Ireland Women coach Ed Joyce relishing the end of 'long, frustrating wait' for cricket
Joyce's side have not played an international for 20 months
Ed Joyce has been joking this week about his unbeaten record as Ireland Women's coach in ODI cricket. It might sound arrogant, but only without the crucial context: 23 months after he was appointed, they still haven't played one under him.
That wait is set to continue for a while yet, but Sunday's T20I against Scotland Women in Belfast - the first of a four-match series - will be the end of a 20-month gap between internationals, caused not only by Covid-19 but also late cancellations and the sporadic nature of the associate calendar. It has been a long, frustrating time, but their return is tantalisingly close.
"The attitude has been absolutely top class - it couldn't have been better," Joyce tells ESPNcricinfo. "We've had some big knocks: a Thailand tour cancelled, the Scotland series was cancelled a couple of times and this is third time lucky, and even prior to that there was a Zimbabwe tour cancelled when I was taking over in 2019.
"It's been a long old wait, not just for the girls but for the management as well. We don't do the job just to train and we've done an awful lot of it over the last 18 or 20 months. It'll be great for the girls to get back out there and I'm so excited to watch some international cricket. We've had our Super Series going on which has been really good but to see the girls with the green back on will be great.
"We haven't played for so long as a group and the girls have worked on so many things - it'll be exciting to see them actually put them into play. I know what I want from the team and the team are pretty clear what myself and Glenn [Querl, assistant coach] are looking for. We dovetail quite well. I've bowled a lot of offspin and fed a lot of balls into bowling machines but I feel like we've had a very good training block."
The length of the break is demonstrated by the fact that the player of the match award in Ireland's most recent fixture - the third-place play-off at the T20 World Cup Qualifier in September 2019 - was Kim Garth, who gave up her Ireland career to pursue her opportunities with Victoria in Australia last June.
"Kim is a very good cricketer," Joyce says. "She's already one the key players for Victoria and is a Big Bash winner. With a reasonably small cricket-playing population here, it's obviously tough to lose someone of her ability but I think most people would see why she did it: she wanted to be a full-time cricketer which she can't do here yet, though we're hoping to change that within the next couple of years.
"We've picked a very young squad for this series, partly because we have some very good young players, but also out of necessity because a lot of our senior players have retired in the last few years. I'm really interested to see how we go in this series, and want to make sure we play with freedom - as T20 needs to be played.
"We are missing some players abroad - Eimear Richardson is based in New Zealand, Mary Waldron in Australia, and Una Raymond-Hoey and Naomi Matthews are also away. In their absence, it's going to have to be a team effort, and you're asking young people to be your senior players: Laura Delany, Gaby Lewis, Shauna Kavanaugh and Orla Prendergast are all young women but have played a lot of cricket and are clearly high-quality players."
The wider context of the series is that it represents an opportunity for some match practice ahead of a year that features two major qualifying tournaments for Ireland: the European qualifiers for the T20 World Cup in August, and the World Cup Qualifier in Sri Lanka in December.
"It's not only an opportunity to get into the World Cup, but possibly more importantly, it's a qualifier for the Women's Championship. If we can get into that, it's a real game-changer, because you have guaranteed fixtures and aren't organising series week-to-week. It gives the girls clarity about who we're playing and when, and we could potentially add some more contracts too."
More immediately, the prospect of playing in front of fans again from Monday onwards adds to the feeling of excitement - as long as the rain stays away. "We'll be one of the first teams on the island to have fans back so that would obviously be good kudos for the girls," Joyce says. "I've watched a lot of rain fall at Stormont in the past and the weather is always a little bit dicey in Ireland in general, and especially in the North, but hopefully we'll get at least three of the four games in."
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98