Once the undisputed leaders of the Associate world, Ireland arrive in the UAE for the Desert T20 challenge playing more like paupers than princes over the last two years in Twenty20 cricket. Entering the tournament as the lowest-seeded side in part due to their winless performance at the 2016 World T20, Ireland are hoping that a return to the site of some of their most memorable Associate triumphs will spark a return to form.

"The UAE has always been a nice place for us," Ireland left-arm spinner George Dockrell told ESPNcricinfo at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium on the eve of their first match against Afghanistan. "We've won a lot of competitions out here and we've played so much cricket, which always helps that we do know the grounds, and we know the conditions and the cricket that's played here."

Ireland lost their first match of the 2012 World T20 Qualifier to Namibia in Dubai before going on to win ten straight games - including four playoff matches in three days - on their way to the tournament title and a spot at the World T20 in Sri Lanka. They came back to the UAE the following year and went undefeated, beating Afghanistan in the final for the second time, to clinch another place at the 2014 World T20 in Bangladesh.

Those twin titles were part of a streak of 21 straight wins at the World T20 Qualifier that was finally undone by Papua New Guinea in Belfast in 2015. Since then Ireland have struggled in the format, with that loss to PNG beginning a run of eight losses in their last 11 T20Is.

"As a team, we know that our performances haven't been where they should be in the past," Dockrell said. "That's not something that's going over our heads. We know that we've been underperforming in the past and it's something that we're trying to address and it's not through a lack of effort from the guys."

In the search for answers, the squad has gone through a shake-up, one which Dockrell is acutely aware of. Despite being one of Ireland's most experienced players, the 24-year-old was dropped ahead of their shock loss to Oman at the World T20 in India. In the eight home ODIs that Ireland had this summer against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan, he made the starting XI just once - offspinner Andy McBrine became coach John Bracewell's preferred slow-bowling specialist - and was also left out for the home T20I series against Hong Kong.

Dockrell was picked for the ODI tour to South Africa in September, but went wicketless in the defeats to Australia and South Africa. He is back in the T20 squad for this tour, but faces competition from fellow spinners McBrine and Jacob Mulder, who made his debut in that Hong Kong match at Bready. Once an automatic selection, Dockrell has been working hard on his game to regain his status as Ireland's first-choice spinner and says the competition within the squad is something that will hopefully bring out the best in everyone's game.

"It's always good to have competition in the squad and in the team," Dockrell said. "It's good that we now have the option in the squad of having a left-arm spinner, a right-armer in Andy and Jacob as well, a legspinner. We didn't have that depth a number of years ago. We have guys who are home, the likes of Peter Chase and Tim Murtagh, who aren't playing but would be able to step in and do a great role if they were required.

"You have to look at ways that maybe you're deficient, or ways that you can get better to keep fighting for that spot in the team, so I think it's definitely a good thing for Irish cricket that we're developing that depth in the bowlers and in the batters too, so that we don't just have a squad of 12 or 13 to pick from, that you know there's seven other guys to pick from, whether there's an injury or drop in form. It just pushes you on to keep improving."

After the conclusion of the ODI tour to South Africa in September, Dockrell travelled to Brisbane, where he has been playing club cricket in the local grade competition to keep himself sharp during the Irish winter. He also got the chance to train with Queensland's first-class side and Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash League.

"It's been fantastic, having the opportunity to go over to Brisbane to play some club cricket and train with Queensland and Brisbane Heat," Dockrell said. "Obviously Dan Vettori is the coach there as well so he's a great guy to draw a bit of knowledge from and talk to about a few things. Even just being in that environment and bowling to the likes of Chris Lynn and Brendon McCullum, it's something that's always going to make you better."

For now, though, Dockrell's focus is on trying to help Ireland get back on the right track, beginning with Group A's primetime showdown against Afghanistan on day one of the tournament in Abu Dhabi.

"We'll be playing Afghanistan in a couple of months, but other than that there won't be a huge amount of T20 cricket until maybe the T20 Qualifiers, which have yet to be announced so for us it's a great competition, a great chance to put things right where we've been deficient in the last couple years."

"We played Afghanistan during the summer and it was four really contested games. It'll be great cricket from both teams, so I suppose for this competition it'll be great to start with a win and that's what we'll be thinking before we go into that game."