Humiliating defeat leaves Ireland's golden generation facing into make-or-break summer

Head coach John Bracewell is coming under increased pressure after a disappointing two years in charge.

Ireland have endured a difficult winter and serious questions need to be asked.
Ireland have endured a difficult winter and serious questions need to be asked.
Image: Presseye/Rowland White/INPHO

IT’S HARD TO remember such a low point in Ireland’s recent cricketing history. For all the memorable days — the famous wins at Sabina Park, Bangalore and Nelson — these are now desperately worrying times.

A team which once held supremacy at Associate level, a team which once played with such swagger, purpose and conviction and a team which was on the cusp of something special is in rapid decline.

Those heady days, the days when Ireland brought the likes of Pakistan, England and West Indies to their knees and made those in power stand up and take notice, feel like a world away now.

Today’s comprehensive, and damaging, defeat to Afghanistan in the Intercontinental Cup has plunged John Bracewell’s side to as close to rock bottom as imaginable with the prospect of a Test play-off now slipping from their grasp.

One result doesn’t make Ireland a bad team, but the performance in Greater Noida over the last three days has been indicative of the last 24 months under Bracewell’s tutelage; inconsistent, mediocre and uninspiring.

“We’re disappointed with the result, of course. We’re better than that and we’ve proven ourselves to be better than that,” Cricket Ireland performance director, Richard Holdsworth, told The42.

“It’s the nature of how we lost the game, and the players and coach will be disappointed.”

The manner in which Ireland slumped abjectly to an innings and 172 run defeat is the most concerning aspect; although it wasn’t exactly surprising.

India Afghanistan Ireland Cricket Ireland lost both the T20 and ODI series against Afghanistan this month. Source: Altaf Qadri

There was an alarming inevitability about it all, and that feeling is born out of watching the same shortcomings undermine every second performance over the last two years.

Irrespective of conditions, irrespective of the opposition and irrespective of injuries, this was undoubtedly Ireland’s worst-ever performance in the four-day format; the bowling attack lacked penetration and variety and the batsmen were devoid of the necessary application or fight in the circumstances.

It all made for a pretty dire effort, and questions of the players and coach must be asked.

It’s not an exercise in being critical for the sake of it — setbacks are part and parcel of sport — but Ireland have been on a downward spiral for some time now and the graph is only going one way.

In the last 24 months, Ireland stuttered to qualification for the ICC World Twenty20 on home soil, then failed to win a game at that tournament as they lost to Oman and Netherlands and overall have won just 21 games of cricket in 52 fixtures.

Ten of those games were against Full Member nations — Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Australia and South Africa — and aside from a two-wicket win at the end of a lost series against Zimbabwe last October, Bracewell’s side were rarely competitive.

The progress made over the last ten years has given Ireland the opportunity to play the higher-ranked sides on a more regular basis, but all of this comes at a time when the team are going through an incredibly difficult period.

“Results haven’t gone our way and the timing of that isn’t great with what is going on in world cricket but sides go through spells when they’re not great,” Holdsworth continued.

“We’re taking a bit of a hiding in those games [against Full Member nations] but we’re learning and getting better and hopefully that will put us in good stead. We’ve got to be realistic, we’ve a lot of work to do. We’ve to look at the systems and processes and make sure we’re doing the right things.”

John Bracewell Ireland coach John Bracewell. Source: Barry Chambers/INPHO

Indeed, you’ve got to be realistic when Ireland are playing the Full Member sides and certainly there can be no criticism for losing to the likes of South Africa or Australia or suffering series defeats to Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

But, results against other Associates have also turned. Afghanistan have emerged as the new leading force at this level and in 10 games against the Asian side in 2017, Ireland have lost seven.

When you also consider that Ireland have slipped to defeats against Hong Kong, Netherlands, Oman, UAE and Papua New Guinea in the last 12 months, the argument that the bad performances have only come against Test-playing nations lacks substance.

The question is why? Why has a team who as recently as 2015 came agonisingly close to qualifying for the Super 8s of the World Cup lost fallen so far?

