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Andy Balbirnie: 'We're a Test member but at the moment it only really feels like a name'

Ireland captain rues the team's lack of opportunities in the longest format and looks ahead to their USA, Caribbean tours

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Andy Balbirnie will look to rebuild the Ireland team with David Ripley, the stand-in head coach  •  Peter Della Penna

Andy Balbirnie will look to rebuild the Ireland team with David Ripley, the stand-in head coach  •  Peter Della Penna

"Test cricket looks fun," Andy Balbirnie, Ireland's captain, tweeted on the second morning of the first Ashes Test. "Anyone want a game?? Seriously."
Ireland will head into the new year with the same, old problems: funding, facilities and fixtures. Their progress has been slow since they became Full Members of the ICC in 2017, highlighted by a first-round exit at the 2021 T20 World Cup after a humbling defeat to Namibia, and it is two-and-a-half years since they last played a Test.
"We're a Test member, or a Full Member, but at the moment it only really feels like a name," Balbirnie said on Tuesday. "Nothing's really showing for that. We've had our days out at Lord's and Malahide but apart from that, all I can see is a name. It'll be three years in the summer that we haven't played a Test match."
Ireland's ascent to Full-Member status means that, after a two-year grace period, their players no longer qualify as locals in county cricket, taking away a crucial breeding ground. "In my opinion, that was hugely detrimental to some of the young cricketers here," Balbirnie said.
"It's massively disappointing, watching all of these brilliant Test series around the world - the Ashes particularly, staying up all night to watch such an historic series. I go back to that Lord's Test because it was the highlight of a career. For the young guys coming through to maybe not have that experience again, that's hugely disappointing."
The latest version of the Future Tours Programme sees Ireland pencilled in to play away Tests against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the next 18 months, but they are used to having fixtures cancelled at short notice, not least during the Covid era.
Their long-term fixture list has been hit by the ICC's decision to scrap the World Cup Super League after its inaugural edition - though Balbirnie admits there is an element of relief that the prospect of relegation for the next World Cup cycle is now off the table.
"It's a great thing for countries who aren't in the Super League to strive towards," Balbirnie said. "Certainly Holland had that opportunity in this [cycle] to play against the top teams, and they're games that the countries below where we are need to play - to see how they can go against the top teams, and also to get kids to want to follow them.
"The possibility of getting relegated from that league had some huge knock-on effects and some potentially damning years ahead, so without beating around the bush, there is a bit of a relief in that regard - but long-term, for the worldwide game, it's a disappointing move but something we can't control."
The immediate outlook is more positive as Ireland look to rebuild following their early exit at the T20 World Cup and Graham Ford's departure as head coach. They are in Florida over the Christmas period for two T20Is and three ODIs, becoming the first Full Member to play against USA on American soil in the process, and will then fly to Jamaica on New Year's Eve for three Super League ODIs and a one-off T20I against West Indies.
Their preparation has been hit by Covid, with several players returning positive tests in the build-up to the series, but David Ripley - the interim head coach - has a team that is nearly at full strength for Wednesday's opening game.
One positive on this tour is that Covid restrictions have been eased, after several series in bubbles. "It's the way, in my opinion, it has to be going forward," Balbirnie said. "That bit of freedom makes it a completely different tour with a lot less stress. I think all of us are double-jabbed; I'm not going to say everyone should be [but] the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to protect yourself and others around you."
Kevin O'Brien has been dropped, with the selectors bringing the curtain down on his fine international career. In his absence, Balbirnie, who had a disappointing T20 World Cup with 70 runs off 73 balls across three innings, will shift up to open the batting alongside Paul Stirling.
Shane Getkate will bat at No. 5 as a finisher, with William McClintock also likely to slot into the middle order, and Curtis Campher is expected to fill the role as the "glue" batter, the role in which Alex Wakely thrived when Ripley coached Northamptonshire to two T20 Blast titles.
"When we sat down after the World Cup and looked at the areas we stumbled in," Balbirnie said. "Our boundary count in the middle [overs] hasn't been good enough or consistent enough, and that's something we need to address. We don't want to put too much pressure on our batters but we understand that's an area we need to improve."
Ireland will have to improve quickly, with the qualifiers for next year's T20 World Cup due to be staged in Muscat in February. They will be the favourites to seal one of the two spots up for grabs in their half of the qualifying draw (a separate qualifier will be held in Zimbabwe in July) but will face competition from Oman, Nepal and UAE in particular.
"We were really disappointed about the T20 World Cup," Balbirnie added, "and this is just a chance to go out and try to play with a bit of freedom and give the guys confidence to go out and express themselves. It's easy to say that but we've all got to go out and do it once we get over that line. I've seen a lot of good stuff in the period we have had here."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98