It’s hard to defend the indefensible but that was what Andrew Balbirnie had to do last Friday night at the lowest point of his captaincy reign.
Since taking over in November 2019, Ireland have enjoyed wins against West Indies, England and Zimbabwe, and Balbirnie rightly praised his team but, within minutes of their emphatic eight wickets defeat by Namibia which saw them crash out of the T20 World Cup, Balbirnie insisted the side were “moving in the right direction”.
In truth, a captain (or coach) is never going to criticise his players in public and he always has to look for the positives — and is under pressure to answer probing questions in the immediate aftermath — but, after a clueless batting display and an unthreatening bowling performance against a team that were playing in their first global tournament since 2003, it cannot be argued that Ireland are moving in the right direction.
This year, they have won only nine of their 28 games and that includes three defeats by UAE, two to Netherlands and a five-match series against Zimbabwe which was top and tailed by two defeats which was actually a portent of their final game at the World Cup — a solid start before the middle order simply lost their way.
The one sentence which did come out right — and which came immediately before the “moving in the right direction” claim — was “We’ve got to head home, have a good, hard look at ourselves and our plans going forward and hopefully qualify for the World Cup next year.”
Victory against Namibia would have sent them straight through to Australia 2022 but they now have to finish in the top two of a nine-team qualifying tournament in February. At least they will be the highest ranked team — if that means anything.
Before then, Ireland have only three T20s against West Indies in January confirmed, although talks are ongoing for a pre-Christmas trip.
There cannot and will not be a mass clear out of this squad and, while Paul Stirling is their only world-class batsman, Balbirnie, Gareth Delany, Curtis Campher and Simi Singh — ridiculously batting at No 9 in this tournament — are the core of the team going forward, along with Josh Little who, before he turns 22 next week, is already the leader of the bowling attack.
Balbirnie, rightly, said it was a young and — in world terms — inexperienced squad who “are going to learn from this” and the only way to improve is out in the middle, but with players such as Graham Hume, Murray Commins and Ruhan Pretorius available next year, they will have to learn quickly or, in contrast to what Balbirnie said, the selectors must go down a different route.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s first game at the Super 12s ended in a 130 runs defeat in Sharjah.
Afghanistan were 55-1 after their powerplay — matching Ireland’s total against Namibia — but finished with 190 for four and then Mujeeb Zadran reduced the Scots to 36 for five.
The mystery spinner finished with a T20 career best of five for 20 and Rashid Khan then came on and finished them off, taking four for nine as Scotland were bowled out in 10.2 overs.
In the Scotland innings, Nos 3, 4, 5 and 6 were all out for ducks — the first time that has ever happened in a T20 international.