Can Ireland stun the world again?

When Ireland take the field against the West Indies in their first match of the 2015 ICC World Cup in New Zealand on Monday (Sunday, 10pm Irish time), they will be cheered on by more than the handful of green onesied or leprechaun-costumed travelling fans in the 5,000 crowd at the Saxton Oval, Nelson. 

Can Ireland stun the world again?

Phil Simmons’ side will be the favourite ‘other’ team of many supporters of the major cricketing nations in the 49-match showpiece event in Australia and New Zealand this month.

Ireland’s stunning victories over Pakistan in 2007 and England in 2011 changed the World Cup narrative, where the smaller countries were expected to turn up, lose early and often, then fly home and let the big boys fight it out for the main prize.

Ireland’s success on the cricket field added a human story to the relentless, focused, often joyless professionalism of top-level sport.

George Dockrell and Paul Stirling were schoolboys watching on television when Ireland beat Pakistan in Sabina Park, Jamaica in 2007. Four years later, they were part of the team that shocked England in Bangalore.

Max Sorensen was working as a labourer on a building site the day Ireland beat England in 2011. He is expected to open the bowling against the West Indies.

Ireland’s World Cup giant-killing may have captivated the neutral cricket supporter, but it has irritated cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council.

When India and Pakistan failed to qualify for the second phase of the World Cup in 2007, television sets were switched off across the continent of Asia just 10 days into the 46­-day tournament.

The ICC has since changed the format of the World Cup to ensure the game’s financial powerhouse, India, in particular never suffers such indignity again.

14 countries will compete in the 2015 World Cup, with associate sides Ireland, Scotland, Afghanistan and UAE joining the 10 full members, and the extended group stage makes a 2007­type shock more unlikely.

The 2019 World Cup will comprise just 10 teams, with Ireland one of the countries likely to drop out unless they can win through via a convoluted and complicated qualification process.

Ireland’s funding model relies on handouts from the ICC’s India-bankrolled €1bn television deal and, in an organisation where money is power, Cricket Ireland’s urbane and charismatic chief executive Warren Deutrom has not been able to convince the ‘Big Three’ of India, Australia and England that the smaller nations do not pose a threat to the World Cup’s revenue streams.

Ireland’s players have used their pre-tournament media appearances to keep the issue alive. Ireland captain William Porterfield accused the major cricket nations of snubbing Ireland’s “open door” invitation to play them in the lead up to the World Cup.

“We need fixtures. We’re crying out for that,” he said.

“We need that kind of support. As a player, it is very frustrating. We’ve talked about World Cups and they’re four years apart. We’ve played nine games against top-eight teams since 2011. Nine games in four years in nothing, really. We need to be playing more.”

Ireland’s only hope of reversing the ICC’s decision rests on their performances during this World Cup.

If they qualify for the quarter-finals by making the top four of a seven-team group that also includes the West Indies, UAE, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India and Pakistan, pressure will build on the sport’s governing body to restore the 14­team tournament for 2019.

Three victories could see Ireland progress to the knockout stages, and Ireland all-rounder Kevin O’Brien believes the opening match against a struggling West Indies will set the tone for their tournament.

Eighth-ranked West Indies will be without Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard, high-profile supporters of a players’ strike earlier this year who have ostensibly been dropped “for cricketing reasons”, and spinner Sunil Narine, who withdrew from the squad in January to undergo remedial work on his suspect bowling action.

“The first game in any tournament is always probably the biggest game. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to start with a victory against the West Indies,” O’Brien said.

“We’ve beaten them before and they are obviously in slight turmoil off the pitch with them not picking a couple of their better players.”

Ireland’s own preparations have been far from ideal, with dispiriting defeats to Sydney club side Randwick Petersham and to Scotland, but confidence has been restored by Thursday’s four­wicket win over Bangladesh in their final warm-up.

Such optimism may be misplaced. Ireland’s bowling attack has been weakened by Trent Johnston’s retirement and Boyd Rankin’s defection to England, and, in the absence of the injured Tim Murtagh, Ireland will be heavily reliant on their inexperienced and untested pace bowler, Craig Young.

The batting is also a worry, with captain Porterfield, opener Paul Stirling and wicket-keeper Gary Wilson all struggling for form.

But Ireland’s ragged bunch of part-timers came into their first World Cup in 2007 on a similarly poor run, only to shock the world by making the last eight.

A similar outcome in 2015 may cause red faces at the ICC, but it is probably the best chance Ireland have of ensuring that their third World Cup will not also be their last.

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