x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

World Twenty20: Ireland and Afghanistan like it short and sweet

Both teams have made significant improvements and could beat even the best sides in Twenty20 cricket, writes Paul Radley.

Niall O'Brien, left, of Ireland, watches as Afghanistan's Asghar Stanikzai plays in a warm-up match two years ago. Both sides have aggressive players capable of beating bigger teams in Twenty20 cricket. Indranil Muherjee / AFP
Niall O'Brien, left, of Ireland, watches as Afghanistan's Asghar Stanikzai plays in a warm-up match two years ago. Both sides have aggressive players capable of beating bigger teams in Twenty20 cricket. Indranil Muherjee / AFP

International cricket's odd couple make their respective bows at the World Twenty20 tomorrow, when Afghanistan's opener against India follows Ireland versus Australia in Colombo.

These two nations, so dissimilar in their socio-economic make up, have a shared ideal when it comes to cricket. Namely, to be noticed.

Ireland have already achieved that, to a point. This is their fifth appearance at a global competition. They are part of the furniture now, mainly because they have regularly beaten leading nations when they have played at major events.

Afghanistan are a little way behind them on the pathway towards acceptance.

The fact this is just their second major tournament – after the last World Twenty20 in the Caribbean – means they are easily damned as "enthusiastic newcomers". At least beyond their borders, anyway.

"The people [in Afghanistan] want us to win everything in the World Cup, because people can't understand cricket," Mohammed Shahzad, the team's charismatic wicketkeeper, was quoted as saying this week.

"Afghanistan's cricketers are a living national treasure," said Hamid Shinwari, the chief executive of Afghan cricket.

While the players of Afghanistan and Ireland may have contrasting profiles in their homeland, there are a variety of similarities which bind them.

Given that neither nation can make an infallible case to be granted Test cricket, they are currently operating in a strata all their own – a two-nation division between the elite and the rest.

As such, each has been responsible for raising the standard of the other in recent years, as evidenced in Ireland's rousing win in the final of the World Twenty20 qualifying tournament over the Afghans in Dubai this year.

According to some, it was the best quality international cricket match not involving a side from the Test elite ever played.

"It was probably the highest standard of cricket in a match outside of Full Member countries that there has ever been - and by a significant margin, in my view," said Tim Anderson, the ICC global development manager.

"When they play each other, they play hard to beat each other and that raises the standard of those two countries."

In Ireland, the sport has flourished in spite of their nearest neighbours. In Afghanistan, it is because of it.

Afghan cricket first took root when refugees returned from Pakistan, having learnt a new sport while in exile. They are grateful to Pakistan for it.

Ireland, meanwhile, still suffer from a talent drain to England. For all the extra opportunities the ICC have afforded the emerging nations, in terms of funding and game time against the elite, it is a major sticking point which still needs to be addressed.

Ireland's batting resources at the World Twenty20 are as powerful as it gets outside of the Test sphere. But how good would it be if Eoin Morgan was still in the line-up?

Boyd Rankin, their leading strike bowler, plans to retire from the Irish scene after this tournament, as he has "genuine ambitions to play Test cricket" with England. Paul Stirling, meanwhile, is getting too good for his country's own good, as well. England could really do with his firepower at the top of their order.

They are not averse to a good import and, for all he wishes to stay with the country of his birth, the lure of the extra money on offer by opting for England will surely become too much at some point.

The morality of picking up the best available foreign-born talent is not exclusively an English issue. South Africa picked Imran Tahir as soon as he became eligible.

Ireland's rise has been aided by a variety of Australian and South African-born players over the years, too.

Also, Hamish Marshall renounced his international career with New Zealand to move to England, play county cricket for Gloucestershire, and then subsequently sought to qualify for Ireland.

In a Morgan-less batting line-up, he would undoubtedly boost the Ireland side. However, Cricket Ireland cannot afford to compensate the funds due to his county side as – until he plays for Ireland – Marshall also nominally qualifies for England.

No such problems have existed so far on that theme for Afghanistan, but their players could well find themselves suitors abroad if they prove their worth against India tomorrow. A Twenty20 international versus India is as much an advert as an international match.

The players know that one match-defining innings, or parsimonious spell of bowling, could be a ticket to Indian Premier League riches. Going by their performances in two one-day internationals against Pakistan and Australia so far, the Afghan players are more than capable of catching the eye.

"When they hit the ball in Sharjah [last month], they hit it a lot cleaner than the Australians did," said Anderson, who is a former Australian Under 19 batsman himself.

"They are strong, powerful batsmen, they have aggressive bowlers and good spinners and they field well.

"Twenty20 is better suited for them to knock off one of the big boys, but that is not to say they couldn't do the same in 50-over cricket as well."

pradley@thenational.ae

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