Australian Big Bash League clubs in Hobart and Melbourne and paid off for Ireland with brilliant half-centuries last summer against Bangladesh and New Zealand.
Lewis is one of four teenagers: she, seamers Lucy O'Reilly and Lara Maritz and big-hitting bat Rebecca Stokell could all play crucial roles.
"The team are in great spirits," captain Laura Delany said yesterday. "We're not here to make up the numbers - Sri Lanka was a great win. We've set our own targets; Australia are an incredibly tough challenge first up but we're looking forward to it. After that is Pakistan and we definitely have targets for that game with bat and ball, but we're not looking too much further than that."
Clare Shillington made an unbeaten 50 in the win over Sri Lanka, and Ireland's most capped player will hope to end her career in green on a high. The seven leading cap-winners are all in Guyana; Kim Garth, back from injury, is still only 22 despite playing her 100th game for Ireland last week. She showed her fitness with an excellent all-round display of 35 and 3-4 in defeat to Bangladesh.
The other half of the 'Hairy and Brains' vodcast team, Ciara Metcalfe, is joining Shillington in retirement after the tournament, and her leg spin, and Eimear Richardson's off-breaks, could be crucial on the painfully slow pitches of Providence.
Ireland have produced a wildcard in Celeste Raack, an Australian leg-spinner with an Irish passport. She made her debut in the warm-ups, taking 2-16 in four overs against Sri Lanka, and says she's upbeat about Ireland's prospects. "Every player has put performances on the park in recent months, in training and practice games, so it's very exciting."
Friday night's opening games saw India surprise New Zealand, thanks to a stunning century from Harmanpreet Kaur. Changes to the powerplay fielding regulations and increased professionalism have propelled the women's game forward in the past year, fuelling bigger and bigger scores, some of which Ireland have been on the receiving end of. There were only three T20 centuries ever before September 2017 but Kaur's was the seventh since then.
It means the tournament could get unprecedented audiences, and with every game shown live on Sky Sports it will further boost the Ireland side's campaign for more support and attention. While the top sides, especially tonight's opponents, are now fully professional, Ireland's players are still fitting in real lives as students, solicitors and sports coaches around their cricket.
Tonight: v Australia (8.0), Wednesday: v Pakistan (8.0), Thursday: v India (3.0), Saturday: v New Zealand (8.0).
Squad: Laura Delany (captain, Leinster), Kim Garth, Shauna Kavanagh, Clare Shillington (Pembroke), Cecelia Joyce, Isobel Joyce, Celeste Raack (Merrion), Amy Kenealy, Rebecca Stokell (Leinster), Gaby Lewis, Lucy O'Reilly (YMCA), Lara Maritz (Clontarf), Mary Waldron (Malahide), Ciara Metcalfe (Northamptonshire), Eimear Richardson (Johnsonville, NZ).
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Sunday Indo Sport