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Andrew Balbirnie: “We need the guys to be playing consistent and confident cricket”

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Cricket is a hard sell in the United States despite best attempts, not just for the bigger sports it competes with during Christmas, be it the NFL or basketball, but also for the constant comparisons with baseball. There are fewer jokes Americans make about cricket being baseball’s parody game now but then it’s not everyday Andrew Balbirnie’s team is mistaken to be a soccer team.  

“We had some interesting conversations with locals here when we were in our kits,” explained Balbirnie on the eve of the series against the USA. “We are a soccer team is usually what people think we are but when you try to explain you’re a cricket team, it’s a risky enough route to go down because then you’re making comparisons to baseball.”

Ireland are in the east coast of United States, in sunny yet occasionally wet Florida, for a historic series against the hosts that comprises of two T20 Internationals and three ODIs – the first involving the hosts and a Test playing nation – before flying to the Caribbean to play three ODIs and a one-off T20I.

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Even then, cricket was far from being on the mind of Ireland skipper Balbirnie as they waited to board their flight to Florida last week. Barry McCarthy and George Dockrell tested positive during the pre-series departure Covid tests with assistant coach Gary Wilson receiving a false positive report and fast bowler Craig Young identified as a close contact of a positive case. Harry Tector and Gareth Delany are undergoing a 10-day isolation period after they tested positive having linked up with the squad in Florida post their US T20 Open commitments. However, all of them will be available for selection at some stage of the tour to the USA and West Indies.

The hosts have had their share of covid casualties too with Steven Taylor, Aaron Jones, their vice-captain, Jaskaran Malhotra and Karima Gore, all testing positive, leaving them a severely depleted squad shorn of vast International experience.

Despite the early setbacks, Balbirnie is under no qualms what the next week brings them. Disappointment over the defeat against Namibia at the T20 World Cup, which eventually ended Ireland’s campaign without making it to the Super 12s, has been consigned to history with games against USA and West Indies over the course of a month an opportunity to plot their way back into the contention of next year’s World Cup.

“We’re really excited. We can’t hide away from the fact that we were really disappointed after the T20 World Cup but this is a chance to go out there play with a bit of freedom and give the guys some confidence to express themselves.

“It’s easy to say but we have all got to go out and do it once we get over that line but I have seen lots of good stuff from the guys in the short time we have been here. Guys are enjoying themselves and there’s a bit of buzz around. The fact that we are able to go out to shops and restaurants has had a knock-on effect on how’s everyone feeling,” he said. 

One of the glaring blemishes and a key missing link for Ireland in T20s has been the middle order’s ineptitude to string together effective partnerships and provide the six-hitting fire power at the death. It prompted the recall of Shane Getkate and William McClintock, both of whom were excluded from Ireland’s 15-man squad for the T20 World Cup.

Getkate had a productive series with the ball against Zimbabwe and struck runs at a healthy strike rate of 148.62 in the Inter-Provincial T20 tournament this year. Meanwhile, McClintock, who made his T20I debut against Zimbabwe, is known for his six-hitting ability having struck the joint highest sixes (9) in IPT20 this year alongside Neil Rock and Peter Moor and could come into the middle order.

“I sat down with Graham Ford (former Head Coach) after the World Cup to look at the areas where we stumbled,” Balbirnie said. “It didn’t take a lot of time to work out where we lost the last game. We had a brilliant start and we didn’t capitalise on that. Our boundary count hasn’t been good enough or consistent enough and that is something we need to address. We have pocked guys like Shane Getkate and William McClintock to potentially come in and do that job in the middle order. Shane’s gonna get a go at No. 5 tomorrow. In the last few days, he has been hitting the ball as clean as anyone. 

“There won’t be any backlash from us if it doesn’t work out. They’re clearly in the team to hit boundaries, that’s what we want them to do, we don’t want them to play any other role. From what we have seen over the last few days, I think they can really fit the bill. It’s all well and good when you can do it in training but you need to produce the goods in games on a consistent basis so hopefully these games can give them that confidence.”

Ireland’s shock exit from the T20 World Cup led to calls to rejig the squad composition with selectors opting to drop Kevin O’Brien and Harry Tector from the T20 squad. As a result, Balbirnie will open alongside Paul Stirling with Shane Getkate slotted in at No. 5. Balbirnie insists it’s not so much the squad make-up that needs a rethink as aligning their approach with the rigours of pressure situations does and believes it will be a direct byproduct of consistent cricket in the lead-up to the T20 World Cup Qualifiers in February in Oman. 

“We have spoken to the guys individually about their roles and what we want from them. Naturally, they are here for a short time and our main objective is to qualify for the next World Cup and our focus is towards that. We need the guys to be playing consistent and confident cricket because the qualifiers will come thick and fast so we need them to be in good head spaces for those big games. We have got potentially six games before the qualifier to hopefully get something going and going forward I think that’s going to be our best approach.”

And hopefully, along the way, they can impact the game in the United States with the locals learning a thing or two about the sport from players in football kits playing a game akin to baseball.

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