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Inspired Ireland confront confident Zimbabwe

Kevin Curran, who played two World Cups in 1983 and '87 before moving into coaching, took umbrage at the suggestion that Zimbabwe might be underdogs for Thursday's encounter against an Irish team that nearly upset South Africa in a warm-up game last week. Curran admitted that it was a challenge to coach a young side, but was confident that he had the players with the quality to start the World Cup on the right note.

"We've lost a lot of our senior group of players, and that's left a dent," he said. "But the new group has responded well and is improving all the time. Prosper Utseya, the offspinner who captains the side, said that his players were ready - "We'll give it our best shot" - and weren't too affected by news of further strife back home. "Now that the guys are here, we're concentrating on playing the games."

For Ireland, who make their World Cup debut, it will be a momentous occasion. Already, the near-saturation coverage back home has amazed the squad, though Trent Johnston, the captain who learnt his trade in New South Wales, laughed off suggestions that the side could eclipse Brian O'Driscoll's rugby heroes. "By all accounts, it's amazing back home," he said. "Our [board] president brought over clippings of full-page articles in the newspapers, and there's been lots of coverage on Sky as well. The match starts at 2:30 in the afternoon there, so it'll be prime-time viewing."

Curran preferred to highlight Zimbabwe cricket's admittedly few positives, one of which is the new generation coming through. He mentioned Andy Flower, a world-class performer who departed for Essex and South Australia in 2003, as an example of how even the best needed time to mature. "At the age of 20, he was an average player, and I hope he respects me for saying that. But by the age of 30, he was averaging over 50 in Tests. So it takes time."

Time is something that's running out for Adrian Birrell, whose time at the coaching helm runs out after this competition. "Maybe you guys should bring your recorders into the room for the last team talk [ahead of the final game against West Indies]," said Johnston with a laugh. "Maybe a box of tissues as well."

Birrell, a South African, was in no doubt as to what had impressed him most about Irish cricket. "It's the passion for the game," he said, "the time, effort and money spent to keep the game going." It hasn't always been easy, with the likes of Ed Joyce shifting loyalties to England after making a mark on the county circuit. Eoin Morgan, who plays for Middlesex, could be the next to take that path, especially after his outstanding double-century against UAE in the ICC Intercontinental Trophy recently.

"It could end up like that," said Birrell, when asked if the Irish cricket team could eventually comprise professionals who played their game abroad, much like the national football team. "I'm delighted for Ed [Joyce]," he said. "Maybe he didn't feel he could achieve his ambitions with Ireland, and for most players, it's about having a professional career."

For Johnston, whose parents have come over from Australia to watch, it will be a proud moment, but not one that will overawe him. "We beat West Indies three years ago in Belfast," he said. "Obviously, it'll be different here with 20,000 spectators in [for the West Indies game]. The atmosphere yesterday [West Indies-Pakistan] was unbelievable, and even when we played South Africa in Trinidad, the crowd were going bananas for us."

The team that wins can then dream of the impossible, a place in the Super Eights. With West Indies so mercurial and Pakistan weakened by the absence of some key players, an upset can't be ruled out. But Curran isn't looking that far ahead. "It's the first game, and we want to treat all three the same," he said. "We've not played Ireland before. They're a solid outfit and have had good recent results, and we'll give them respect.

"If people want to say that they're favourites, then great. I know what we're capable of. We competed well in the Caribbean last year, and I'd like to think that we can go from strength to strength."

First, he and his wards will have to overcome the luck of the Irish.