Ireland set for Cricket World Cup royal rumble in South Africa
10 teams scrapping for two places at 2019 tournament, including the West Indies
William Porterfield tries to run out Darren Sammy during Ireland’s 2015 Cricket World Cup clash with the West Indies. Photograph: Chris Symes/Inpho
On Thursday, Ireland play a Northerns/Easterns XI in Pretoria. This is the opening skirmish in a battle of the utmost importance, with qualification for next year’s World Cup at stake, the decision to shrink the tournament to just 10 participants about to yield its first significant victims.
There were 12 teams in 1996 and 1999, 14 in 2003, 16 in 2007 and 14 again in 2011. Before that event the decision was made to reduce the 2015 field to 10, a move derided by the then Ireland captain William Porterfield as “an absolute joke” and “an absolute disgrace”. The ICC was swiftly convinced to change its mind, but for next year’s World Cup in England the guillotine has fallen.
Next month 10 sides will convene in Zimbabwe to battle it out for two remaining places. West Indies, twice champions, will be joined by Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea and the two finalists from the ICC World Cricket League Division Two, currently being contested in Namibia.
“It’s massive for us, but every other country will be saying the same thing,” says the Irish bowler Barry McCarthy. “It’s not ideal there’s only 10 teams. There’s going to be three or four teams that end up feeling hard done by – potentially the West Indies may not qualify for a World Cup, and they’ll certainly feel they should be there. It would be massive for the sport and for the country if we qualify, and we’re not thinking about not qualifying. It’s about winning the qualifiers, and the next part of it please God will be competing in the World Cup.
“There’s 10 teams fighting for two places and the way it’s laid out everyone has the opportunity to qualify. We know it’s going to be very difficult but we’re not really leaving anything to chance. The whole objective of everything we’ve done in the last six months has been to qualify. We feel we’re doing everything right, and if we keep playing the cricket we’ve been playing we’ve got a great chance of putting our names up there. We’re going to have to be on our game for every game, not just against the big dogs. We’re going there to win the tournament, not just to qualify. To win every single game we play. We feel we can beat anyone on our day but it’s not going to be easy – lots of other teams will be thinking exactly the same thing.”
Ireland arrived in South Africa last Friday, for an extended period of pre-tournament preparations that will include four warm-up matches, in good spirits: they have won their last six games, in the process winning a three-match series against Afghanistan in December, and a tri-nations tournament also involving Scotland and the United Arab Emirates in Dubai last month. The former Somerset left-arm spinner George Dockrell was one of the star performers in Afghanistan, taking four wickets as the hosts were bowled out for 177 in the deciding match, a total that Ireland knocked off with five wickets and 12 overs to spare.
“It’s great to be part of a winning team, and a team in a pretty good place at the moment,” he says. “We’ve got four weeks to make sure we’re confident and happy with all aspects of the game before we get into the qualifiers. There is expectation on us, but year on year, every World Cup we’ve been to, that expectation has just seemed to build. We used to thrive on the underdog tag, but the more you perform, people start to see you in a different way. It adds new challenges, but it’s what you want. You want to play against teams that see you as equal. That’s why qualification would be so important for us and Irish cricket.
“Almost any team in the qualifiers will feel they have a chance of getting through. Some of the teams that are there – West Indies, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, ourselves, the Dutch – will feel they can beat anyone on their day. It’s going to make for a fantastic tournament, a really good one to watch, but we want to be one of those two teams. It’ll be a hugely competitive month of cricket. I’m looking forward to the challenge, how tough it’s going to be. You want to be in this position, playing against good opposition, and with a place in a World Cup in England at stake, there’s nothing more you can ask for in terms of incentive.”
This is a historic period for Ireland who, having been awarded Test status last June, play their first Test match against Pakistan at Malahide in May, before India arrive for two Twenty20 internationals the following month. “It’s going to be a huge year for us,” says Dockrell. “We’ll be taking it step by step. I know it’s a cliché but that’s because it’s true. At the moment we’re completely focused on the 50-over game, and once the qualifiers have finished we’ll start thinking about the Test. There’s extremely exciting things to come in three different formats, and if we can make it to the World Cup it would make this a great period for Irish cricket.”