Everything to play for in World Cup places race
The names on both the front and back of Ireland's shirts are up for grabs
Just over nine months from now, 11 Irish cricketers will run onto the Saxton Oval in Nelson, on the northern tip of New Zealand's south island. That game, against West Indies, will open Ireland's third appearance in the ICC Cricket World Cup but there are already doubts about just which 11 men will be wearing green.
The sponsor's name that will adorn their shirts is also up for grabs, after last week's announcement that RSA will bow out at the end of the year after sponsoring the team since 2007. CricketIreland will do very well to match that firm's commitment and head of commercial, Dennis Cousins, has as important a task as Phil Simmons in the months ahead.
The coach will have a fair idea of the 15 men he will bring down under, but form and fitness can have a role to play as the tournament approaches, and this week's two-match RSA series against Sri Lanka will show the way he is thinking.
Most of the 13 selected for the games in Clontarf have been at the core of the side for several years, and all served on limited-overs tours to Abu Dhabi, West Indies and Bangladesh last winter. While Simmons can appear conservative, he has responded when club or provincial form warrants, such as when Andrew Poynter forced his way back last September.
Eight of the squad – Porterfield, Dockrell, Joyce, Murtagh, Stirling, O'Brien (K), Sorensen and Wilson – can start the long visa application process now. Niall O'Brien has started the English season brilliantly but will need to keep proving himself as every slip is now seized on by those who would discard him.
The north-west youngsters, Andrew McBrine and Stuart Thompson, bring verve and vigour to the side but will need to watch their backs where there are several rivals hovering. The same applies to the two Clontarf men, Andrew Poynter and Alex Cusack. The latter was man of the tour in the West Indies but slipped alarmingly in Bangladesh and injury ruled him out of yesterday's opening game of the Newstalk Interprovincial series.
Poynter will hope for a big summer in the Interpros, the revival of which as a three-team, three-format event has given a new dimension to the season and a lift to the home-based players.
When in the past a county career guaranteed a place in the Irish side, now there are suggestions that those who stay home are more favoured. The likes of Andrew Balbirnie (Middlesex), Stuart Poynter (Durham) and Shane Getkate (MCC) found being English-based no aid to their progress, slipping behind the likes of McBrine and James Shannon.
The Interpros have become a vital step from club cricket to the international stage, with the established stars joined by the best of the local youngsters. "The gap between club and international is massive," says John Mooney. "But all the unions have been excellent and have only picked Irish-qualified players, which they didn't have to do. The provinces are strong and soon they will be stronger than many of the full associate teams that we play."
The retirement of Trent Johnston created a huge hole in the pace-bowling department which CI moved to fill by sending its three best youngsters for top-class coaching in Australia over the winter. Craig Young emerged best from that process and will be monitored closely by Simmons, who must have him pencilled in for the World Cup.
Intriguingly, Warren Deutrom last week raised the prospect of Boyd Rankin returning in time to play in Nelson. "I'm aware that ICC wants the best players participating at World Cups and there was no doubt that Boyd not playing for Ireland was a loss to us. I'm sure if you talked to Boyd now he'd say he was completely focused on getting back into the England team. However, if he doesn't play for England this summer, he might be amenable to an approach being made."
Mooney is another who started the winter as a near-cert before his stress-related illness took him out of the World T20. He has already bounced back strongly with his club and Johnston has backed him with the Lightning captaincy.
With Andrew White apparently out of the picture – level on 226 caps with Kyle McCallan – there could be as few as two survivors from the 2007 World Cup pioneers in the 2015 squad, Kevin O'Brien and William Porterfield. However, nine months before that competition, neither had made their debuts. There's still an awful lot to play for.
Ireland v Sri Lanka, Tuesday & Thursday, Clontarf, 10.45. AerTV will broadcast the game live on www.cricketireland.ie with commentator Heatley Tector
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