A few days before the 2015 World Cup was due to start, ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson said that the move to reduce further editions of the tournament to ten teams, and thereby make it far more difficult for associate teams to qualify, was made to ensure that the World Cup was competitive. By implication, the associates aren’t good enough to play with the big boys, so they shouldn’t be allowed to.
Five games in, and the most competitive game so far was won in thrilling fashion by an associate nation, against one of the full members expected to qualify automatically for the 2019 edition. After England, Sri Lanka and Pakistan had been thumped resoundingly by better sides, Zimbabwe showed tremendous potential in their game against South Africa. Ireland, however, went one better, overturning the West Indies’ 305 with four wickets and four overs remaining.
The West Indies were reduced to 87-5 just before the halfway stage, but a disciplined and aggressive partnership between Darren Sammy and Lendl Simmons, and then a brutal cameo from Andre Russell, took them to 305. The wicket was flat, and the boundaries short, but Ireland had still let their opponents off the hook in a big way.
Ireland lacked pace at the death, and an injury to John Mooney made matters even worse. Dockrell and McBrine choked the West Indies in the middle, but when the boundaries flowed in the final overs, it looked as if the greater experience of the Test-playing side would show through, normal service would resume, and the associate would be vanquished.
It was not to be the case. Ireland’s openers were solid without being defensive, and they were 61-0 after the powerplay. Porterfield departed when Chris Gayle was brought on (the West Indies didn’t pick a frontline spinner for this match, certainly a mistake with hindsight), but Stirling and Ed Joyce kept up the pace. At the 25 over mark, they were ahead of the run rate with only one wicket lost.
Paul Stirling was hit on the helmet by a bouncer, before hitting the next short ball for six. He pulled up with a hamstring problem around halfway through the innings, but fought on to record a fine 92. It didn’t have the dramatic power or the cathartic century celebration that Kevin O’Brien’s 113 against England in 2011 had, but in many respects, the knock was O’Brien’s equal. After Stirling departed, they could have wobbled and collapsed, and Dave Richardson could have breathed easily once again. But Niall O’Brien joined Ed Joyce at the crease, and together they saw Ireland into a commanding position. When Joyce departed, they needed just 33 from 64 deliveries. A wobble did then follow in the lower-middle order, and for a horrible moment Ireland seemed in danger of choking, but O’Brien and Mooney showed great composure in seeing their side over the line with over four overs left.
Ed Joyce, one England discard who returned to the Ireland fold, showed his timeless class in marshalling the chase. He was fluent and mature, and brought every ounce of his extensive county experience to bear on a majestic 84. If he retires from first-class cricket before Ireland are awarded Test status (their earliest opportunity will be the proposed 2019 Test challenge), then Ed Joyce will be remembered as one of the most talented victims of the absurd and irrational obsession with status, and the inexcusable (though comprehensible) desire for power and money that plagues the powers-that-be in world cricket.
Niall O’Brien brought up his fifty by smoking Windies captain Jason Holder over long-off for four. It summed up Ireland’s approach neatly; they were not merry have-a-go sloggers who got lucky, they were thoroughly modern batsmen taking every opportunity to score runs that presented itself. Niall’s unbeaten 79 was not an act of individual brilliance like Kevin’s 113 in Bangalore, but a fine contribution to a remarkable team effort.
One of the greatest aspects of Ireland’s victory is that it undermined every assumption than the cricketing elite holds about associate upsets. There was nothing “plucky” about it. Yes, they gave away more runs than they wanted. But their top order contributed big scores, laid a platform, and ultimately won the game. It was a thoroughly professional performance from a thoroughly professional team. Several of the top sides could learn a thing or two from Ireland’s example.
There were, of course, excuses for the West Indies. Dwayne Bravo, Sunil Narine and Kieron Pollard could have made the difference, and if Sammy had been fully fit, he might have bowled better. But Ireland were without Eoin Morgan, Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin, and John Mooney went down with cramp. Ireland could be serious contenders in all forms of international cricket with a full-strength squad.
Ireland have now beaten full member nations at the last three World Cups. Unless West Indies pull off an unlikely win against South Africa, India or Pakistan, or if Ireland fail to get past Zimbabwe and the UAE, they may have sent a major full member on the plane home for the second time in three tournaments. If Ireland had the funding and opportunities that Bangladesh have enjoyed in their 15 years of almost unmitigated failure, who knows what they might be capable of achieving?
After the performances they have produced, Ireland should not have to continually be excusing their presence. The West Indies have Test status in perpetuity, as do Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, no matter how badly they play. The debates about the right of associates to compete in the World Cup are disrespectful, ignorant, and, as Ireland have demonstrated, utterly wrong.
It is still far from certain that an associate will feature in the quarter-final stage of this World Cup, but Ireland have taken a significant stride towards the next round. If they succeed, it would be the ultimate denouncement of the idea that they and the other associates are not competitive members of the international cricketing community. The ten-team World Cup format is utterly untenable after this. The World Cup is not only richer and more colourful with the associate nations in it; it is also more competitive, because Ireland are one of the best teams in the world.