When Cricket South Africa announced last November that they had invited Ireland to play two one-day internationals in Benoni ahead of their series against Australia in September 2016, there was some quiet jubilation in Irish cricketing circles.
This is what Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom and head coach John Bracewell had been agitating for, privately in board meetings and publicly in media interviews: An opportunity to take on the major nations outside of World Cups, a chance to test themselves against the best more than once every four years.
Nine months later, the anticipation has been replaced by foreboding.
They face the Proteas on Sunday, and Steve Smith’s top-ranked Australia side two days later, needing to restore creditability after a miserable summer of white-ball cricket. They started the season with high hopes of finally winning a match on home soil against one of the major cricketing nations, only to be humbled by both Sri Lanka and Pakistan. True, they drew a bad-tempered series with Afghanistan in Belfast, but only thanks to two brilliant centuries from the evergreen Ed Joyce.
But Joyce, who turned 38 on Thursday, misses the tour with an ankle injury, while Ireland’s fastest bowler Boyd Rankin is sidelined after suffering a broken leg last month.
The International Cricket Council [ICC] are likely to confer Test status on Ireland in October, so the optics matter. A repeat of the 82 all out they limped to against Pakistan in August will add ammunition to those who argue Ireland are not ready to make that step up.
South Africa, who have won all four previous meetings and thrashed William Porterfield’s side by 201 runs in the 2015 World Cup, will be without the injured AB de Villiers and the rested Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn in Benoni.
“AB has been on a rigorous rehabilitation and treatment plan for the last six weeks but is still complaining of pain in the elbow region,” said South Africa team manager Dr Mohammed Moosajee. Tim Murtagh is likely to lead Ireland’s bowling attack in the 27C heat of Willowmoore Park.
The 35-year-old, who received special dispensation to join the tour late in order to play in Middlesex’s Championship decider against Yorkshire at Lord’s, missed out on their title celebrations to catch the 9pm overnight flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg.
Murtagh, who was scheduled to land in South Africa at 8am local time on Saturday, says he is ready to play against Faf du Plessis’ side 26 hours later despite the “draining” four days of high-intensity cricket with Middlesex. “If I had been out in South Africa I would have been training every day, so I don’t see too much difference,” he said.
“I hope to have a good sleep on the flight over, have a day to get used to the conditions, and then get straight into it.”
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