Ireland prepare to weather the Scotland storm
Two of the oldest rivals in international cricket, Scotland and Ireland, go head to head in the Intercontinental Cup at Stormont from Thursday with advantage very much with the hosts and defending champions.
Ireland have announced a strong squad that includes county-based players Eoin Morgan of Middlesex and Northamptonshire's Niall O'Brien and they will be confident that they can get the defence of the title they won in May off to a winning start.
They are still without tall fast bowler Boyd Rankin, who has been out for much of the season with injury, and opening batsman Jeremy Bray but otherwise have a full complement to pick from. Young legspinner Greg Thompson, who has been showing good form this season, has been named and the Ireland Under-19 captain could play his first match for the senior side since the semi-final of this competition against the United Arab Emirates in 2005.
"Unfortunately Boyd hasn't fully recovered," said Ireland coach Phil Simmons. "He bowled last week, but experienced a little bit of pain. Thompson has impressed me greatly. He turns the ball a lot away from the bat, and he's a wicket taker, which is exactly what we need in this competition."
Scotland, on the other hand, are missing several players with Fraser Watts, Majid Haq, Glenn Rogers, Paul Hoffmann, Gordon Drummond and Gregor Maiden all out of the running due to business commitments. But that t has given selectors the opportunity to pick players skilled at the four-day version of the game and with these two teams being perhaps the most consistent in the history of the Intercontinental Cup another tight battle could be on the cards.
"We have had a few guys pull out, mostly due to work commitments. The season has caught up on us I suppose and some of the fellas are struggling to get time off to play," said captain Ryan Watson. "But this has allowed us to bring in a couple of four-day specialists for this game so it's not all bad. Steve Knox and Neil MacRae have both played a lot of four-day cricket so their added experience is a boost for us."
This could also be a chance for the likes of Richie Berrington, Gordon Goudie and wicketkeeper Simon Smith to make an impression. And there are still plenty of potential match-winners within the Scotland ranks. Pace bowler John Blain had match figures of 8 for 118 against Netherlands at Aberdeen last week while Watson (154) and Neil McCallum (181) both struck big hundreds in what turned out to be a comfortable victory over the Dutch.
"It is always a very good contest between Ireland and Scotland. We are two quite evenly matched sides and there is always a good battle," said Watson. "They have been making strides as a team and now have a lot of experience, especially people like Morgan and O'Brien who have been playing plenty of (multi-day) cricket in England. They also have an excellent captain in Trent Johnston.
"They are well drilled and well disciplined, and if you combine that with a few stars, it is a formidable line-up but we are looking forward to it and hopefully the weather in Belfast will stay kind to us."
Ireland (from) Trent Johnston (capt), Andre Botha, Alex Cusack, Thinus Fourie, Dave Langford-Smith, Eoin Morgan, Kyle McCallan, Kevin O'Brien, Niall O'Brien, William Porterfield, Greg Thompson, Andrew White.
Scotland (from) Ryan Watson (capt), Richie Berrington, John Blain, Gordon Goudie, Gavin Hamilton, Steve Knox, Ross Lyons, Neil McCallum, Neil MacRae, Dewald Nel, Simon Smith, Craig Wright.
James Fitzgerald is ICC Communications Officer