The loss of experienced players cannot be ignored. The retirements of John Mooney and Alex Cusack left a considerable hole in the lower order and the depth of talent coming through is practically non-existent. Ignore the hype about the Academy system; the conveyor belt isn’t working.

Then there is also the fact that only four players from this week — William Porterfield, Gary Wilson, Tim Murtagh and Paul Stirling — have contracts with county sides this year.

Niall O’Brien and Andrew Balbirnie were released by Leicestershire and Middlesex respectively while Ed Joyce made the decision to return home with his family. George Dockrell is among a number of players to have experienced a dramatic loss of form.

Then there is the issue of selection. Barry McCarthy enjoyed a breakthrough season at international and county level last summer, proving to be a revelation with the ball, yet carried the drinks for much of the winter. His exclusion has been particularly baffling, but not the only one.

And then the injuries. Boyd Rankin’s availability is hit and miss while last summer Bracewell was without Joyce, O’Brien and Balbirnie for the series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

“These aren’t excuses, they’re just facts,” Holdsworth insists.

But something has got to give. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. Changes have got to be made, and a lot of quarters will be pointing at the coach.

India Afghanistan Ireland Cricket It's a huge summer ahead for Irish cricket. Source: Altaf Qadri

There is no denying the last two years simply haven’t been good enough, and that’s based on the standards set by these very players under the previous regime.

Not all of the blame can be put on Bracewell because those selected haven’t performed to the levels they’re capable of but serious questions have to be asked about the philosophy and methods the Kiwi has brought to the job.

Bracewell’s remit when assuming the role in April 2015 was to win the Intercontinental Cup. His contract expires at the end of the current campaign in October and the primary objective was to win that tournament for the fifth time in seven editions.

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Before this week, Ireland were top of the table with four wins from four but this was always going to be the real test and the fixture the campaign hinged on. Now, with two games remaining, Ireland’s hopes of earning a place in Test play-off are hanging by a thread.

The stakes in India this week couldn’t have been any higher yet, in a game of such significance, Ireland simply rolled over. Yes, Afghanistan are a very good cricket team and conditions were in their favour but there’s enough excuses flying around at this stage.

It all means the significance of the next few months, for the team and Bracewell, cannot be understated.

A two-game series against England, at Bristol and Lord’s, in May is the start of a busy period which also sees Ireland host Bangladesh and New Zealand for a triangular series and then a one-off game against West Indies in September.

Given how meekly Ireland rolled over against Sri Lanka and Pakistan on home soil last summer, there is huge pressure on the side to perform and be somewhat competitive against touring nations.

The visit to Lord’s will be a momentous occasion with Ireland set to play their first ODI at the ‘Home of Cricket’, but there is now almost a sense of foreboding given the current circumstances. Ireland can ill-afford to perform as badly again when the world is watching.

“John’s future and us considering his future will of course very much depend, not so much on results, but the manner in which we go about things,” Holdsworth added.

Warren Deutrom Cricket Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“It will depend on how competitive we are. If we’re highly competitive and lose games closely then that’s a huge improvement but what we don’t want to be seeing is that we’re well beaten in these games and therefore not being competitive.

“That’s a concern because I believe we have good enough players to be highly competitive and we’ve proven that in the not too distant past. That will be a consideration in John’s future.”

“He has my full support but results are results and there haven’t been some good results and therefore this summer is very important for that.”

Warren Deutrom, Holdsworth and all at Cricket Ireland have worked tirelessly over the last number of years to get the national team and sport to the level it’s currently at. There can be no denying the superb job they have done and the progress which has been made on and off the field.

But the most important piece of the jigsaw is now missing and while it would be preferable if Ireland were heading into a defining summer for all the right reasons, 2017 now has the potential to be a defining one for all the wrong reasons.

The ICC are, at last, broadening its horizons and opening the door to Ireland but that door will only stay ajar for so long. Afghanistan have already leaped ahead in the pecking order and Ireland are in danger of falling further behind if a quick fix isn’t found.

Whether that’s with Bracewell at the helm or not remains to be seen, but this is uncharted territory for Irish cricket and the gloom needs to be lifted.

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Test play-off place slipping out of grasp as Ireland slump to huge Afghanistan defeat

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Ryan Bailey

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