by Ed Leahy
Just over five years have passed since Ireland announced themselves onto cricket’s world stage, while also alerting the majority of the Irish public to the existence of a competitive national side.
That was the 2007 Cricket World Cup, where the Irish beat the mighty Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day to qualify for the second phase of the tournament, playing alongside the other superpowers of world cricket in the Super Eights.
Now the Ireland team have become regular competitors at the top table of world cricket and are about to embark on their fifth World Cup appearance.
The 2012 World Twenty20 is taking place in Sri Lanka and Ireland will again pit their wits against two of the best, as they share a group with Australia and the West Indies.
Twenty20 cricket is the shortest format of the game and this tournament is also a shortened tournament when compared to the One Day International World Cup.
So for Ireland to qualify for the second phase, they are likely to need at least one victory from their two group games.
First up for Phil Simmons’ Ireland is a clash with Australia on Wednesday, followed by their second game against the West Indies next Monday.
Australia and the West Indies go head to head on Saturday so Ireland will know what is required going into their final group game.
So what are Ireland’s chances of progressing beyond the group stages?
Well this short format of the game, where both sides only face twenty overs, and bowlers can bowl a maximum of four overs apiece, is such a quick-fire event that it can often generate shock results.
And the Ireland team have not travelled to make up the numbers in this tournament. In fact, there will be no side with more belief in themselves or none that will work harder in the field than the Irish.
Looking at their opponents, the Australians appear to be going through a transition period and have picked a squad with a mix of youth and experience.
The Aussies will be relying on experienced batsmen Mike Hussey Shane Watson and David Warner to put runs on the board, while they appear to struggling in the bowling department as they have gone back to 41-year-old Brad Hogg to add more spin to the attack.
The West Indies have, potentially, the best squad on paper with a range of world class players including Dwayne Brave, Chris Gayle, Darren Sammy, Kieron Pollard, Denesh Ramdin, Darren Bravo, Fidel Edwards and Ireland coach Phil Simmons’ nephew Lendl Simmons.
But the confidence in the Ireland camp could not be higher, following four wins out of four in their warm-up games in a two-week acclimatisation period in Sri Lanka, where the players are now up to speed with the slower spin-suited wickets and the humid conditions.
Speaking to RTÉ Sport ahead of the tournament, Ireland’s talismanic all-rounder Kevin O’Brien admitted that qualifying for the second phase of the tournament would be a tough task but not an impossible one.
“It’s not going to be easy. But you’ve got to enjoy it first and foremost, soak in the atmosphere and play with a smile on your face,” said an upbeat O’Brien.
“The Australians are still a top quality team. The two Husseys and Warner all have IPL (Indian Premier League) experience and their bowling is not too shabby either.
“So we’ll have to prepare well for that match and we’ll have to play well to beat them. But they will also have to prepare for us and they’ll certainly have to play well to beat us.”
O’Brien added: “If you look at the West Indies team they have a list of players with huge IPL experience, Bravo, Pollard and Gayle so that’s going to be stiff competition.
“But you never know. They are volatile and they are capable of crumbling under pressure. We almost beat them in India last year and we probably would have, had a few decisions gone our way.
“It’s going to be a good group, a very close group and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t go down to run rate.”
O’Brien was instrumental seeing Ireland over the line in Kingston to beat Pakistan, and now the big-hitting Irish veteran (he’s still only 28), knows that the focus will be on his batting should Ireland look to cause an upset.
But O’Brien will still look to play his own game and is confident that the strength of the Irish batting takes the pressure off his shoulders.
O’Brien said: “Everyone knows that we are a very talented side and we have some serious match winners in our team. We’ve got a strong line-up. You list the top six and it’s a fantastic batting line-up. And with Trent (Johnston) coming in at seven, we have plenty of depth.”
O’Brien will be looking to replicate his match-winning knock, where he scored the fastest ever World Cup century in the 2011 victory against England.
And despite the unfamiliar conditions in Sri Lanka, the Railway Union man is sticking to his tried and tested formula of free-flowing cricket.
“The wickets are a lot slower and will take a lot more spin than we are used to,” said O’Brien.
“I am at my best when I play free-flowing cricket but I will have to take my time and face a few balls to get used to the conditions. But if I restrict myself in the way I play, I’m not going to benefit the team in the long run.
“I’ve got to go out there and back my own ability and Phil (Simmons), William (Porterfield, captain) and the squad know what I can do and clear the ropes from ball one or two. That’s just the way I play.”
Follow Ireland’s progress at the World Twenty20 with RTÉ.ie’s live text commentary trackers for all of Ireland’s games in Sri Lanka.