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Ford driven to help Irish flourish in the Test arena

By Ian Callender

Graham Ford may have played only seven first-class matches but Ireland's new head coach has worked with some of the biggest names in the sport.

Malcolm Marshall, the late, great West Indies pace bowler, and Clive Rice, the legendary South African all-rounder, were both under his tutelage when they played for Natal and he also coached the young Kevin Pietersen in South Africa.

"I coached KP from when he was a little kid. I first came across him at primary school and again in high school and on and off from there on. I have to be honest and say I knew he was going to be a good player but never realised he was going to be as good," admitted Ford.

Add on the likes of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene when he was in charge of Sri Lanka, plus Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs at South Africa, and there is no doubt that Ford has impeccable credentials to lead Ireland into the new era of Test cricket.

As the coach who appointed Gary Wilson captain of Surrey in 2014 when Kevin O'Brien was also on the county side's T20 roster - and going further back, in his first spell in county cricket, he had Niall O'Brien as wicket-keeper at Kent - there are some names familiar to him in the Ireland squad.

But, still, the next two weeks in the UAE - the squad leaves tonight - will be a getting-to-know-you exercise for coach and players.

It seems the perfect first tour; they will play two one-day internationals against both the hosts and Scotland, games which should not be too taxing - Ireland will expect to win all four - but ideal preparation for the tougher challenges which Ford is being rushed into in the next two months.

A tournament when Ireland must finish ahead of three of West Indies, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Netherlands promises to be the toughest World Cup qualifying ever.

The fact that it is a new coach with a team that under-performed under his predecessor, John Bracewell, piles on the pressure and while Ford will refuse to take all the plaudits if they qualify for England and Wales 2019, he also has his back covered if it all goes pear-shaped.

"Fair dues to John, I can't come in and take all the credit for reaching the World Cup, it will have been a long-term project," said the 57-year-old South African.

"But, to be brutally honest, it's not enough time (for me) and I've been trying to find out as much as I can as quickly as I can. I will certainly be relying on the captain's information and then the selection panel will give their thoughts and advice. It's pretty rushed."

Interestingly, Ford does not expect the final say on selection.

"The captain is the guy who takes the team onto the field, and if there is debate on the last place, as long as it is thought through and the decision is made on sound cricketing reasons, I am not one to have the final say," he added.

"The coach is there to support the captain and help him, seeing things from a different vantage point, but he is the guy who had to make the final call."

It is a philosophy which has worked well in his previous jobs.

"Success comes from hard work and creating an environment where players understand the importance of hard work and encouraging them to take on responsibility to go out and perform for their mates and their supporters," said Ford.

Invited to be part of Bracewell's backroom staff in the UAE last month, he had a one-on-one nets session with William Porterfield solely devoted to the pull shot, from which the captain had been dismissed three times in his previous four innings.

"The way he bats he is going to get plenty of opportunity to score from that shot so you don't want to throw it away, you want to get better at it," he said.

"But, generally, if you want to improve work ethic is what it's all about. There are a lot of talented sides out there, all working hard, and one of the first things I said to the lads was we are going to have to work harder to beat them. But John has created a good environment with players who take responsibility to improve their game and make sure they are ready."

One of Ireland's major failings, even in the years of success under Phil Simmons, was the batting against quality spin bowling but Ford could be just the man to improve the players' technique.

"I learnt a great amount in Sri Lanka. Their approach was very different from what I was brought up on with the coaching manuals, particularly the playing of spin and being able to dominate spin," said the new coach.

Although no-one knew he would be in the opposite camp just 18 months later, Ford was Sri Lanka coach when they played two ODIs in Malahide in June 2016 and despite his side racking up 303-7 and 377-8, it didn't put him off applying for the job, after a word from his "good friend" Adi Birrell, the coach who put Ireland on the global map at the 2007 World Cup.

"In the first game, we were under pressure," Ford recalled. "For a while Ireland were going well.

"But there are players who have achieved good stuff over a period of time and the exciting challenge is to bring the next group through.

"Adi told me I would be perfect for the job although it's not the easiest thing because of the small population.

"It's not a mainstream game here and, although improving, infrastructure is not as good as some of the other Test countries. So there will be a few mini challenges along the way.

"But I'm up for it and since that great World Cup I have always had admiration for Irish cricket and the way they play it."

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