Joyce: Stirling the man to step up on big occasion
Ed Joyce is backing the big match temperament of Paul Stirling and his local knowledge of Sylhet to give Ireland a crucial edge in today's opening World T20 first-round clash against Zimbabwe, despite the Belfast blaster's recent lack of runs.
Stirling, who represented Sylhet Royals in last year's Bangladesh Premier League, has a history of coming good on the big occasion – and it doesn't come much more important than a game that could not only decide progress to round two, but also the short-term future of Irish cricket.
A victory against one of the weaker ICC full members would add to the clamour for Ireland to be elevated to Test match-playing status themselves; a defeat would give succour to those traditionalists who want the game to remain elite and exclusive – at least for a few more years.
"Stirlo is one of those people who seems to be able to up his game for the big ones and play match-winning innings, so we'll be looking for him to fire," Joyce said.
"Our top three – me, Stirlo and William Porterfield – haven't really got it together as a unit in recent games and it's important to get good starts in these 20-over matches.
"Zimbabwe are a very good team, with dangerous players and it's going to be about who turns up and plays."
Ireland were pleased to see the Sylhet pitch looking more 'European' than others on the Indian sub-continent and captain Porterfield said that could give the selectors something to think about, with the Hills speedster Max Sorensen back in the reckoning.
The two teams could not have had more contrasting preparations for the biennial event, with Ireland beating the West Indies in the reigning T20 champions' backyard, while the domestic season in Zimbabwe has been seriously disrupted by a players' strike over the non-payment of salaries.
Ireland battled to a thrilling tie with Zimbabwe at the 2007 World Cup on the only occasion the two sides have met in world finals and, to protect their reputation, the African side have shrewdly limited meetings since then, even insisting on being called a Zimbabwe XI when competing in the 2009/10 InterContinental Cup.
The tournament didn't start well for the smaller nations yesterday though, with Afghanistan bowled out for 72 – the lowest total in World T20 history – before losing to Bangladesh by nine wickets in Mirpur.
In the second Group A match, Hong Kong lost to Nepal by 80 runs.
Ireland v Zimbabwe, live, Sky Sports 2, 9.30 am