In 2007, Ireland’s success was one of the few things to enliven a World Cup that seldom rose above the mind-numbingly tedious. In beating Pakistan they provided the sort of sporting fairytale normally associated with the FA Cup: unfancied amateurs embarrassing the pros. The story was made all the greater for taking place on St Patrick’s Day.
The class of ’07 was essentially unknown. Only one – keeper Niall O’Brien – was remotely established with an English county, though a kid called Eoin Morgan was said to have potential. Now as many as 13 of the 15-man squad are professional cricketers, of whom seven hold county contracts.
While Ireland were enjoying such success four years ago, the man who did most to get them there was playing against them. Ed Joyce was a star for his county and Ireland alike – so good that he was pinched by England, lured by the prospect of Test cricket. Alas, it never came; and despite making a brilliant ODI century for England against Australia, Joyce failed to establish himself in their limited overs side either. After four years unwanted by England, he has been allowed to return to the Irish side. His class, experience and solidity at number three – he is a man with a first-class average of 45 – will be vital for Ireland, and also helps compensate for the loss of the best Irish batsman currently playing.
Just as Joyce was lured across the Irish Sea, so too has Morgan been. It is hard to overstate the difference Morgan would make to Ireland were he still with them; indeed, look at the grief his absence is currently causing England. The injustice of the situation has been frequently remarked upon, and, while Ireland are denied Test cricket, their best players will invariably be sought after by England. Justice of sorts comes through Morgan’s injury, which at least spares Ireland from being beaten by the bat of their own player.
Four years ago, much of Ireland’s strength stemmed from ‘imports’ – men who learned their cricket elsewhere, in Australia or South Africa, but, unable to make the grade there, exploited their Irish connections to forge an international career. While this remains prevalent today – though no more than it is of England – Ireland have a growing commitment to developing players within their own shores. Indeed, Joyce is adamant there is a far greater commitment to the sport now than when he played before his England days, saying, “The governments both north and south of the border have started to free up money to Cricket Ireland which is good because you can’t do much without the money.” And the return on this investment is a number of exciting young talents – all of whom have county contracts.
In addition to William Porterfield, the unobtrusively impressive captain, there is his opening partner Paul Stirling, a burly big-hitter of the old-school. Together, they added 80 in 11 overs against Australia last summer, a game Ireland came close to winning, and their left-right hand partnership is a real strength. Then there is Boyd Rankin, one of the stars of 2007, when he took 12 wickets in nine games. With prodigious pace and bounce generated from a 6ft 8in frame, there have already been rumours of the England vultures circling. Perhaps most exciting of all is George Dockrell. When aged only 17, the left-arm spinner claimed 3-16 against the West Indies in the World Twenty20 last year, and soon had experts praising the purity of his action, his parsimony, and pugnacity. On turning sub-continental wickets, expectations on him will be high.
When they last went to the World Cup, the talk was of Ireland learning from their experiences. But now Porterfield speaks buoyantly of their “great chance” of reaching the quarter-finals, which would mean winning at least three of their six games in a convoluted group stage. If they manageit, they will embarrass the ICC, who have outrageously agreed to limit the 2015 tournament to just 10 teams, thereby shutting the ‘minnows’ out. Ireland may well expose, once again, how undeserving they are of that description.