Belfast Telegraph

Ireland must prove they can shine at highest level


By Ian Callender

The exodus of Ireland fans begins today with flights to Bristol from Belfast and Dublin fully booked ahead of tomorrow's first one-day international against England (10.45am). Flights to London will be even busier on Saturday and Sunday when all roads lead to Lord's.

Ireland have never played a two-match series against their closest Full Member neighbours and have never played an ODI in England. But following last week's confirmation from the ICC board meeting in Dubai that Ireland are on the verge of Full Membership status themselves, it is a natural progression.

Unfortunately, it has coincided with the team's worst run of form since they qualified for their first World Cup finals in 2005.

They have lost 22 of the 33 matches played since February last year, and since their win over the West Indies at the 2015 World Cup, their ODI record against the top eight teams reads played nine, lost nine.

That last statistic is nothing to do with recent form. Ireland have never beaten a top nation outside a World Cup, and with the side, certainly their bowling attack, in transition, the thousands of fans wearing green this weekend do not expect victory.

But when the odds are stacked against them, Ireland have a habit of performing well, and they will be confident.

Captain William Porterfield and Gary Wilson have scored big runs for their counties in England this season and Kevin O'Brien scored 75 from 49 balls in his first innings for six weeks on Monday - recovered from his hamstring tear - in the inter-pro between Leinster Lightning and North West Warriors.

O'Brien remains the one Ireland name feared by opponents around the world, although it is now six years since one of the greatest innings played at the World Cup. England were on the receiving end that day, and this weekend there will be more than a frisson of expectation.

Ireland's best hope of a shock victory, however, is if O'Brien arrives after big runs from Ed Joyce and Paul Stirling. Ireland's best batsman and their quickest scorer respectively are set to continue their opening partnership which they started against Pakistan last summer.

It was an ominous beginning, with Stirling dismissed to the second ball of the innings, but four 50s in five ODI knocks against Afghanistan in India in March was his best run of form for six years and Joyce will be happy to return to familiar pitches after a top score of 55 in the stifling conditions in India.

The bowling against a big-hitting England attack is where it will be won and lost, however.

Tim Murtagh, Ireland's most experienced bowler, was left out of both Middlesex's first two 50-over games of the season and took only five wickets against Afghanistan at an economy rate of 5.2 and an average of 47. He is certain to share the new balls with Craig Young, who did not play any of the last eight games in India, or Peter Chase, who took six wickets in four games.

Against a likely England top order of Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Joe Root, Ben Duckett and Eoin Morgan, it may need the control of O'Brien and the spin of George Dockrell to keep them in check.

Morgan and Roy are just back from the Indian Premier League and Ireland can be grateful that Ben Stokes and Josh Butler are being allowed to stay there.

But the days when England fielded a second-rate team against Ireland are over. Ireland are about to hit the big time, full-time, and on their biggest stage so far outside a global event they need a huge performance to say they are ready. Now is their time.

Belfast Telegraph

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