Following their so-near-yet-so-close ODI series against Pakistan, Ireland now are set to face Australia ‘A’ in a four-day first class match from June 14-17 at Stormont. The ‘A’ team will have at least six players who are part of the Ashes squad, and will be led by the Australian vice captain Brad Haddin. While for the Australians, this will be an ideal preparation for the Ashes, Team Ireland will gain first-hand experience of playing some top-class international opposition in a four-day first-class match. Success in this encounter will surely go a long way in resulting in further clamour for Ireland’s Test match status.
Ireland named their 14-man squad for this vital game a day back, with the hard-hitting all-rounder Kevin O’Brien named captain since regular skipper William Porterfield is one of four players – others being George Dockrell, Ed Joyce and Niall O’Brien – who will miss out due to County commitments. Admittedly, the absence of as many as three first-choice top-order batsmen will be a concern against the likes of Peter Siddle and James Pattinson, and the in-form duo of Kevin O’Brien and Paul Stirling are expected to step up to the challenge. 22 year-old Paul Stirling has the penchant for big scores, and I foresee him to make substantial runs against Australia A. O’Brien, known to be a proud Irishman, will relish the task of captaincy, although whether he will curb his free-flowing style of batting remains to be seen.
An interesting selection to the squad is right-handed opening batsman John Anderson, who played a few times for KwaZulu-Natal as a 20 year-old in 2002-03, and was impressive for Ireland in the home series against South Africa A last season. Meanwhile, Dockrell’s replacement is 19-year old left arm spinner Scott Campbell, who is being spoken of highly by the coach Phil Simmons. Fast bowler Peter Connell makes a comeback, and so does Phil Eaglestone. Stuart Poynter, younger brother of Irish international Andrew Poynter, may debut as a wicketkeeper. Besides Kevin O’Brien and Stirling, seasoned pros like Trent Johnston, John Mooney and Andrew White will form the fulcrum of the team.
The tourists, led by Haddin, boast of a pace bowling attack that can match the best in the world. The quartet of Siddle, Pattinson, Jackson Bird and Ryan Harris are sure to test the relatively inexperienced Irishmen, with Pattinson in particular coming off an outstanding match against Scotland last week, where he had match figures of 7/37 as Australia A romped home by 360 runs. Adding to the bowling firepower will be Nathan Lyon, who is Australia’s premier spinner. Also, a point of interest will be Pakistan-born leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed’s late inclusion into the team after fast-tracking his Australian citizenship and subsequently his eligibility to play for the Australians. The batting looks a bit weak, but here too there are Test players like Haddin, Usman Khawaja and Moises Henriques who are very capable batsmen.
The clear favourites on paper are Australia A, especially since Ireland are a bit depleted. But given their spirit and pugnacious style of cricket, the hosts are likely to be more than a match. In a pleasing gesture, entry to this match is free for all four days. For Ireland, this is another golden chance to display their wares, more so as this time they have to cope with the absence of several key players. At the same time, it will be a massive opportunity for the Irish youngsters to make a mark on the first-class circuit.
For the record, the only other time Australia A has played Ireland in a first-class match was a three-day game at Rathmines, Dublin in 1998 where interestingly, a certain Steve Waugh turned out for the Irish. Ed Joyce was also part of that side, which lost by 150 runs.
How Ireland perform in this match will certainly show where they stand as an international team in their quest for Test match status.And though difficult, a result opposite that of 15 years ago will be a great reason for the Blarney Army to hit the pubs. Here’s hoping that the notorious Belfast rain does not play spoilsport during this rare first-class game.