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Irish influence set to continue as Gareth Delany, Paul Stirling head into T20 Blast knockouts

Three out of nine overseas players in this season's T20 Blast are Ireland internationals

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Paul Stirling, Andy Balbirnie and Gareth Delany were three of the nine overseas players in this season's T20 Blast  •  Getty Images

Paul Stirling, Andy Balbirnie and Gareth Delany were three of the nine overseas players in this season's T20 Blast  •  Getty Images

Two Irishmen, an Australian and a Pakistani: not walking into a bar as the set-up for a joke, but the nationalities of the four overseas players across the eight quarter-finalists in this season's T20 Blast.
In addition to Nottinghamshire's imports Dan Christian and Imad Wasim, Ireland internationals Gareth Delany and Paul Stirling have enjoyed quietly impressive seasons at Leicestershire and Northamptonshire respectively. The pair has demonstrated that changes to ECB eligibility - meaning Irish players no longer qualify as locals - need not spell the end of their involvement in county cricket. Each of their ODI top three signed a deal in the Blast; Andy Balbirnie, now captain across formats, was one of Glamorgan's shining lights before their group-stage exit.
And all three have done well: Balbirnie led Glamorgan's run charts, with 255 runs at 36.42 and a strike rate of 144; Stirling has got Northants off to flying starts, striking at a blistering 156.75; and Delany has contributed 193 runs and six wickets with his legspin as Leicestershire snuck out of the North Group.
"To have someone like Stirlo (Stirling) available for the whole comp has been great," Josh Cobb, Northants' captain, said. "He's fitted in amazingly well with the dressing room and he's a perfect fit for how we want someone to go about things at the top of the order as well."
"Gareth is a brilliant guy. He fitted in our work ethic and culture straightaway," Paul Nixon, Leicestershire's head coach, exclaimed. "It's tough at the top of the order, facing their top bowlers and being ultra-positive against the new ball. But if he can win you two or three out of ten games, then you're going to go well. His legspin is underrated as well."
From the Irish perspective, it was a great loss when the ECB confirmed that Ireland's ascent to Test status meant their players could no longer play international cricket while fulfilling contracts as locals in county cricket. Tim Murtagh and Stuart Poynter both opted for the security of a county career, while Stirling had to give up his deal with Middlesex.
"I'm sure the guys will be looking at what opportunity there might be. What we're always looking for is high-intensity, high-pressure cricket for our players"
Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland's high performance director
And while Balbirnie and Stirling's international pedigree is well-known - not least after their mammoth partnership took Ireland to victory in the third ODI against England in August - Delany's success has been an additional boost in demonstrating that it is not only established stars who can do well at county level.
"For us, it's great for them to be playing at that level of cricket - particularly because we don't have an international programme at the moment," Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland's high performance director, explained. "We're very keen for them to play overseas, anywhere that's going to provide high-quality cricket and give them more of a learning opportunity and a higher profile."
Their presence in the competition is a sign of the times. "Not wanting to de-value the guys at all, but they will command lesser sums than some high-profile global figures," says Holdsworth. "And the only way their profile will grow is by playing well in these competitions."
Niall O'Brien, who represents all three of the Irishmen in this year's Blast - and several other squad members - as their agent, says that proximity and lower profiles can work in Ireland's favour.
"Knowing the county system and the trials and tribulations that clubs are going through financially, the general feedback has been counties won't be able to afford to bring in two 'big gun' overseas players," he said. "The Irish options are attractive from both a convenience point of view - it's a 40-minute flight [to England], after all - and because of their skillsets."
O'Brien says that all three counties have given him positive feedback regarding the possibility of renewing deals for next season, and says that he is hopeful Stirling will be picked up in next year's Hundred draft and potentially even as an overseas player in this winter's Big Bash League in Australia.
Next summer, counties will be able to field two overseas players in all competitions, with teams hoping to protect jobs for their Kolpak players post Brexit. With the best of those likely to play in the Hundred mid-season, several teams will have short-term vacancies to fill for the 50-over Royal London Cup, which could provide another opportunity for players like Delany, Curtis Campher and Mark Adair to get some cricket.
Of course, their availability depends on Ireland's international schedule. Cricket Ireland hope to reschedule their postponed fixtures from 2020 over the next three years - the pandemic meant they were unable to stage any home internationals this year - in addition to the other tours that were meant to take place. Further, there may be concerns about top players missing Irish domestic cricket. But with so many internationals representing a Leinster side that have dominated despite Delany and Balbirnie's absences this season, it may help to ensure some competitive balance.
This winter, there are provisional plans to travel to Zimbabwe after March's tour was delayed due to Covid-19, and Holdsworth is optimistic that the away series against Afghanistan in the new year will be staged, possibly in the UAE.
"It's going to be fairly busy [over the next 18 months]," Holdsworth admits, "But we always have gaps in the season and once more of next season's schedule is determined, I'm sure the guys will be looking at what opportunity there might be. What we're always looking for is high-intensity, high-pressure cricket for our players."
With the Blast's knockout stages squeezed into the space of three days, there is no question that Stirling and Delany will get exactly that.

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