Ireland have won their opening two games in emphatic fashion. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
holy grail

'It would be a dream come true' - Ireland resume quest to reach the promised land

Intercontinental Cup fixture against Papua New Guinea the next assignment on the path to Test cricket.

WITH EACH GAME comes added significance and Ireland resume their Intercontinental Cup campaign tonight in the knowledge any slip-up would dent their bid to reach the promised land.

John Bracewell’s side have started the competition with two emphatic wins but the new year brings new challenges.

There is a World Twenty20 tournament on the horizon but the focus is firmly on clearing the next hurdle in the quest to play Test match cricket.

United Arab Emirates and Namibia provided little resistance in the opening two games last year but a dangerous Papua New Guinea outfit are capable of providing a stiffer challenge.

Ireland have won this competition four of the last five editions but the stakes have been considerably raised this time around with the winner given the opportunity to play for a seat at the top table of the sport.

Over the winter period, Ireland have dropped down to second in the standings after Netherlands edged past UAE earlier this month.

But victory over the next four days against PNG in Townsville, Australia would see Ireland return to the summit – and batsman Ed Joyce is under no illusions of the task ahead.

“In my opinion this is the most important competition at the moment for us,” he said on the eve of the game.

“With the decision by the ICC to go with 10-team World Cup’s in the two shorter formats, gunning for Test cricket now becomes doubly important for Ireland.

“I’ve never played against Papua New Guinea in any competition so it’ll be new territory for me. The boys say they’re a very competitive, boisterous side with a lot of talent so we’ll need to be at our best to beat them.”

Joyce has played an integral part in the two successes to date with back-to-back double-centuries underpinning convincing victories which have seen Ireland collect maximum points so far.

The squad have spent the last week Down Under acclimatising to the stifling conditions, although a warm-up draw against a Queensland XI left much to be desired.

However, Ireland are notoriously slow starters and Bracewell will hope the cobwebs which gathered over the winter will have gone by the time play begins at 12am Irish time tonight.

The head coach will have Boyd Rankin at his disposal for the first time after the fast-bowler redeclared for the country of his birth before Christmas.

It will be the first time Rankin plays a competitive game for Ireland in four years after switching allegiances to England following the 2012 World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.

His return is a huge boost to the bowling ranks at a time when they were looking threadbare following the retirement of John Mooney and Alex Cusack.

screenshot.1454079054.87646 Rankin in training earlier this week. Cricket Ireland / Facebook Cricket Ireland / Facebook / Facebook

The 31-year-old took one wicket in the practice match earlier in the week and admits he’s relishing the prospect of wearing the shamrock again.

“I’ve really enjoyed being back in the Irish environment. I’ve been made very welcome, and settled in very well – it doesn’t seem like I’ve been away at all,” he said.

“I’ve had a taste of Test match cricket and I would love more. It would be an unreal experience to get the chance to play Test cricket for Ireland in the coming years so it’s a massive drive for all of us to get to that stage.”

Papua New Guinea shocked Netherlands last summer and the Pacific Islanders, who humbled Ireland in the Twenty20 Qualifiers in Belfast in August, will be no pushover.

But Ireland have lost just twice in this competition since it started back in 2004 and with a full-strength squad available, have all the resources to defend their title.

In the six previous editions of the I-Cup, Ireland have enjoyed unparalleled supremacy having lifted the trophy four times.

But for players of this golden generation, the likes of Joyce and Niall O’Brien, time is running out for them to represent their country at the highest level.

“I personally love the Intercontinental Cup,” O’Brien says.  ”I want to win this tournament again and then help us gain Test status. It would be a dream come true.”

Conditions in Townsville are extremely humid with temperatures reaching 33 degrees over the coming days but Ireland are accustomed to dealing with the heat as the competition intensifies.

Ireland squad: William Porterfield (c), Andrew McBrine, Kevin O’Brien, Niall O’Brien, Andrew Balbirnie, George Dockrell , Ed Joyce, Tim Murtagh, Stuart Poynter, Boyd Rankin, Paul Stirling, Max Sorenson, Gary Wilson, Craig Young.

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