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'It means a huge amount and hopefully we can step up over the next few weeks and really prove it'

The odds are stacked against Ireland, but they will relish the challenge of defying expectations when the 2019 World Cup qualifiers get underway on Sunday.

THE GOALPOSTS HAVE shifted again, and not for the first time the odds are stacked against Ireland.

Qualification for the World Cup should not be as onerous as this, nor should the notion of Ireland actually making it to England next summer be so improbable. Not now, not after those indelible days in 2007, or 2011, or 2015. But it would be a major upset.

Zimbabwe v Ireland - ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier Warm Up Ireland captain William Porterfield with the World Cup qualifier trophy. Source: Nigel Roddis - IDI

The International Cricket Council (ICC) have inexplicably reduced the World Cup — a tournament purporting to showcase the global game — from 14 teams to 10 as part of a piggish and short-sighted plan to ensure the sport’s major powers enjoy more of the financial pie.

When every other sport is expanding its horizons, the ICC continues to pull the ladder up on those nations trying to climb it and the upshot is that entry into the game’s showpiece event becomes an even harder invitation to come by. Cricket does elitism best, after all.

Even in this supposedly even-handed qualification tournament, which sees 10 nations vie for the two remaining World Cup berths, there is no doubt which corner the organisers are in.

It would be a disaster for the ICC if two-time winners West Indies weren’t at the World Cup, and likewise if Afghanistan — the sport’s emerging force, and a nation which has become a lucrative market — were to miss out.

That’s where Ireland come in.

Graham Ford’s side can upset all of that by claiming one of the two remaining places on offer over the next two weeks in Zimbabwe and certainly qualifying for the 2019 World Cup would be regarded as one of this team’s biggest achievements. That’s how big the task is.

Six months ago, not many would have given Ireland a chance of finishing ahead of West Indies, Afghanistan or hosts Zimbabwe but the team has enjoyed an encouraging upturn in fortunes and results since the arrival of Ford as head coach.

The midweek warm-up win over Scotland was Ireland’s eighth straight victory in the 50-over format and they head into tomorrow’s campaign opener against Netherlands with confidence and conviction again.

Even after an otherwise miserable two years in terms of results and performances, maybe there’s one last hurrah left in this golden generation.

A series win over Afghanistan in Sharjah, from 2-0 down, was significant in more ways than one, not least because it marked the end of John Bracewell’s disastrous tenure but saw Paul Stirling, among others, return to form.

It breathed new life into an ageing team.

“Winning brings its own confidence,” Stirling tells The42. “As a team and unit we’re confident again.”

In the build-up to this qualifying tournament, Ireland have also won a tri-series involving UAE and Scotland in Dubai and got through some good work in a training camp in Pretoria, which also included four wins against local sides.

But there is an asterisk beside all of these recent results given the calibre of opposition and the context of those fixtures compared to the high-intensity and high-pressure games which await.

“In the last few years it had been difficult for us to get past that winning barrier,” Stirling continues, looking back on heavy defeats to England, New Zealand and Bangladesh last summer.

Ireland v Sri Lanka - One Day International Stirling has been in excellent form for Ireland. Source: Seb Daly

“We’ve played a lot of big sides and we’ve struggled, especially in home conditions. We’re on a run now but it’s against teams we know and play a lot. We need to try to live up to our own expectations again and get the standards up so we can beat those bigger sides.

“It feels like we’re playing the same way every match and the results are coming now but I don’t think we’re under any sort of illusions of the step-up which is now required.”

Netherlands provide the first opposition in Harare on Sunday morning, before further pool games against Papua New Guinea, West Indies and United Arab Emirates with the top three sides advancing to the Super Sixes stage.

Ireland shouldn’t have any trouble safely negotiating the first hurdle but with just the top two in the Super Sixes stage booking a place at England 2019 there is very little margin for error in what will be a high-stakes and fiercely competitive battle ground.

If Ireland are to upset the established order and defy the odds, they will rely heavily on Stirling at the top of the batting order, while the likes of Ed Joyce, Kevin O’Brien, George Dockrell and Boyd Rankin will need to produce something close to their best form.

A source of engagement is the manner in which the new head coach has reinstalled the core values of a team which is now playing to the same strengths which were hallmarks of the famous wins over Pakistan, England and West Indies in each of the last three World Cups.

The performances against Afghanistan, UAE and Scotland were all throwbacks to the former glory days when energy, passion, fight and spirit was the key to it all. Conviction and confidence make a big difference, too, and as results turned, individuals found form and hit their straps having not done so for long periods under Bracewell.

Stirling is the prime example.

The opening batsman has been in a rich vein of form recently, as evidenced by his masterclass last week when he bludgeoned 156 against an Easterns/Northerns XI and then again in a warm-up game against Hong Kong.

“We all go in and out of form and when we’re out of form, you want it to be for the least amount of time as possible,” he explains.

“I’m just lucky to be in good form for a couple of months and I’m just trying to continue that on as you know down the line there’s going to be a tough patch coming up. Hopefully that’s not next week, or the week after.

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Ireland Headshots - ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier Ireland's Niall O'Brien, Andrew Balbirnie and Ed Joyce. Source: IDI via Getty Images

“But as long as you’re prepared to fail and accept it’s going to happen, hopefully there’s more good times than bad.”

Although he’s just 27, Stirling is well past the 200 appearance marker for Ireland having made his debut back in 2008 — scoring 6,500 runs in that time — and has already featured in two World Cups.

After coming so close to qualifying for the quarter-finals back in 2015, thanks to wins over West Indies and UAE, Ireland are desperate to return to that stage again next summer — and Stirling and his team-mates are fully aware of what is on the line over the next two weeks.

“Everybody who has been to a World Cup is dying to get to another one as we know how good it is and how much we want to perform on that stage,” the Belfast native continues.

“We need to try and give ourselves the best chance to qualify but it’s also important not to overdo it on that level as well. We’re still playing a game of cricket, 50 overs each side.

“But it is massively important, we’ve grown up watching Ireland play in the World Cup, that was my first experience watching in 2007 and I’m sure that was the same with a lot of people. If we can get past this qualifying, we feel we can give it another crack.

“It does mean a huge amount and hopefully we can step up over the next few weeks and really prove it. We know how big an ask it is and it will be tough, but we’re all ready for it and we’ll give it our best and that’s all you can ask.”

ICC World Cup qualifier fixtures:

Sunday 4 March (all 7.30am Irish time):

  • Ireland v Netherlands, Harare

Tuesday 6 March:

  • Ireland v Papua New Guinea, Harare

Sunday 10 March:

  • Ireland v West Indies, Harare

Tuesday 12 March:

  • Ireland v UAE, Harare

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