He faced the real prospect of exclusion from Ireland’s World Cup squad. While acclaimed as another stylish, technically correct product of Dublin, qualities that had earned him a contract with Middlesex, Balbirnie was lacking in the currency of runs.
He had scored just 89 runs in his first seven ODIs, and just one run across two T20 appearances in county cricket last season.
Nevertheless, he was taken on the World Cup acclimatisation tour of Australia and New Zealand — or what swiftly descended into the ‘tour from hell’.
Balbirnie had made a difficult start, but 86 against the Australian Capital Territory, a game he was not down to play in until Gary Wilson pulled out with injury, turned his form around. He hit two more half-centuries on the tour, finishing as Ireland’s top run-scorer, and then thumped 129, from just 96 balls, against a strong New Zealand A side in Dubai to secure his place in the World Cup squad.
“I knew that if I wanted to break into this high quality batting line-up, I would have to score runs,” he says. “I haven’t down anything different technically, it’s just been in my head.”
By January, it was clear Balbirnie had forced his way into not just the final World Cup XV, but also the starting XI. He hit 31 not out to underpin a three-wicket win over Afghanistan, an innings that helped persuade Phil Simmons that he had the class and temperament to bat higher up the order.
An unbeaten 63 in a World Cup warm-up win against Bangladesh came from number six, and when Ireland began their World Cup campaign against the West Indies, Balbirnie had been promoted to number five. He blocked his first ball and lashed his next two through the covers for four, proof that he would not be overawed by the World Cup.
After making nine against the West Indies, Balbirnie contributed 30 against the UAE, adding 74 with Gary Wilson as Ireland recovered from 97-4 to chase down 279 to win. The top order collapse — 48-5 — was even worse against South Africa.
Balbirnie’s half-century, in which he became increasingly assured after a tense start, was his first in ODI cricket, as he rose to the challenge of the best bowling attack he had ever faced. Still, no one was anticipating Balbirnie would receive yet another promotion, to number four, against Zimbabwe.
“It was a bit of a late decision. The offspinner was bowling and Simmo just said to me: ‘Get the pads on and get ready.’ I was planning to bat five.”
The rationale for promoting Balbirnie was simple: he is a right-hander, and left-handers Will Porterfield and Ed Joyce were getting bogged down by offspin.
It was a decision that showed commendable adaptability, without which Ireland would surely now be out and facing a World Cup exit. “We have a very flexible batting order,” he says. “The guys can bat anywhere really.”
Balbirnie imbued the innings against Zimbabwe with fresh impetus. Ireland were 79-1 off 20.1 overs when he arrived at the crease, and stalling somewhat. They added 247 in just 29 overs while Balbirnie was there. Though Ed Joyce played superbly in his century, Balbirnie’s was a more fluent, and chanceless, innings, showing off his dexterity against spin.
“I was happy with the way I swept — sweeping is a big part of my game,” he says. “The sweep is my bread and butter to spinners and it came off.” Two of Balbirnie’s four sixes came from the shot.
The only shame was the innings did not end in a century: Balbirnie was run out for 97 off 79 balls in the final over, attempting a two to hold onto the strike. “It was disappointing but it’s cricket — if you told me I’d get 97, I would have bitten both your arms off,” he says.
Now the world champions await. A victory either against India or Pakistan would be enough to secure Ireland’s place in the quarter-finals and, Balbirnie hopes, strengthen Ireland’s case for further opportunities against the cricket elite. ”
As a team we know we’re good enough to play at the top level,” he says. “If we can get another two points we’ll keep knocking on the door until we bang it down.”