Odran Flynn (CricketEurope)
This weekend was the final opportunity for players to influence the Ireland selectors before the T20I squads to face South Africa and Zimbabwe are named.
All four sides have played six matches and remarkably there was little disruption from the weather. If North-West Warriors had beaten Leinster Lightning yesterday, and after the first innings that looked highly likely, then the remaining Festival in September would almost certainly have seen the Warriors romp to the title.
Surprisingly, given the objective of redistributing the players was to level the playing field, there were very few really close matches with Warriors being on the right side of the two closest, winning by one run and by one wicket. The team spirit and greater sense of adventure instigated by Gary Wilson is clearly paying dividends.
Munster Reds did exceptionally well to win two matches despite losing their three Ireland internationals through injury. They have been very enthusiastic with good skill levels and have something of a cult figure in Fionn Hand who has given his utmost in all three disciplines and with a fair degree of success.
Lightning have clearly suffered from losing some players and their seemingly annual unfettered march to the title has hit a major speed ramp in the road. It has forced them to play a few inexperienced players and as, yet they have not come through as quickly as they would have hoped.
Northern Knights have a very strong line-up on paper but have not always produced their best on the pitch. They will be pleased that they could win games without any meaningful contributions from Paul Stirling, but they have been prone to batting collapses which has cost them match points. It has not helped that their bowling star of the IP50 series, Graham McCarter, has failed to reproduce that form in the 20 over version while David Delany needs a lot more work to get him back to his previous level before his serious injury.
The overriding priority from this tournament is to identify which players can best represent Ireland in July and August prior to the World T20I Cup in October. When Ireland face up to South Africa on 19th July it will be the first T20I that they have played since March 2020 when Kevin O’Brien smashed the last ball of Rashid Khan’s super over for six. This was their first victory over their closest rivals since the World T20I Qualifier final in Abu Dhabi in November 2013 and broke a sequence of twelve straight defeats to Afghanistan since that evening in the UAE.
Of the team that won that match last year only the injured Gareth Delany is unavailable. The loss of Delany from T20I’s is unfortunate as in that last win he lost out for man of the match to O’Brien purely as a result of that match winning stroke. Delany had top scored for Ireland with 37 off 29 balls and taken 2-21 from his four overs.
However, whether all the other ten make the upcoming squad is the big question and the only real answers is in the performances in this tournament. Apart from O’Brien the other nine members of that side were Stirling, Andrew Balbirnie, Harry Tector, Lorcan Tucker, Shane Getkate, Simi Singh, Barry McCarthy, Craig Young and Josh Little.
Since O’Brien was belatedly moved to open alongside Stirling in January 2019 Ireland’s fortunes at the top of the order have improved out of all recognition as what was often a turgid powerplay regularly became a vibrant partnership that set the opposition back on their heels. The extent of their success was such that Stirling with 748 runs and O’Brien with 729 are first and second for most runs scored in a calendar year in T20I’s and Balbirnie is in seventh place with 601 runs which probably came about by being able to come in without the pressure of an early wicket and a stagnant run rate.
Since that stellar year of 2019 Ireland have been only able to play six further T20I’s because of Covid 19. Therefore, these IPT20 games are the only real reliable guides to current form in this format. The problem is that several of the leading performers over the past month are not yet eligible to play for Ireland.
PJ Moor topped both the runs aggregate and batting averages (Little had a better average, but his 44 runs gave him the same average as he was only dismissed once). Moor will become an Ireland qualified player in October 2022. Matt Ford, Murray Commins and Luke Georgeson have also impressed with the bat too, but Commins is ineligible and Georgeson’s decision to accept a Wellington contract would indicate his ambitions are at home. There was talk he had been approached about inclusion in the squad for South Africa but declined at this stage.
One of the key factors in a successful T20I career is the batters strike rate with the obvious proviso that they get a reasonable number of runs. Eleven batsmen scored at least 100 runs and had a strike rate of at least 130. Three of those were Moor, Matt Ford and Commins so eight Ireland qualified players hit that mark. Top of the list was Tucker with a strike rate (S/R) of 153.08, followed by Getkate, Jeremy Lawlor, William Porterfield, Neil Rock, Stephen Doheny, George Dockrell and Singh.
And what of the record breakers of 2019. Stirling and O’Brien both managed just 47 runs with Stirling batting three times while the Railway Union man had six knocks. While Stirling’s runs came at a S/R of 167.85, O’Brien could only manage a S/R of 77.04 and a paltry average of 7.83. Given that O’Brien has stepped away from ODI cricket and there are no Test Matches for the foreseeable future he will be determined to keep his place in this side. He deserves that opportunity, certainly for the matches this summer but he will have to start scoring runs soon. I would have no concerns about Stirling as after his stellar performances over the past couple of years in white ball cricket it was inevitable that he would fall away for a while, but the adrenalin rush of top-class cricket will assuredly see him back to his best.
Other than those mentioned above the batsman who caught the eye was William McClintock whose aggregate of 161 runs was bettered only by Moor and Singh. It is probably surprising that his S/R was not higher that 128.8 but he is now a much more discerning and disciplined batsman who can launch into attack mode when it is necessary with no one getting more than his nine maximums.
On the bowling front Ben White got 15 wickets, three more than Young and four ahead of Little. His move north has been an unqualified success in both white ball formats and there would be no justification for not including him in the squad. His economy rate of 7.59 is more than acceptable for a wrist spinner who takes so many wickets. His S/R is a phenomenal 8.8 which is 0.8 ahead of second place Georgeson with no one else in double figures.
The Ireland pace bowlers, Young, Little and McCarthy all continued to show that they are still the key operators up front as they got 12, 11 and 9 wickets respectively with Little at 5.63 having the best economy rate of anyone bowling more than three overs. Mark Adair also showed that he was returning to his best form with 7 wickets at a S/R of 18.8 although he would have expected more than 75 runs with the bat.
The spin options other than White were led by Singh whose 9 wickets came at an E/R of 6.91 with his bowling partner Andy McBrine picking up 6 wickets with an E/R of 6.27. Graham Kennedy proved that his transition from medium pace to slow left arm was a worthwhile move as his 7 wickets came at a S/R of 10.2 and an E/R of 7.66.
Of the Ireland side than beat Afghanistan in March 2020 the only ones who are not mentioned above are Andrew Balbirnie and Harry Tector. Balbirnie had an ok campaign with 116 runs at a S/R of 127.47. Tector however just managed 61 runs in his six knocks and is under pressure but that half century against Netherlands in the final ODI should boost his confidence when he next wears the green shirt. The big question is whether the IP programme is at a high enough standard to transition players from this level to full scale T20I’s.
Aside from the contributions of some of the players who are in the process of qualifying, and few appear to be much if any better than the home-grown players, it is largely the same names to the fore. The redistribution of the players across four teams has improved the quality but if you are not scoring runs against mostly club bowlers then the sight of Rabada, Nortje and Ngidi running in to hurl down 90 mph missiles is a daunting prospect.
The standard seems good in isolation but if it can hold up against stronger players will only be ascertained in a few weeks’ time. The saving grace is that unlike the World Super League ODI games there is no real consequence to lack of success other than a question of confidence.
These upcoming games must be used to ensure that the squad travelling to the UAE in October is a true reflection of the form in the eight T20I’s over the next few weeks. I suspect that the team that defeated Afghanistan will all be retained except for the injured Delany.
If it is a 15-man squad then White, McClintock, McBrine, Adair and Dockrell should be the front runners although Lawlor and Porterfield will feel that they have also made a case for inclusion.
I have not considered Curtis Campher for the South Africa matches as he missed most of the tournament through injury and he has yet to play a T20I. Hopefully, there is enough quality to compete with South Africa and it should be more than enough to take the series against Zimbabwe.