Know Your Associates February 24, 2016

Will the grass be greener for Ireland this time?

The Associate giants have surprisingly underachieved in previous World T20s. The current side look in good shape to turn things around

The World T20 may be the last global tournament for the 30-plus trio of Kevin O'Brien, William Porterfield and Niall O'Brien © Getty Images

St. Patrick's Day 2007 was the birth of Irish cricket's golden decade. A seminal World Cup victory over Pakistan was the first of a number of impressive wins over Full Member nations at world events. Subsequent conquests, in 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2015 came over Bangladesh, England, Zimbabwe and West Indies.

Ever present in touring squads for each part of the journey were William Porterfield, Niall O'Brien and Kevin O'Brien. All in their early 20s when the joyride began, they now are on the wrong side of 30. Not only has age caught up to them but the rest of the Associate pack has been nipping at Ireland's heels since the end of the 2015 World Cup. After a potential chance to play in a 2018 World T20 was dissolved in the wake of a move to a four-year tournament cycle, combined with the format shift to a ten-team 2019 World Cup resulting in no guaranteed spots for Associates, the reality is that the 2016 World T20 could very well be a last hurrah before Irish cricket's golden era fades away.

Ireland's bowling stocks have been replenished in the build-up to this event. Boyd Rankin returned to national colours in January after four years in the English wilderness. Tim Murtagh, who was injured for the 2015 World Cup and had previously declared his retirement from T20s, was convinced to make himself available for this event, stressing the sense of urgency Ireland placed on repairing a serious weakness exposed in defeats during the 2015 World Cup and the World T20 Qualifier.

This is Ireland's fifth appearance in the World T20, but ever since a victory over Bangladesh in 2009, the rub of the green hasn't gone their way. A strong position against eventual champions England in 2010 was washed away by rain. That was followed by a string of frustrating first-round exits.

The same storm clouds benefited eventual champions West Indies in 2012 at Ireland's expense. In 2014, a bit of Dutch courage did them in. The challenge to reverse their fortunes this time round is made even tougher with a qualifying group comprising their most recent T20 tormentor, Netherlands, as well as two sides - Oman and Bangladesh - who have a plethora of spin options geared for subcontinental success.

Andy McBrine will need to contribute more with the bat to hold his spot as a spinning allrounder © ICC

Road to the World T20
Ireland's streak of 21 straight wins in the T20 Qualifier ended in Belfast at the hands of Papua New Guinea. If that result wasn't shocking enough, Hong Kong made it a two-match losing streak when the tournament moved to Malahide. Ireland recovered to top their group, but lost to Netherlands in the semi-final.

In five T20Is since, Ireland have gone a combined 3-2 against a pair of teams - PNG and UAE - that didn't qualify for the World T20. Though the re-fortified bowling attack held firm, a usually sturdy batting line-up experienced wobbles. After stumbling short by 11 runs chasing PNG's 116 in Townsville, Ireland were tripped up by UAE a week later in Abu Dhabi, going after a target of 134.

At the helm
The 31-year-old Porterfield has steered Ireland since April 2008, making him the tournament's second longest tenured captain, behind MS Dhoni. He has been Ireland's hottest batsman since last summer, where he led the team in scoring at the World T20 Qualifier, with 190 runs at 47.50. He is also, hands down the best patrolman of backward point in the Associate world. Were more of Ireland's matches televised, many pundits might be tempted to remove the word "Associate" from that assessment.

Key stat
129 Ireland's average score in ten completed/non-Duckworth-Lewis innings at the World T20. They are 2-1 when scoring more than 135 (making 138 for 4 and 164 for 7 in wins over Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, but failing to defend 189 v Netherlands) and 0-7 when scoring 135 or less.

Boyd Rankin's return is good news for Ireland © Getty Images

Leading Men

Kevin O'Brien
The allrounder was valued more for his cagey medium pace at the T20 Qualifier, claiming 12 wickets at 7.33, including career-best T20I figures of 3 for 8 v Nepal. His importance with the ball is magnified with the retirement of John Mooney, who claimed a tournament-best 14 wickets at the Qualifier. Though his big-hitting reputation was cemented with a 50-ball World Cup hundred against England, O'Brien has never made a fifty in 42 T20I innings.

George Dockrell
The left-arm spinner entered international cricket like a house on fire as an 18-year-old in 2010 and took 3 for 16 against West Indies in the World T20. In his first 13 T20Is, he claimed 23 wickets at 9.96, had an economy of 4.92, and was being talked up as someone England would poach in due time. In 20 innings since, he has taken 21 wickets at 22.67 and an economy of 7.19. A return trip to India, where he excelled at the 2011 World Cup, may do wonders for him.

Boyd Rankin
The 31-year-old has taken wickets early and often since rejoining Ireland in January, including 2 for 16 and 3 for 17 in a pair of T20Is against UAE. Rankin's pace, height and bounce are like gold, frankincense and myrrh for Associate teams searching for a genuine fast-bowling messiah.

Burning question: Can Andy McBrine force his way in as a spinning allrounder?

Paul Stirling has frequently been utilised as a four-over bowler in dry conditions, and Dockrell has always been an automatic pick as a specialist spinner. But McBrine has shaken off the horror of his 24-run over against Netherlands two years ago in Sylhet to be an appealing offspin option, one who might be worthy of a permanent spot in the XI if he can demonstrate some value with the bat as well, to make up for Mooney's lost runs.

In their own words: Niall O'Brien
"It's imperative that we get out of the group. That's non-negotiable from our point of view. Anything less will be deemed a disappointing outcome for the team. Once we hopefully get through, then we've got some big matches to play and it's a case of us taking down another scalp or two. We know what success tastes like and we're hungry for more of that.

"I've been fortunate this will be my eighth World Cup in the two different formats and cricket has given me a great opportunity to travel the world and play in all these great events, and unfortunately the next generation might not get those same privileges, so I think it's important we do well not just for ourselves but for those young lads as well."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna

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