Tim Wigmore sits down with Paul Stirling, one of Irish cricket’s rising stars
“He plays proper cricketing shots and you enjoy it as a spectator. Even I enjoyed every bit of it because he can hit the ball far; he has got good footwork…he’s not scared of playing shots against any bowler which is brilliant.”
Those were the words of Pakistan coach Waqar Younis after Paul Stirling’s 109 against his side in May. That innings was one of three centuries Stirling has scored in his last six ODIs, showing he is a player of rare timing and power, particularly ruthless against anything short. After, in his own words, “under performing” at the World Cup, when he made only 56 runs in his first five innings until scoring a century against Netherlands in the final game, Stirling has “definitely improved” since. As 535 runs in 12 matches for Middlesex in the CB40 this season suggests, he has addressed elements of his technique and shot selection without compromising his innate explosiveness.
Stirling was 16 when Ireland defeated Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 2007 World Cup. For people like him and left-arm spinner George Dockrell (a year younger), Ireland’s performances “clarified that cricket was something to make a career from”; before, despite Ed Joyce’s success, it had not really been considered something Irish people did professionally. Stirling, the embodiment of the post-2007 generation of Irish cricketers, “owe(s) a lot of thanks to the guys who a put a performance in the West Indies.” Their display helped the sport “become a hell of a lot more popular…it was really something special.”
Ireland’s success since then has made it much easier for those following to fulfil their potential. Stirling emphasises how he has felt Irish cricket become markedly more professional even during his short career, as playing numbers and government funding have “grown year on year”. The benefits for Stirling have been tangible. His rise has been exactly in accordance with the route Cricket Ireland envisages from the club side to the full national team. Spotted at a young age, Stirling progressed through all the Irish age-group sides, often playing alongside players several years older, and was amongst the first generation of Irish cricketers to receive a central contract, something he describes as “a massive thing”. In late 2009, he earned a county contract with Middlesex. But, unlike previous players Middlesex have signed from Ireland, Stirling’s contract stipulates that Ireland will always get first call on his services: his county commitments fit round his international ones, rather than visa versa.
When talking to any Irish cricketer, it’s impossible to avoid the subjects of England and Test cricket. Stirling makes it plain the subject bores him: the prospect of playing for England is “something I don’t think about really…I have no opinion on it. It definitely doesn’t come up in our dressing room … as a group of players we don’t chat about it”. Quizzed about Morgan captaining England against Ireland, he refuses to criticise his countryman: “It shows just what you can do if you play well and go up a level. Fair play to him, he’s done exactly what he wanted to do.” But Stirling does say Ireland can “hopefully” play Tests in the next decade or so. And on the subject of what Irish cricket needs he is clear: “We deserve more games against the top sides. To improve we have to be playing more and more.”
Unsurprisingly, he is less averse to talking about England when it concerns that barmy night in Bangalore: “The England game was a special game. I think everyone in the Ireland set up would tell you that was definitely one of the best days of our lives.”