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Ireland braced for crucial Emirates test

By Ian Callender

The Ireland squad begin 2013 where they will end it, in the United Arab Emirates, venue for the World Twenty20 qualifiers in November.

A two-day game against Canada will ease the players back into the middle tomorrow, but the real action begins on Tuesday with the Intercontinental Cup match against UAE. Victory in this one should all but guarantee their place in the five-day final, with two games still to play, and ensure their playing season goes all the way to December.

The most important games of the tour, however, come on Monday and Wednesday week when the teams meet in two 50-over World Cricket League games, their ninth and 10th qualifying games for the ICC World Cup finals in Australia in two years' time.

Ireland lead this eight-team table as well and while nothing will be decided this month, two wins will keep the team in pole position to reach their third successive finals with only games against the Netherlands and second-placed Scotland – beaten by Afghanistan yesterday – to come, two opponents they know well and in favourable conditions.

Their experience of the UAE, though, should stand them in good stead over the next fortnight. It is here, after all, where they have qualified for the last two World Twenty20 finals and they won the last I-Cup game between the teams in the Emirates, by nine wickets with Niall O'Brien top scoring with 174.

O'Brien is one of six squad members who played in that game five years ago – notable for the debut of the then 17-year-old Paul Stirling – and it is the prodigious talent of the Middlesex county professional who will be expected to dominate the batting on this trip.

Stirling was the last of the 14 players to arrive in Dubai, early on Wednesday, after attending his grandmother's funeral, but after three weeks playing in the Bangladesh Premier League, helping his team to the semi-finals, he is hardly wanting for practice and Ireland will hope he is quickly into his stride.

Kevin and Niall O'Brien were the others who were involved in BPL2, and although they scored rather less runs, Kevin was the second most successful bowler for the Rangpur Riders.

The warm-up game at the Dubai Global Academy ground will, hopefully, not lull the Ireland squad into false optimism for the tougher tasks ahead.

Indeed, it is doubtful how much value the players will get from the game because, Ireland must play their I-Cup clash and World Cup qualifiers in the neighbouring state of Sharjah which is as different as Comber and Wallace Park.

A look at the UAE squad gives an indication of what Ireland can expect when they change venue next week – they have seven slow bowlers on a pitch where Stirling's off-spin, in support of George Dockrell, is likely to be as important as his batting.

But first, it will be a case of the batsmen getting their heads down and the bowlers getting overs under their belts against the Canadians, who are warming-up for their WCL games against Kenya. History is not on their side. Only once, since they started their winter travels in 2007, have Ireland won the opening match of the year.

At least this time, the result doesn't matter.

Ireland squad: W Porterfield (capt), A Cusack, G Dockrell, T Johnston, E Joyce, J Mooney, T Murtagh, K O'Brien, N O'Brien, J Shannon, M Sorensen, P Stirling, A White, G Wilson.

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