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August 26, 2009
It is an itinerary that might have been designed to rain on England's parade. For all that Ireland is renowned for its craic, it was a staunchly sober Paul Collingwood who fronted up to the media at Stormont today. The Ashes, and all the glory that England secured in a grandstand finish on Sunday, will count for nothing when the players take the field in Belfast tomorrow - in their least favourite form of the game, and against fully-motivated and upwardly mobile opponents who have shown in their performances in the past two years that they are no longer international pushovers.
How the ECB schedulers must have chortled when they cobbled together this trip. Had the fifth Test at The Oval not finished a day early, the players would have still been sobering up after their post-Ashes celebrations even as they boarded their flight to hop across the Irish Sea. Instead, for the six squad members involved in both games, they have had a full 24 hours of downtime between engagements. Four years ago, the Freddie-fuelled frolics were only just getting started in that time.
"It would have been quite jovial to have tried to make that aeroplane at midday in Manchester, but at least we had 24 hours to make the journey up there," said Collingwood, who described England's post-Oval party as a "good, solid evening" - a euphemism for an anticlimax if ever there was one. "We've now got to be professional enough to get our brains switched back on to ODIs and Twenty20s. We had a team meeting this morning, and a bit of a runaround to blow a few cobwebs out, and now we'll get on with the job in hand."
No matter how brave a face England put on the situation, the timing of this contest is plain wrong. Even Phil Simmons, Ireland's coach, admitted he would have preferred to play this fixture as part of the build-up to the Ashes, instead of the wind-down, not least because Ireland's recent performances are worthy of respect rather than, for want of a better description, a beer match. Ireland's latest coup, to add to their heroics at the 2007 World Cup, was the elimination of Bangladesh at the World Twenty20 in June.
"I don't think anyone is going to take us for granted anymore," said Simmons, although, if ever there was a moment when England could be forgiven for dropping their guard, it is right now. "It's difficult, not just the fact they have come to play Ireland, but that they have cricket [at all] after such a huge occasion in England. It's hard, but that's the way the game is these days. It might have been the start of the IPL this week, and they would have gone there, I'm sure. It's difficult, but they've got to cope."
"It's not ideal, but it's the position we're in," said Collingwood, who has resumed his interim captaincy role while Andrew Strauss takes a well-earned break. "It's a pure mental thing more than anything, a mental shift of getting back into a one-day mode, and getting back into a mode where you want to win again. It felt really good on Sunday, and once you've achieved something like that, it's really easy to turn around and say 'well, that's it, we're happy now'. But we'll drill into the players that we want to go bigger and better, and that starts tomorrow."
At least the match provides England with an opportunity to prove that the sentiments expressed by Strauss and Andy Flower immediately after the Oval victory are intended to be put into immediate practice. Both the captain and coach went out of their way to stress that defeating Australia was nothing more than a stepping-stone, and England's current rankings (fifth in Tests and fourth in ODIs) suggest they have plenty of stepping to do.
"We've got ambitions, but we're not going to get carried away," said Collingwood. "We know what we can achieve, but got to take it step by step, and get up the rankings. We've played some good cricket over the past seven weeks or so, but we've played some average cricket as well. We've got to get that consistency right, and all the players who've played in the Ashes and who've come in from the outside have a responsibility to keep the ball rolling.
"When we've toured Australia in the past, when they are on top of you, they stay on top and make it hard to come back. We've won the Ashes now, and it would be great if we could stay on top of Australia. It's a quick turnaround, but it does start from now. We want to keep that same ruthlessness."
Certain members of England's starting XI are likely to be more motivated than others, not least the young Middlesex batsman, Eoin Morgan, who was until recently a stalwart of Ireland's middle-order. Although Collingwood dead-batted suggestions that England were guilty of "poaching" the best Irish talent, his opposite number, Will Porterfield, suspected there would be a fair amount of banter flying his way in the course of the contest.
"It's up to the individuals, the choices they make," said Collingwood. "There are plenty cricketers in England pushing to become international cricketers, and [Eoin has] forced his way in. The biggest thing you notice about him is his character. He's bubbly and wants to learn, and he asks questions. He's got a hell of a lot of talent, no question, you can see that in the nets from what he can do with a bat, and he's an exceptional fielder. He's an allround package and a great character with it."
On this same ground three years ago, Ireland came close to inflicting an embarrassment on their visitors - only a Marcus Trescothick century kept England out of reach. Weather permitting (and on the eve of the game it wasn't permitting a whole lot, to be fair) Porterfield believed his team has a chance of going one better.
"It's going to be a good occasion and a good atmosphere," he said. "It's not quite David and Goliath, but we're obviously underdogs. But the strides we've made over the last few years shows we're gradually closing that gap between ourselves and the Test nations, especially in the one-day format. If we do our disciplines well and leave it all out on the pitch, who knows, we might pull off an upset."