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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 14 April 2021

Ireland seek major scalp as England arrive in Dublin for season opener

A one-off ODI against England at Malahide presents opportunity but could also serve as another stark reality check for Graham Ford’s side.

 AFTER A LONG and, at times, testing winter, Ireland begin what could be a rather revealing summer of cricket with the ultimate test.

The visit of England, top of the world rankings, to Malahide [10.45am, Sky Sports] is the showcase fixture of the home season, but as much as there is excitement over the occasion and opportunity, today could just as equally serve as another stark and unforgiving reminder of the current health of Irish cricket.

Graham Ford Ireland coach Graham Ford at Malahide. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Graham Ford’s side find themselves in the midst of a difficult transition, the retirement of key players stripping the dressing room of invaluable experience, but also the dearth of sufficient talent coming through has seen Ireland’s progress completely stagnate in recent times.

A maiden Test match last summer against Pakistan was a historic step for Irish cricket and certainly an important juncture in this journey, but for all the optimism surrounding that week in Malahide, the on-field performances have yielded little to cheer about under Ford. 

Granted there have been huge strides made in the background — see the opening of the new high-performance facility in Abbotstown and the growth of the inter-provincial series as two examples — but at what stage does all of that become largely irrelevant when the results do not improve? Or, actually, the level of performances continue to regress?

Ireland’s last win over a Full Member nation (other than Afghanistan, who received Test-playing status alongside Ireland in 2017) was against Zimbabwe back at the 2015 World Cup, and in the three-and-a-half years since that tournament, they have lost 26 of their 45 completed ODIs.

Ireland’s 19 wins in that period have come against Afghanistan [9], UAE [5], Scotland [3], Papua New Guinea [1] and Zimbabwe [1], while the slide down the Twenty20 rankings to 17th — below everyone bar Oman — has been as dramatic as it has been lamentable. 

Opportunity and exposure have been two buzz words around the Cricket Ireland corridors in the last decade, but as of yet, neither have been grasped with any real conviction when they’ve come knocking on the door.

Ireland now have an exciting and comprehensive schedule of fixtures and tours across all three formats having been included in the new Future Tours Programme and ODI league, with the senior men’s side to play a minimum of 140 matches, both home and away, in this four-year cycle up until 2023. 

It’s all still very much a work in process, they say, a gradual learning curve which will take time and investment, they insist, but it is somewhat telling that Ireland were more competitive against top-ranked sides back in 2013 than they are likely to be today. 

Maybe that will be reflected in the attendance at Malahide for the showcase fixture of the 2019 summer. Six years ago, a crowd of 10,000 people crammed into the village ground for a memorable game, as Ireland pushed England all the way in a thrilling contest. It felt like the start of something truly special, but the momentum, and interest, has slowly started to evaporate.

William Porterfield and Eoin Morgan Captains William Porterfield and Eoin Morgan. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The sell-out signs were in place for the Indian series last June, but anyone in Malahide on those days knows the stands were occupied largely by those in blue. You need a competitive team to get bums on seats, particularly on a Friday in early May. 

The Fortress Malahide slogan pushed by Cricket Ireland has quickly disappeared, too. Ireland’s last win at their home ground was against Scotland back in September 2014 and it says a lot about the last four years that there have been more humbling days here than good. Defeat to Hong Kong stands out, in particular.

Central to the malaise and downturn in form has been a changing of the guard as time catches up with a golden generation of cricketers who delivered so many highlights down through the years, while those still out there — in the twilight of their careers — are no longer at the peak of their powers, no longer playing consistent County Cricket, and no longer able to bridge an ever-widening gap at the top level.

It seems ridiculous to say Ireland are in desperate need of a spark to re-ignite their fortunes today, given the calibre of opposition in the away changing room, and that Eoin Morgan’s side have set the benchmark in this format of the game for a number of years now, but the reality is that the home side can ill-afford another no-show here.

“I wouldn’t say daunting, I’d say exciting,” captain William Porterfield says of the challenge. “England are a pretty good team but it just brings opportunity to ourselves. It’s an exciting way to start the summer and hopefully, there’s a big crowd.”

Ireland have won four of their 12 games this calendar year leading into the summer — including a disappointing Test defeat to Afghanistan — and there will be no hiding place in the coming months, with a tri-series against West Indies and Bangladesh their next assignment after the visit of England.

“England have been playing some great cricket over the last few years, but I think it provides an opportunity for us to go out and showcase ourselves and try to turn them over in our own backyard,” Porterfield, whose own position has been questioned, continued.

We see it as an opportunity rather than just about playing the number one-ranked side in the world.

There’s that opportunity word again. Lorcan Tucker and Josh Little may be handed rather big opportunities, two uncapped players in contention for full ODI debuts after making their breakthrough in the shortest format of the year. Perhaps it is a sprinkling of youth, and an injection of vibrancy, that Ireland require. They need to try something different, anyway. 

The spine of the side — Porterfield, Paul Stirling, Kevin O’Brien, Gary Wilson, set to make his 100th ODI appearance, George Dockrell and Boyd Rankin — has no shortage of experience, but that counts for nothing when individual form has proved so elusive. 

Graham Ford Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin at Malahide yesterday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Porterfield, by way of example, has averaged just 11.60 at the top of the order in his last 11 ODIs, and when you compare that with the strike-rate of England’s batsman as they regularly post scores of 400+, it’s simply not good enough anymore.

“I feel in good form,” he insisted at yesterday’s pre-match press conference. Time may very well tell. 

Ireland, and Porterfield, have shown before they can get it right, put it all together and be competitive in this arena but it feels so long ago now that a Full Member nation pitched up in Dublin and were truly tested.

Ireland can no longer be content to just host these teams and occasions, they need to start winning big games of cricket again.  

“We’re not taking Ireland lightly,” England captain Morgan says, his side heavy favourites here and indeed to lift the World Cup on home soil. 

“They’ve probably had a tough period when away playing Afghanistan but at the moment, they’re going through a different transition as to where we’re at, but I don’t think that makes the challenge easier.”

Two teams in vastly contrasting positions, with vastly contrasting motivations. Only one result is expected, but Ireland have pulled off major upsets before and a home win, as unlikely as that seems, would kick-start things again. 

Ireland: William Porterfield (captain), Andrew Balbirnie, George Dockrell, Josh Little, Andrew McBrine, Barry McCarthy, James McCollum, Tim Murtagh, Kevin O’Brien, Boyd Rankin, Paul Stirling, Mark Adair, Lorcan Tucker, Gary Wilson.

England: Eoin Morgan (captain), Jofra Archer, Tom Curran, Joe Denly, Chris Jordan, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, James Vince, David Willey, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Ben Duckett.

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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