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Joyce relishing the ultimate Test as Ireland close in on the big time

By Ian Callender

Ed Joyce is ready to help Ireland to crucial Intercontinental Cup success after a modest one-day series against Afghanistan.

Ireland's hosts in India won the Twenty20 series 3-0 and edged home 3-2 in the ODIs but the climax of the tour is the game that could yet go a long way in deciding their immediate future in the longest format.

Although ICC chairman Shashank Manohar is now back in his post, just two weeks after stepping down - a good sign if both leading Associate sides are to be fast-tracked to Test match status - the guaranteed entry route is for the winners of the I-Cup to play Zimbabwe next year in a four-match challenge.

And Ireland are in pole position as they take a 19-points lead into the match which started early this morning in Greater Noida.

"We're highly motivated going into the game because we have no idea what is going on with the Test match stuff," said Joyce. "So if things don't go the way they were looking as if they would go, this match takes on huge significance. We need to get points out of it so we will be taking it seriously like we do any other game."

Joyce, at the age of 38, remains Ireland's gun batsman and averages 98 after the first four I-Cup games, including double centuries against UAE and Namibia, but despite a top score of 55 in the ODIs against Afghanistan he feels he is ready to go big this week.

"It's the first time I'd come into a series without much practice after the knee op," he said.

"I hadn't hit balls until I came out here, the UAE was the first time I'd faced bowlers (this winter) but I was still hitting the ball well. But it's hard to play the big innings without any warm-ups.

"I got a good ball in the last game but if that had been in the series last summer (against Afghanistan) that ball wouldn't have got me out. But it's been good practice for this game."

Rashid Khan has been Ireland's chief destroyer in the eight white ball games here - he took 25 wickets - and his contest with Joyce this week promises to be a gripping highlight.

"I faced a huge amount of him at Stormont last summer and played him well and I have been trying to give the others advice on the best way to play him," added Joyce. "To then to get out the way I did in the last game, having given that advice, was very disappointing but he is a very good bowler and is allowed to get you out sometimes.

"So the next couple of days for me personally are about combating him, but also they have a left arm chinaman (Zahir Khan) who might play and we haven't faced before and a couple of other good bowlers. We have our work cut out and they probably go into the game as slight favourites."

Ireland can actually lose the game and will stay top of the table if they claim the first innings lead in a game which is not expected to last the full four days, so the toss could be huge, admits Joyce.

"I don't see how the pitch can possibly last four days. It's been covered, but in 40 degrees heat it's a challenge for any wicket to hold itself together, but it will turn straight from the start and it's just a question of how much," he said.

"You still have to bowl well but if it turns and bounces and has pace it will be very challenging. It's a big toss potentially but first innings, regardless of whether we win the toss, is crucial."

As for Ireland's bid for Test status, Joyce believes it is a natural progression.

"We have played good longformat cricket for a while now and to have that goal is a powerful thing. It will be such a pity if we don't get it inside the next 18 months."

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