Ireland's rapid rise in cricket is testimony to the work that's gone into the development of the game at the grassroots. The establishment of a league structure has improved the standard of the game there. The ICC World Twenty20 2014 was an opportunity to further establish its rising stock, but that dream crashed to a premature end when it was blown away by the Netherlands in the qualifiers last week.
Now, it’s up to the women to keep the flag flying, with the team gearing up for its maiden ICC Women's World Twenty20 appearance – against New Zealand, at the Sylhet Divisional Stadium on Tuesday (March 25).
The road to the tournament has been an eventful one for the Ireland Women. It pipped the Netherlands Women by two runs in the third place playoffs at the qualifiers in June 2013 to earn a well-deserved place in the World T20.
Trent Johnston, the former captain, is easily the most recognisable face at training. Johnston took over as head coach of the women's team following his retirement in December, and the improvement since then has already made teams sit up and take notice. It beat Pakistan in a Twenty20 International in Qatar in January, and was close to toppling South Africa.
Leading the team is Isobel Joyce, sister of Ed Joyce, the Ireland batsman. Isobel, along with Cecelia, her twin, will lead the Irish charge. Isobel has been around for a long time now – in 2000, at 17, she represented Ireland at the Women's World Cup in New Zealand. In the same year, she played a Test against Pakistan – Ireland's only Test match till date – and her experience will be invaluable to a young group hungry to perform on the big stage.
Ireland lost both its warm-up fixtures, but displayed promising signs with the bat. It lost by 49 runs in the first game against Sri Lanka, but managed to give India a scare before falling short by 26 runs. The team management can take heart from the form displayed by Clare Shillington, the opener, who made a brisk 47 in that game.
The one player who has caught everyone's eye though is Lucy O’Reilly, the all-rounder. All of 14, O'Reilly became the second youngest women's cricketer to play international cricket when she represented Ireland in the World T20 qualifiers in June last year. While the squad is brimming with talent, its inexperience could go against it when it boils down to a crunch situation.
Ireland's opponent New Zealand is a formidable unit. Suzie Bates, the captain, described the win against Australia, the defending champions, as the biggest of the competition and that the remaining group games provided the team an opportunity to express itself.
The batting was patchy but the bowlers came to the party by defending a modest total on Sunday (Match 23). "I thought it was an incredible effort to defend that score against the defending champions," she said. "We now have an opportunity to go out there and play a brand of cricket we're known for."
Sophie Devine, the hard-hitting all-rounder, has recovered from a minor illness and will be available for selection, but may have to wait before she gets a look in. "It's tough to change a winning combination," Bates said. "(It) will be a tough decision for us to make, she obviously adds a lot of firepower to our batting, but we'll see."
It's a quandary New Zealand wouldn't mind, as it indicates a healthy competition for places within the team. It has underachieved at global events in the recent past, but a second win against Ireland would go a long way in taking its first steps towards aiming for a maiden World T20 title.
Ireland: Laura Delany, Emma Flanagan, Isobel Joyce (capt), Mary Waldron (wk) Amy Kenealy, Jennifer Gray, Cecelia Joyce, Louise McCarthy, Kate McKenna, Lucy O’Reilly, Eimear Richardson, Rebecca Rolfe, Melissa Scott-Hayward, Clare Shillington, Elena Tice.
New Zealand: Suzie Bates (capt), Sarah McGlashan, Frances Mackay, Katey Martin, Nicola Browne, Samantha Curtis, Sophie Devine, Rachel Priest (wk) Maddy Green, Holly Huddleston, Hayley Jensen, Felicity Leydon-Davis, Morna Neilson, Katie Perkins.