On the eve of Ireland’s biggest game of the summer, National Coach Phil Simmons has said Paul Stirling has the potential to be “Ireland’s best- ever player”.
Stirling, still only 20, will open the batting in tomorrow’s one-day international against England at Clontarf (10.15am) with the chance of becoming the first Ireland batsman to score three successive ODI centuries.
The Middlesex professional signed off the World Cup in March with a century against the Netherlands and has followed up with scores of 109 against Pakistan at Stormont and 113 against Scotland in Edinburgh in his last two innings.
Already comparisons are being made with Eoin Morgan, who will captain England tomorrow in the absence of Alistair Cook, but Simmons, who has worked with both players, believes Stirling can go all the way.
“He is still learning the game, learning how to play in a team environment, but the sky’s the limit. He has the potential to be our best ever,” said the former West Indian all-rounder.
“He is under no pressure from me or anyone in the squad. We just tell him to go out and enjoy his cricket. The pressure will come from outside but, as with everything else, he has to do it over a prolonged period.”
But Stirling certainly has time. With Ireland now playing up to 50 games every year, the former Belfast High schoolboy has every record in his sights, and tomorrow he plays his 82nd game for his country, nine days before his 21st birthday.
One statistic he would like to improve on tomorrow is his highest score against England. In three previous games, he has not got past 32 but the Ireland game plan is not individual records but a second successive victory against their nearest Test neighbours.
Simmons, unlike some vocal ex-players, has no complaints about the “experimental” team that England have sent over for The Rematch but acknowledges it will not make Ireland’s task any easier.
“It’s perfectly understandable that England are resting some of their big names after a tough Test series but they have a team that will have players looking to book a place in the team and the rest trying to keep their place.
“So, rather than have a few guys turning up, relaxed, we are now faced with a tougher assignment,” said Simmons.
The Ireland coach picks out Jonathan Trott — the one survivor tomorrow from the England team that lost to Ireland in the World Cup match in Bangalore — as their most dangerous player.
“Trott manipulates the ball so easily and Steven Finn is a top performer with the ball, and I also like Jade Dernbach who is something of a one-day specialist bowler. We’ll have to watch him in the powerplays,” adds Simmons.
“All the guys have been playing well in the last few weeks for their counties and they are all focused on putting in another one on Thursday. It’s very exciting.”
The one exception to the county circuit success is Surrey’s Gary Wilson, who is out of favour at The Oval at the minute, but Simmons has said that 2nd XI county cricket is tougher than league cricket so it seems certain that Ireland will field the same team that played in Bangalore, leaving Andrew White waiting for his 195th cap.
Most eyes, though, will be on Morgan, who faces his home country for the second time.
He top scored in the abandoned World Twenty20 match between the teams in Guyana last year but he will still be the player that Ireland knows better than most, and Simmons feels that has been the secret of Ireland’s “success” against England.
“We are still getting to know the players from around the world but with so many county players in our team we know their players very well. And, of course, being a local derby, they are still the team everyone in Ireland wants to beat more than anyone, so the boys are up for it again.”
Squads: Ireland: W Porterfield (capt), P Stirling, E Joyce, N O’Brien, G Wilson, K O’Brien, A Cusack, J Mooney, T Johnston, G Dockrell, B Rankin, A White, N Jones, A van der Merwe.
England: E Morgan (capt), J Bairstow, R Bopara, S Borthwick, J Dernbach, S Finn, C Kieswetter, G Onions, S Patel, B Stokes, J Taylor, J Trott, C Woakes.