Ireland game is no joke for Australia
Ireland's cricketers have never been slow to see the funny side of life, but the one about them being higher than Australia in the ICC Twenty20 rankings is perhaps a dangerous example of taking a gag too far. The way the Australian batsmen were thudding sixes against the roof of the clubhouse at Colts Cricket Club, scaring the crows and showering the tables with rust, they cannot produce the sort of victory to force a change of subject soon enough.
"I haven't read a lot about it… I heard that we went above them for a while," said William Porterfield, Ireland's captain, successfully keeping a straight face as if rankings were the last thing on his mind. Australia, as it happens, are now ranked ninth to Ireland's tenth, but when you have a proud history like Australia's that is not the sort of overtaking you boast about.
The rankings, outside the Great Brown Land, have become a bit of a lark, so much so that as one Australian observer pointed out, it is easily forgotten that they actually reached the final in Barbados two years ago before losing to England. They also came within nine runs of England in a warm-up on Monday, and England (equally dubiously in some eyes) are ranked No. 1.
But the statistic has fun-poking potential and, since arriving in Sri Lanka, Australian players have become practiced at staring blankly into the mid-distance whenever the topic is raised, as if they were being asked a very dull question about differential calculus.
"The rankings mean absolutely nothing once the tournament starts," said George Bailey, Australia's T20 captain. "I don't know how the rankings work but we obviously haven't been as consistent as we would have liked. I can't believe that teams will be taking it easy against us based on where we are ranked. Particularly in a World Cup, rankings go out of the window. You don't start at 0 for 100 if you are ranked higher."
Bailey is an easy-going, laconic sort of guy but he would need the generous nature of his namesake in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life not to yearn for the sort of dismissive, bullying display against Ireland in Wednesday's opening match at the Premadasa Stadium which will bring all this conversation to a stop.
If David Warner and Shane Watson cut loose at the top of the order that is what he may get, but Mike Hussey apart, Australia's middle order has to up its game. Cameron White, the man Bailey replaced as captain, has barely made a run since his recall; Glenn Maxwell, who wants to be the x-factor, has talked a good game and now must play one; and the captain himself, praised as an inclusive and quick-witted leader, would love to prove that he has international batting credentials. Two young quicks, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc, and the oldest spinner in town, Brad Hogg, will be relied upon for penetration with the ball.
Bailey is the unsung Australian captain, in charge of a format that his country is still struggling to accept. A far more famous Tasmanian batsman and captain, Ricky Ponting, voiced suspicions from the outset and things have changed slowly since. Australia remains, in essence, a conservative country where traditions matter.
"My personal view is that it has taken a little while for Australia to take Twenty20 seriously," said Bailey. "For many years we picked teams with a lot of guys who hadn't played a lot of international cricket and we changed that team a lot and we changed guys' roles. Like any format if you can give guys a run then you start to get more consistent performances. That has been a big focus of ours. I think we are starting to get there.
"I guess the players understand that at times it is not the truest test of your skill. But if you look at the success of our Big Bash competition last year I have no doubt players are now cottoning on to how to best play T20 cricket and hopefully we will soon begin to see the results."
This was a more considered assessment than that volunteered by one Australian holidaymaker in Colombo who the previous evening, after professing that he did not even know the tournament was taking place, gathered together enough knowledge to tell ESPNcricinfo: "We don't give a hoot for T20."
"I'm not sure he spoke for everyone," said Bailey. "I think Australians are pretty competitive and if there is a tournament on the line they like to be winning it. He is probably throwing that out there because we have not been winning them. I bet if we win he'll be pretty proud of it. At the end of the day Australia has one trophy that is not in its cabinet and that is Twenty20 World Cup and that is something we would like to rectify.
"I'm pretty confident. The last couple of weeks I think have been great for this team to spend some time together. Once you understand how the guys around you are going to play you have that real structure in your head and you've got a real sense of what the team's going to do. It feels like the team really grows a leg."
Ireland will rely on Craig McDermott, the former Australian quick who is acting as a bowling consultant in this series, to give them an edge. "I'm a gun for hire now and I have worked very hard with these boys and we need a win," McDermott said. "I do think we have got a very good chance. Australia would be nervous about losing to Ireland.
"When you work with a side like Australia or England there are more staff and it's all laid on for the players. But the way Ireland have prepared for this tournament, with the funding they have, they have done a great job and I am looking forward to them putting Australia under pressure."
Ireland only have one T20 victory to their credit against a full-member side but their World Cup wins over 50 overs against England last year in Bangalore or Pakistan in Jamaica will persuade them that anything is possible. Nothing excites them more than the prospect of a spot of giant-killing and Australia, whatever the rankings might tell you, are as big as it gets. No wonder Australia's coach, Micky Arthur, says he will only rest if and when this match is safely negotiated.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo