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Ireland host Zimbabwe with T20 World Cup preparation in mind

Neither team has played much T20I cricket of late, and both have many niggles to sort ahead of bigger challenges

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie stitched a steady partnership, Ireland vs South Africa, 2nd T20I, Belfast, July 22, 2021

Andy Balbirnie is banking on Paul Stirling bringing his Hundred form to the Zimbabwe series  •  Sportsfile via Getty Images

It's three weeks behind schedule, but it's happening. Zimbabwe are in Ireland after changes to travel regulations meant their early-August series had to be pushed back. They will play five T20Is, in preparation for the T20 World Cup (Ireland for the tournament starting in October, Zimbabwe for the qualifiers for the 2022 edition), and three ODIs, which have consequences for the World Cup Super League, in what is expected to be a test of progression for both sides.
Both teams have to go back to 2019 to find their last T20I series wins - Ireland against Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe in a triangular involving Nepal and Singapore. They have both lost to Afghanistan since, while Ireland have also notched up a defeat against the Netherlands, and Zimbabwe have twin losses to Bangladesh. Neither Ireland nor Zimbabwe get as much T20I cricket as they would like but now, for the first time, they have a five-match bilateral series to build consistency and test combinations as they seek to get this format of their game on track.
Focus on Stirling and O'Brien
For Ireland, the need is more urgent. They head to the T20 World Cup in less than two months with scant match time under their belts. Since the start of the pandemic in March last year, Ireland have only played three T20I games, against South Africa last month, and lost them all. There, they were asked to chase on each occasion, twice targets of 165 or lower, and once, 190. Ireland never managed more than 140 in reply.
Batting big, and batting quickly, will be one of their chief aims in this series and they will pin their hopes on the two big names: Paul Stirling and Kevin O'Brien. Stirling struggled against South Africa but batted the Southern Brave to a trophy-winning total in the men's Hundred, and Irish captain Andy Balbirnie is hoping he brings that confidence and form into this series.
"Paul is so down to earth, you probably can't even tell when he is on cloud nine," Balbirnie said. "He should be playing in every T20 league in the world. He is that good. Apart from his parents, I am his biggest fan. This team is a much better team with him in it."
O'Brien is a bigger concern. He managed just two runs in three innings against South Africa, with two ducks, but Balbirnie is banking on him turning that around. "He is a confident guy, we all know that. He didn't get the scores he wanted against South Africa but he is someone who is very important for this group. He has lots of runs in the bank and hopefully he can produce the goods."
The search for match-winners
If the stalwarts don't step up, Ireland have some youngsters waiting in the wings. Balbirnie confirmed that left-hand batter Neil Rock and South Africa-born allrounder Curtis Campher will both make their debuts in the series opener, with William McClintock set to feature at a later stage. "Exposure (for the new players) is an important thing," Balbirnie said. "We want these guys to experience it (international cricket) here rather than on a big stage. This is a unique series in that we have a World Cup at the end of the summer and we want to make sure we have 15 players who can all win games."
Ireland will be without their most successful bowler from the South Africa series, Mark Adair, who will sit out the first few matches as he recovers from a back spasm. They have Craig Young, Josh Little and Barry McCarthy in the squad to make up the pace attack.
The Williams factor
Zimbabwe's gaps on the team-sheet are more glaring, with Test captain Sean Williams sitting out the T20 series ahead of his decision to step away from the international game after this tour. Williams arrived in Ireland six days after the rest of the squad and will only be available for the ODIs, leaving the squad without the experience of 47 caps. While newly appointed captain Craig Ervine was hesitant to be drawn into commenting on Williams' decision, saying only "that is for him and Zimbabwe Cricket to sort out", he stressed the need to have senior players in the squad. "It's important to have senior players here. Having guys like Brendan Taylor, Sikandar Raza and Sean Williams helps because they bring experience," he said.
Coach under pressure?
Among the rumblings over Williams stepping away is an unhappiness with coach Lalchand Rajput. Zimbabwe media has reported that Williams is among several players who cannot see how the team will progress under Rajput and the stats may indicate why. Since he took over in August 2018, they have won two out of ten Tests, four out of 24 ODIs, and seven of 28 T20Is, making the shortest format their best. Rajput's contract is up at the end of next month and it's difficult to see him staying on unless results improve.
For Ervine, the focus needs to shift to long-term planning for the 2022 T20 World Cup and 2023 50-over World Cup, sooner rather than later. "We have to look ahead and try to get as many games as possible. We also have to test out different areas," Ervine said. "I don't think we can wait to do that, especially because while the T20 World Cup will be going on, it will be a quiet period for us. We must use these T20s wisely."
While Zimbabwe are well aware of what their familiar names can do, now is the time for the next batch to stake their claim. Wessley Madhevere and Blessing Muzarabani are their headline acts but the likes of Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, whose career is just 14 white-ball matches old, Milton Shumba, who has played three Tests at the age of just 20, and Tadiwanashe Marumani, who has made his international debut this year, need to show they can step up.
The five-match T20I series starts with two games in Dublin before moving to Bready, with the ODIs due to be played in Belfast.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent