Sunday 18 February 2018

Never a better time for us to face off-kilter Windies

Opener is perfect platform for Ireland to get off to a flyer

Ireland head coach Phil Simmons
Ireland head coach Phil Simmons

Ger Siggins

MODERN sport isn't so innocent when making tournament draws to rely on bingo balls in a bag anymore. Australia kicked off its World Cup yesterday with a fixture against its oldest enemy, England, ensuring fans in both nations are engaged from the off, while this morning's India v Pakistan is loaded with wider significance.

Ireland and West Indies too are pitted together tonight in a game that is already crucial for both sides, and with added spice for Ireland coach Phil Simmons.

Victory in the Saxton Oval would set Ireland up nicely for games against the very-beatable UAE and Zimbabwe and momentum can be everything in tournaments. Defeat would expose the raw scars that have been evident all winter and leave Simmons with little to play with.

Part of that is self-inflicted, with no real options in the squad to replace struggling batmen - and half the top order are in a deep trough at the moment.

His attack has been decimated by retirement (Trent Johnston), injury (Tim Murtagh) and English avarice (Boyd Rankin) and their replacements lack experience against top opposition.

Thursday's warm-up victory over Bangladesh may prove a turning point after a difficult winter but there were worrying aspects to that, such as the 21 wides conceded and the continuing misery of Paul Stirling's batting.

Simmons and his side know the bulk of the Irish public who only tune into cricket for World Cups will be impatient for nights such as they enjoyed watching those famous wins over Pakistan and England.

"The expectation has risen 10 times over," acknowledges the coach. "It's 10 times bigger than 2007 and five times bigger than 2011.

"And it is rising all the time because the more things we do on the world stage, the more people expect us to do more. We are under pressure all the time but that means we are doing something right."

The West Indies also come into the game in a poor place. A revolt saw two top players dropped, while mystery spinner Sunil Narine opted out too. They've lost six of their last eight games, and on Thursday held on to beat Scotland by just three runs.

The men from the Caribbean are famed for their fast bowlers and brilliant batting but even their brightest star, Chris Gayle, has been affected by the malaise. The Jamaican's last five innings have gone digital: 1, 10, 0, 0, 1. His world ranking has slumped to 57th - in fact the highest Windies batsman is Marlon Samuels at 40th, six places behind Stirling who remains Ireland's best.

"We're optimistic about our chances but the most important thing is that we start the tournament well," says batting keystone Ed Joyce. "We've got a West Indies team who are in a bit of turmoil and, while they still have fantastic players, if we win we can go anywhere in the tournament."

While Ireland have frequently met the Windies in world events, and usually been competitive, they have yet to claim a victory. The best chance of doing so tonight in Nelson is probably in keeping the West Indies to under 250 and then getting a good start with the bat.

For years Stirling and William Porterfield were a perfect opening pair, contrasting yet complementary but Stirling has too often hit a flashy 20 and got out, while his captain can seem fatally unfocused early on. A run of opening stands of 6, 6, 4, 2 and 0 was arrested in the warm-ups and their partnership of 57 was the only bright point in the dismal defeat to Scotland.

If they can get off to a good start tonight, then so can Ireland's World Cup.

Ireland v West Indies

Sky Sports 2, 10.0pm

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