Andy Balbirnie has said there will be "no excuses" if his Ireland team fail to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, after a slow start to the Super League campaign which will determine whether or not they have to play in a separate qualifying tournament.
India qualify for the tournament automatically as hosts, and seven other highest-ranked teams in the Super League will join them, but the bottom five teams will be required to take part in a qualifying event, with only the top two reaching the 10-team World Cup.
Ireland pulled off an upset by beating England in their third Super League game last summer, but have struggled for consistency since then, losing 3-0 to Afghanistan in the UAE and 2-1 against Netherlands last month, putting a major dent in their chances of automatic qualification.
"It gives us two chances to qualify for a World Cup," Balbirnie said, two days before the start of a three-match Super League series against South Africa. "If you don't qualify, you've got no excuses. I understand it's a bit tricky for the teams who float in and around the No. 6, 7, 8 mark in the rankings, but you've got to give everyone a fair opportunity.
"That's what we were crying out for when they reduced the World Cup [to 10 teams] - we wanted a good opportunity to qualify for it. We've got that now, and that's what we're really trying to do, one way or another. If it's through the Super League, great. If it's not, we'll go wherever the qualifying tournament is held and try and get through there. If we don't at the end of it, well, we only have ourselves to blame."
Their five defeats this year mean that Ireland face an uphill battle to qualify, not least having lost their most recent series 2-1 against the only associate member in the competition, the Netherlands. While Ireland were not happy with the quality of pitches provided in Utrecht - "pretty poor" was Balbirnie's description - their failure to provide enough support to Paul Stirling, the leading run-scorer in ODI cricket worldwide this year, cost them.
"I don't think we adapted as quickly as we should have," Balbirnie said. "A few days after, having to do our quarantine [meant] a lot of time to reflect. What we can take forward is that we now have an opportunity to play one of the top teams in the world on our home soil. That's the beauty of this league - you get an opportunity to rectify the mistakes made in the previous [series].
"I don't have to keep harping on about how good a team they are - I think everyone knows there is a big gulf in the teams. But we do have match-winners in our team."Captain Andy Balbirnie on his Ireland side's chances against South Africa
"A lot of people on the outside will look at this and say there's only one team winning this series, and that's fair enough because it's a really impressive South Africa side. I don't have to keep harping on about how good a team they are - I think everyone knows there is a big gulf in the teams.
"But we do have match-winners in our team. We showed that last year when we played England. We maybe haven't got the results we'd want recently, but whenever we're put in front of a really tough challenge, we tend to come out with something. The guys are going to go out and express themselves and hopefully can come out with a good result.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're going to win the series willy-nilly - we're going to have to play really good cricket and potentially catch them on an off-day - but that's the beauty of this format. You have these opportunities to put yourself on a platform against the world's best. You could say [it's] David and Goliath, but I suppose David beat Goliath in the end."
There is an intriguing subplot in this series, with Curtis Campher - the allrounder who is returning from an ankle injury - playing against the country of his birth for the first time. Campher played for South Africa's age-group teams up until Under-19 level, but decided to use the Irish passport he holds through his grandmother to commit to the national team in early 2020, making his debut against England last summer. Eight games into his ODI career, he is averaging 50.83 with the bat and 30.62 with the ball.
"Our medical team have done a great job with him to get him back on the park this early after an operation, and naturally he's very excited to play against South Africa, having spent the majority of his life there," Balbirnie said. "Everyone is obviously aware of where he's come from and his quick turnaround to play for Ireland last year. It'll be a really proud day for him and his family. He's gone a different route than most of us, but he's one of us now and is a really important player for us [so] I'm really excited to see how he goes against his old country."
William Porterfield, the veteran batter and Balbirnie's predecessor, will open the batting alongside Stirling on the back of an anchoring hundred in the Inter-Provincial 50-over competition last month. He has been in and out of the side and has not made an ODI fifty since May 2019, but following Kevin O'Brien's recent retirement from the format, he will be expected to bring some experienced to a relatively young side.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98