Ireland hunting plate final at business end of U19 World Cup

Head coach Johnston believes his side have risen above new challenges to get this far

The cricket U19 World Cup remarkable in many ways. Akin to the U20 Six Nations, it is one of the few underage tournaments that garners the levels of global attention that it does.

It is a significant step up for the teenagers involved. Especially in Ireland’s case, players have to go from limited game time at club grounds to a long slog of a tournament played at international stadiums in front of the Sky Sports cameras.

Now at the business end of the tournament, wins over Uganda and Canada have put Ireland in a plate semi-final against Zimbabwe on Saturday in Trinidad. (1pm start Irish time, live on Sky Sports Cricket YouTube channel).

The entire dynamic of Ireland's World Cup experience is going to teach head coach Peter Johnston and his staff a lot about this group's ability to step up into the senior ranks. After being drawn in a difficult group against South Africa and India, plate success was always going to be a main goal.

“It’s a fantastic experience and a great learning curve for the guys” explains Johnston. “At this level it comes down to the mental side of the game and the ability to stay in the moment and try and shut out the outside noise and play the game. In a nutshell that is what you’re looking for, guys that can thrive in those pressure situations and play their best game.

“The whole experience, the way the ICC set it up, everything from training facilities to police escorts - you get off the plane and you don’t go through normal security, you’re straight onto a bus; you’re playing at international world class stadiums; the added media coverage, Sky Sports cameras - everything about it mirrors international cricket.”

One player who certainly has impressed despite all these novel challenges is Reuben Wilson. Aged just 15, the YMCA seamer has taken five wickets in two matches so far - his spell of 3-18 instrumental in the win over Canada that earned a semi-final spot.

Given his age, Wilson can expect to make the squad for future iterations of this tournament. Current Ireland internationals Harry Tector and Josh Little were the last Ireland players to feature at multiple U19 World Cups.

“Reuben has a smooth run up, a repeatable action” explains Johnston. “He hits the deck hard, gets some swing and movement, so he could challenge the best batters in the world on any day - and that’s really pleasing as he’s only 15, and we’ll have to manage him carefully, but he’s been brilliant this tour. He’s learning a lot and improving all the time, so we’re pleased how he’s going and hopefully his good form can continue tomorrow.”

It is worth remembering that Wilson took five wickets against this same Zimbabwe squad earlier this month in a warmup game. Ireland won that clash, but lost that series 3-1, making the form book a tricky indicator of Saturday’s events.

Needless to say Johnston is confident his side is prepared to secure the win that would ensure both a plate final place and qualification for the 2024 World Cup: “The message to the squad going into the Zimbabwe game is to believe, first and foremost.

“We played a series against them there a few weeks back in Barbados and we won the last game comfortably.

“I think we have to carry that forward, just like we carry forward the win against Canada, so we have to go into the game with confidence - we know they’re a good side and we’ll have to play our best cricket to win the game.

“It’s been a long tour - the Covid restrictions have made it even tougher - but the boys are digging deep now to find that resolve and resilience to keep pushing through. If we can do that, and stay together as a team, then we have a good chance of going all the way in the plate.”