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Ireland set to feel right at home in Lord's clash


By Ian Callender

There will be no shortage of experience on the Ireland team when they play England at Lord's in Sunday's historic one-day international. Indeed, when you count up the playing appearances at the Home of Cricket, the visitors come out on top.

While Steven Finn will be the only Middlesex player in the England line-up, Ed Joyce spent the first six years of his county career playing at Lord's, it has been home for opening bowler Tim Murtagh for the last eight years and he has since been joined by Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie.

It will be a bitter-sweet return for Balbirnie this weekend after his Middlesex contract was not renewed, following surgery on a persistent hip problem which effectively ended his county career.

"Lord's is the pinnacle for a player, the only arena in sport I can compare it with is, maybe, Centre Court at Wimbledon. There is nothing quite like it," says the 26-year-old Dubliner.

"Playing for Middlesex and going in and out every day, there is the chance to take it for granted, but it was something I tried not to let happen because it is such a unique and special place to play."

His top score at the ground is '70-odd' playing for Cardiff MCU in a university final but his first game at the iconic venue did not go so well!

"I played for Ireland 'A' against MCC in 2008 and got a duck and I was also in the away dressing room when I played for the MCC Young Cricketers against MCC. But it's the exact same lay-out as the home dressing room so it should be familiar!"

Balbirnie made his debut for Ireland at the World Cricket League in the Netherlands in 2010 but admits, as a teenager, he wasn't ready for the big stage.

"I think someone pulled out late and I was called into the squad. Seven years ago, that's mad!" he says almost in disbelief that it was that long ago.

It would be another four years before Balbirnie felt ready to play his part at the top level and he can identify the innings which was to realise his ambition.

"I scored a century against New Zealand 'A' in Dubai and I felt that was the monkey off my back. I always thought I could play at that level but I put so much pressure on myself when I was younger to do well. All I ever wanted to do was to score runs for Ireland and when it didn't happen the pressure doubled every time I went out to bat."

He had a top score of 38 in his first 16 international innings but since that maiden century Balbirnie hasn't looked back. He scored 58 against South Africa and 97 against Zimbabwe at the 2015 World Cup but, in the worst possible timing, he missed 12 months from February 2016 because of his hip operation.

He returned, though, as if he had never been away and averaged 47 in the six ODIs he played against UAE and Afghanistan in March.

"It was a good trip personally, back playing and scoring runs, but we didn't win a series or the I-Cup game so that was disappointing," he says.

"But it was where I wanted to be, the wickets suited me, I felt in decent touch and hopefully I can contribute in the next three weeks (Ireland have a tri-series in Dublin with New Zealand and Bangladesh which starts at the end of next week)."

It's not all about Lord's. The first ODI on Friday is at Bristol but here too Ireland will have the most experienced person on their side; head coach John Bracewell filled that role at Gloucestershire for their most successful six years in one-day cricket.

"If we are being realistic, not many people are going to give us much hope in this two-match series so to that extent it is a free hit and we have a lot of players who thrive in front of a big crowd against the old enemy in an historic series.

"So if we have the right guys peaking at the right time hopefully we can give them a good run for their money."

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