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Andy Balbirnie on Ireland's hectic 2021: 'Hopefully this is the start of something special'

Ireland captain sets aside "frustration" of recent months ahead of seven ODIs in the UAE

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Andy Balbirnie's hundred at the Ageas Bowl underpinned victory over England in August  •  AFP via Getty Images

Andy Balbirnie's hundred at the Ageas Bowl underpinned victory over England in August  •  AFP via Getty Images

It was among the most memorable nights in the history of Irish cricket. After two comprehensive defeats against England at the Ageas Bowl, few gave Ireland a chance of chasing 329 in the third ODI last August. But after a 214-run stand between Andy Balbirnie and Paul Stirling had set up the chase, Kevin O'Brien, the hero of Bangalore, hit the winning runs to complete a famous seven-wicket win.
But since then? Nothing. While England, Australia and India's players have battled the mental stress and fatigue of travelling from one bubble to another, with their boards desperately finding a way to plough on mid-pandemic, Ireland's men have not played a single international fixture. As with most nations, it has been even worse for the women: Scotland pulled out of a planned series in Spain at the last minute, meaning Ireland have not played a women's international since September 2019.
"It's a huge frustration," says Andy Balbirnie, who has led the side in only 12 internationals since his appointment as captain in all formats in November 2019. "We know we can compete with the best teams in the world when we put in performances, but when you only do it here and there - once in the Caribbean in a T20I, and then against England, it might be seen as a flash in the pan.
"I don't like that, because I think this team is better than that. If we had more games following on from those wins, we could showcase it, and show people that we're not just about one-offs or fortunate wins. All being well, we've a schedule that looks pretty exciting this year with a T20 World Cup at the end of it, so hopefully this is the start of something special for this squad.
"The T20 World Cup is obviously the highlight of the calendar. To get out of our group would be a great achievement, into the T20 World Cup proper - I don't like calling it that, but that's what it is. And to see the inexperienced guys come on would be a big plus for me too - to see them flourish in international cricket."
Indeed, after five months without a game, Ireland suddenly face the prospect of seven ODIs in three weeks: four against the UAE, then three against Afghanistan, which form part of the World Cup Super League. They struggled for several years to replace the "golden generation" of players which helped them achieve full membership of the ICC, but the squad that landed in Abu Dhabi soon after Christmas has a new look to it.
There is no space for George Dockrell or William Porterfield, Balbirnie's predecessor as captain, while Boyd Rankin has been left off the central contracts list entirely. Gary Wilson is missing the series to attend the birth of his second child but would only have been the back-up wicketkeeper regardless.
Instead, there are several new faces. Gareth Delany and Harry Tector will be given extended runs, opening and batting at No. 4 respectively, while Lorcan Tucker will take the gloves. Curtis Campher, the breakout star of the England series, will balance the side from the middle order, while Mark Adair and Josh Little will compete for seam-bowling spots. All six are aged 24 or younger.
"The hotel actually sent up a birthday cake with balloons and a teddy bear. They sang happy birthday to me outside my door in full masks, gloves and everything"
Andy Balbirnie
"There's no hiding from the fact that we've got a young, inexperienced squad, but the fact they have up to seven games here will hugely benefit them down the line when we're playing some crunch qualifying games," Balbirnie says. "This is a great opportunity for our middle order and some of our bowlers to get valuable ODI experience in tough conditions. We know that we're going to have to be at our best. We want to win all four games [against the UAE] and make a statement."
With four fixtures packed into a seven-day window ahead of a crucial series against Afghanistan later in the month, and the UAE in a state of transition, Ireland may rotate players over the course of the first series of the tour. But they will not take the UAE lightly: they have a 100% record against them in ODIs, but their last meeting against them ended in a narrow defeat in the T20 World Cup qualifier in 2019.
"There are no easy ODIs, and you can't take these fixtures for granted. They've got some good players that we've played against a lot who have been around the block in their own conditions, and there are some newer guys that we don't know so well.
"Scott [Irvine, the team's analyst] does a brilliant job in informing us about every aspect of them; he's got an incredible array of research done for us, and we're as well-prepared as we can be without seeing them. Equally, we've got guys who are able to adapt to any situation once the games come and are always looking to take the positive option."
For Balbirnie himself, the series provides another opportunity to test himself as captain. He has limited experience but has already stamped his mark: in the England series, he deployed attacking fields and told bowlers to actively hunt for wickets rather than stem the flow of runs.
And he is flourishing with the bat, too. After struggling to shake his tag as a "promising" batsman for several years - and suffering a serious hip injury in 2016 - he has averaged 44.16 since the start of 2019, anchoring the innings from No. 3. His two best innings were an unbeaten 145 against Afghanistan in India, neutralising the triple threat of Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan, and his fluent 113 against England in Southampton in which he and Stirling took down Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali.
Those innings, and an average of 50 against spin in the last two years, are the product of years playing Afghanistan in challenging conditions: 20 of Balbirnie's 70 ODIs have been against them. "The best way to deal with that calibre of spinner is to play against them regularly and that's what we've done," he says.
"Whenever I've had trouble against any of those spinners, I've been caught in two minds about what to do, but whenever I've had some sort of success, I've backed my game completely and gone with that. I'm not a huge hitter of the ball like Paul [Stirling] so I've got to find other ways to score: manoeuvring the field, or timing the ball well."
More immediately, Balbirnie will hope that his squad can come to terms with life in the bubble in Abu Dhabi. Unlike at the Ageas Bowl, they do not have access to a golf course, but there was good news on Tuesday when they were told they were allowed to order food in from the local Chinese restaurant.
He has experienced two major life events in recent weeks, too. Before leaving, he proposed to his girlfriend Kate - "probably the highlight of my life so far" - and during the three days of hotel-room isolation at the start of the tour, he turned 30. "It's a big one. I feel OK, but when you're on the bus with the guys that we have at the moment, you certainly do feel 30 and some.
"The hotel actually sent up a birthday cake with balloons and a teddy bear to boot. They sang happy birthday to me outside my door in full masks, gloves and everything - a bit surreal, but a nice touch. Except, they sent me a big lemon cheesecake. This thing was huge. I had three days on my own thinking 'I've got to get through this'. I put it in the fridge and nibbled away at it."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98