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Stirling's World Cup best puts battle-hardened Ireland in uncharted territory

Having exited at the first-round stage in the last three T20 World Cups, Ireland have reached Super 12s thanks to a transformed approach

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Paul Stirling and George Dockrell are the only players in the current Ireland squad who have been this far at a T20 World Cup before. And they didn't have to work nearly as hard for it.
In 2012, before this tournament was divided into a first round and a Super 10 or Super 12 stage, a dozen teams were grouped into pools of three. That was the last time Ireland danced with the big dogs in this format. A decade and three failed first rounds later, they can finally feel the beat again and they can't wait to get onto the floor.
"It's a big thing," Andy Balbirnie, Ireland's captain said. "The World Cups are changing, the fifty-over game is changing, and we haven't had many opportunities in those World Cups of late. To be in this next phase against the best teams in the world in front of hopefully big crowds - the crowd today was pretty amazing albeit mostly our parents and some wives and girlfriends just roaring their heads off - it was a pretty special day to be an Irish cricketer. Hopefully we'll have a few more over the next couple of weeks."
Ireland's band of traveling supporters are likely to extend their time in Australia - especially Balbirnie's parents who are retired, so he doesn't "know why they wouldn't stay" - to immerse themselves in an experience that has been a long time in the making. "It's such a special place to tour. Cricket is so popular here," Balbirnie said. "I'm sure we are going to be playing in pretty amazing stadiums and these opportunities don't come around every year. If I was in their position I'd be staying on for as long as possible."
Stirling was clearly thinking the same thing against West Indies. He put in his best performance at a T20 World Cup - and he has played in all seven Ireland have contested - to anchor a clinical chase.
Before this match, Stirling had batted 15 times in T20 World Cups, scored 245 runs, and averaged 18.84, with one fifty. Those are not the numbers expected of a team's most experienced player and scrutiny over his performances was growing everywhere but in the Irish camp.
"I don't think I have ever doubted Paul. He is such a classy player and a key member of this team," Balbirnie said. "We've played cricket together since we were nine. We know each other and our games inside-out. We are very close off the pitch. We knew how much this meant. His knock was outstanding. He went quite hard in the Powerplay and then knocked it around for the rest of the innings and allowed Lorcan [Tucker] to play his game. It was just a really classy chase."
After their tense finish against Scotland two days ago, which was only successful thanks to Dockrell and Curtis Campher's middle-order heroics, Ireland wanted to show that they could put together something more convincing. They also wanted to prove they had changed from the team that crashed out of last year's first round, and that they had turned around what many spoke of as a regression in their game. And they did it, with what Balbirnie called a "pretty complete performance", which began with their bowlers restricting West Indies to a below-par score, followed by their batters bossing a chase a less confident team may have bottled. "There's a lot of emotions because we've had a long 12 months of trying to figure out how we want to play this game," Balbirnie said.
Ireland's tactical introspection began when Heinrich Malan took over as head coach in January and began to change the way they play the shortest format to fall more in line with the aggressive approach being adopted everywhere from England to Zimbabwe. They trialled it in the home summer, where they lost seven matches in a row to India, New Zealand and South Africa, before finally beating Afghanistan in a series they won 3-2. While the defeats stung, they were part of a learning experience.
"We are quite fortunate we get to play against some of the best teams in the world this summer. Playing our kind of old-school way wouldn't have been successful, but trying to play an exciting brand of cricket we can compete with them," Balbirnie said. "We ran South Africa and India pretty close. Playing that way brings out the best in us and we get the chance to play even bigger teams in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully we can continue backing ourselves."
And that is one thing they have learnt how to do, thanks in no small part to the likes of Stirling and Dockrell. They played starring roles the last time Ireland beat West Indies when it mattered at a major tournament, in the 2015 ODI World Cup in the same country. This victory is their biggest moment on the global stage since, and they will want to make it count.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent