<
>

Ireland hope to add to Pakistan's World Cup worries

Pakistan could well look to Sharjeel Khan to try provide some impetus at the top of the order Associated Press

"When we walked out on to the field there was a group of Pakistani supporters on the right-hand side and they were giving us all sorts of stick - 'You should be back in the pub and you should be drinking Guinness celebrating St Patrick's Day. You don't play cricket'."

So Ireland captain Trent Johnston later recalled of St Patrick's Day 2007. By the end of the day, Johnston's match-clinching six out of Sabina Park had knocked Pakistan out of the World Cup - and proved to them, and the world, that Ireland do indeed play cricket.

Now Pakistan go to Ireland with the World Cup on their minds: not the ghosts of 2007, but 2019. While the contraction of the World Cup to ten teams is viewed exclusively as an Associate issue, one consequence is that, for the first time ever, Pakistan are in danger of missing out on the World Cup.

For all the buoyancy surrounding their magnificent Test win at The Oval, Pakistan lie in ninth position in the ODI rankings, seven points behind West Indies. If that does not change before September 30 next year, Pakistan will be forced into a cut-throat qualifying tournament, in which only two of the ten competing sides will progress to the 2019 World Cup. For now, the criticism of one-day internationals as lacking context does not apply to Pakistan.

That Pakistan's World Cup participation is in jeopardy at the very moment when they are on the brink of becoming the No. 1 Test nation in the world only serves to accentuate the differences in their performances across the two formats of the game. They have lost their last five ODIs.

"We can improve our ranking: we know we're far better than where we're ranked at the moment," one-day captain Azhar Ali said. "There are a lot of reasons behind our one-day performances. We've lost a lot of experienced players in the recent past. The youngsters are coming in and need a bit of time to get settled. We need a bit of consistency in selection - we have to back the guys who are coming into the squad. In the last few years we didn't perform to all aspects of the game."

Pakistan's bowling remains a potent force in ODI cricket. But in their athleticism in the field, and, more pertinently, their power-hitting and approach to batting, Pakistan have been left behind.

"Our performances are not as consistent as in Test cricket, and we need to really improve our skills," Azhar said. "The fielding is really important, and the way the scores have really gone up in the last year or so - we have to really match that. We've been discussing this for the last six months or so that we really need to catch up with the way other teams are playing their cricket.

"You need to go at a good pace in one-day cricket. That doesn't necessarily have to be big hitting all the time. We play a lot of dot balls in one-day cricket so we need to improve that and keep rotating the strike."

Pakistan hope that the return of Sharjeel Khan will reinvigorate the top order. After an underwhelming start to his ODI career in 2013-14, averaging just 17.63 in 11 matches, Sharjeel has been recalled, following a fine tour for Pakistan A in England and an encouraging WT20 tournament. He will be expected to provide belligerence and six appeal: he hit seven sixes during an innings of 125 against England Lions last month, and has a strike rate of over 100 in List A cricket.

Hasan Ali and Mohammad Nawaz, a pair of 22-year-olds who have also impressed for Pakistan A - Ali is a pace bowler, Nawaz an allrounder who bowls left-arm spin - might get selected for their ODI debuts, as Pakistan accelerate their attempts to overhaul the side. It would also help if Azhar himself extended his Test form to the ODI game: he has not made a half-century since last July.

Ireland also approach the series in a state of uncertainty: they have slipped to 12th in the ODI rankings and, three years after a tie with Pakistan at Clontarf, 10km away from Malahide, are still awaiting an ODI victory against a Full Member in Dublin.

"It's time we not only put ourselves in positions to win games but actually win game," the captain William Porterfield said. "We need to be learning. If you look at the records of the teams starting off in international cricket we've got one of the best."

The batting line-up's overdependence upon Ed Joyce, who scored two undefeated centuries in the 2-2 draw with Afghanistan, is worrying: Ireland have been well-beaten in the four ODIs this summer in which Joyce has not scored a hundred. The return of Niall O'Brien, who scored 72 at Sabina Park nine years ago, will help, but confusion still surrounds the role of Paul Stirling.

Though he has scored two ODI centuries opening against Pakistan, and continues to open for Middlesex in white-ball cricket, Stirling was deployed at No.6 against Afghanistan, and is expected to be used as a finisher again against Pakistan, even though Porterfield said, "Long-term I see him at the top of the order. I think he's most feared at the top."

If Boyd Rankin's absence deprived Ireland of a unique threat, succession planning with the ball is progressing more smoothly than with the bat. Barry McCarthy, a zesty cricketer who seams the ball, has taken 14 wickets in his first six ODIs and impressed for Durham, while Peter Chase and Craig Young are now both fit after a series of injury concerns.

"We've gone through a transition ourselves in the last two years," Porterfield reflected. "Against Afghanistan we had 70 caps in our whole attack, bar Kevin O'Brien. That's the exciting thing for ourselves. A lot of the lads coming in are under 23 or 24 and looking to stake their claims. We just need more games for them to build up their experience, so when the next World Cup comes around they've got a battery of games under their belt."

If the pitch is unlikely to be as green as that in Jamaica nine years ago, it will be more conducive to seam than when Ireland played Sri Lanka at Malahide in June. Ireland have the chance not merely to record another victory against Pakistan, to add to that one Johnston led them to in the Caribbean, but also to increase the pressure on cricket's governing elite to make good on the promise of progressive reform.