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Stirling isn't planning to take foot off gas as the stakes rise


By Ian Callender in Bulawayo

It may not be the most important match in the greater scheme of things, but Paul Stirling is hoping that Ireland can continue their winning momentum in today's first official warm-up game ahead of the World Cup qualifying tournament which starts here on Sunday.

Hosts Zimbabwe are the opposition at the Queen's Sports Club in Bulawayo, and it promises to be Ireland's toughest game so far of 2018. But Stirling et al could hardly be in better fettle.

Stirling, Ireland's most talented batsman, goes into the game with the little matter of 312 runs in the bank from his only two innings this month - remarkably, 156 in each knock - on the four-match visit to Pretoria, and he is desperately hoping that he hasn't peaked just a little too soon.

"We're all really happy with the way it went in South Africa, a good run-out for the lads and four powerful games," said the former Belfast High student.

"Personally it was nice to get a few runs, but knowing in the back of my mind that the real stuff is going to start pretty soon, and come next Sunday it won't mean much, so it's just nice to feel good in the middle and hopefully I can carry it through to next week."

Stirling played only the first and last games in Pretoria, against a South African franchise XI and Hong Kong on Friday, but he missed the victory over the Netherlands - Ireland's first group opponents next week - and the no result against Scotland with a hamstring niggle, but he is happy that has cleared up.

"There was no need to risk anything, we've a lot of players out here and Stuart Thompson flew in from the Eastern Cape," added Stirling. "It was just a small niggle that's gone. I got through the full match against Hong Kong, which was as tough a run-out as I could have asked for, batting for 40-odd overs, and then, because of the rain, a T20 second innings. I came through unscathed and am hopefully able to participate fully from now on."

That starts today with a match which Stirling suggests "will show us where we are really at".

He went on: "Zimbabwe on their home pitches is always a tough test but hopefully we can maintain the winning momentum, and even though the recent wins don't count for much, it will give us the confidence going into Sunday.

"It's been a great winning run but come Sunday it's a different story and we're into tournament mode."

Like the games in South Africa, this week's matches - Ireland play Scotland on Thursday in the other warm-up - are uncapped, so the nine-match winning run, going back to the Afghanistan series in Dubai in December, will not go into the record books but could be the most important statistic going into the qualifying tournament.

It's probably not coincidence that new coach Graham Ford has been around for all nine games - in sole charge for the last seven - and Stirling says the South African deserves credit.

"He works really hard and is fairly easy to be around. It's been a great start for him and I'm looking forward to continuing that relationship for the next couple of years," he said.

Ford said yesterday that he expected William Porterfield would be fit to return after missing the last two games with a swollen knee. The coach had intended to play the captain against Hong Kong but he just hadn't recovered enough and, at this stage, it is all about minimising any risk.

Porterfield batted in Ireland's first net session at the match venue yesterday.

With only 15 players allowed at the tournament, Thompson has returned to a training camp in Port Elizabeth and, although Ford did not reveal any names, there were still a couple of players likely to be ruled out again today, but none are serious.

The key bowler remains Boyd Rankin who was superb against the Dutch and, if needs be, he will be wrapped in cotton wool to ensure he is fired up and ready to face them again, when it matters, on Sunday.

Belfast Telegraph

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