While beating Pakistan and England in World Cup competitions are certainly some of the highlights of Ireland cricket, losing to Namibia, the Netherlands and most recently to the United States capped off what has been an incredibly poor 2021 for Ireland, perhaps their worst year ever.
Moreover, with no Tests in the last couple of years, their full-member status has been nothing short of an eyewash so far, something their captain Andy Balbirnie has acknowledged.
"We're a Test member, or a Full Member, but at the moment it only really feels like a name," Balbirnie said in an interview to ESPN Cricinfo last month.
"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."
For years, many teams such as Ireland have battled to be among the elite teams to have the license to play Test cricket, but when it finally arrived, they have been given limited opportunities to showcase their skills at the highest level.
Ireland are to play away series against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the next 18 months or so, but given the Covid uncertainty that looms large, it will not be a surprise to see them not materialise into reality. However, one can hope, can’t they?
2022 could be a massive year for Ireland. Their first target will be to seal a spot in the 2022 World Cup. They are favourites for one of the two spots from their group, but will face stiff competition from the likes of Oman, UAE and Nepal.
They could also play as many as four Tests this year as things stand -- against Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Afghanistan -- which could get them to finally resume playing in the longest format after three long years, along with plenty of ODIs and T20Is.
By defeating England in their own backyard in a high-scoring ODI in 2020, Ireland had given the world hope that on their day, they can brush aside top sides, but what followed was utter disappointment. Keeping the fact they have not played a Test in two years besides their performances in limited-overs – something they pride themselves on too has drastically dropped.
Other than an impressive ODI win over South Africa, their T20I series win over Zimbabwe was perhaps the only highlight as a team. At the T20 World Cup, in a group where they were placed alongside Sri Lanka and Namibia, it looked the Irish were favourites to make it through to the next round. When they defeated Netherlands in the first match, it drove home the point further. It gave a sense that they had no baggage whatsoever of the ODI series loss against the Dutch and a T20I series whitewash against the Proteas not too long ago.
When Joshua Little had Sri Lanka reeling at 8 for 3 in the next game, one thought Ireland will go through to the Super 12s without any hiccup. However, they never really recovered after the 123-run stand between Pathum Nissanka and Wanindu Hasaranga – losing that and their next game against Namibia.
What followed was Graham Ford stepping down as Ireland head coach to make way for Heinrich Malan. Malan will take over from March and has a pedigree of winning trophies at the domestic circuit in New Zealand. He has the Plunket Shield, Ford Trophy and Super Smash on his resume and will look to bring the winning attitude to the Irish side who are in desperate need of it.
It will not be an easy task for him as he looks to rebuild from scratch. For instance, is Kevin O’Brien part of Ireland’s plans? He was dropped for the series against USA and now against West Indies. If so, who replaces him at the top? Skipper Balbirnie stepped up and opened with Stirling against the US. Is that a long-term solution?
Amid all this, if there was one player who stood out for Ireland, it was Paul Stirling. He scored 1,187 runs across formats at an average of 43.96, which included four centuries and three fifties from 30 innings in 2021. Next best: Balbirnie with 669 runs at 23.89 – 518 behind. Clearly, no one from the team has been able to play second-fiddle to Stirling.
On the bowling front, 2021 was a breakout year for the skiddy left-arm pacer Josh Little. He managed 17 wickets at 20.15 in the ODIs and 12 wickets at an economy rate under six to finish as the highest wicket-taker for Ireland.
Mark Adair and Simi Singh too have shown glimpses of their class, with the former scalping 24, striking every 12.1 deliveries wickets in 2021 in T20Is, but like Stirling, he too fought a lone battle in the shortest format.
George Dockrell, who as a teenager dismissed Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni in the same match at the 2011 World Cup in Bangalore, has now shifted focus as a batter. With the likes of Curtis Campher, Shane Getkate and also Simi Singh stepping up with the bat, Dockrell, who lead the charts in Ireland’s Inter-Provincial Limited-Overs Cup 2021 with 364 runs at 121.33 has been tipped to take over the middle-order spot.
Despite a good performance in the domestic circuit, he has been unable to transform his batting skills at the international level, having scored just 151 runs from eight ODI innings and in the T20Is he has managed just 95 runs at 19 – numbers that are not good enough if you are looking to seal a spot in the middle-order.
Stirling’s unbeaten 131 against UAE, Simi’s ton against South Africa, Campher’s four-wicket in four balls or be it Balbirnie’s match-winning 102 against South Africa - there have been many individual sparks in the Irish camp, however, more often than not, the results have not tilted in their favour.
Their win/loss ratio in 2021 (0.555) was slightly better than 2020 (0.250), but it was more of a chance to prove that the men in green have indeed taken a huge step and were better off than where they were 3-4 years ago.
However, with just six wins out of 16 T20Is and just four in 14 T20Is, which as mentioned earlier have included losses to the UAE, Netherlands and Namibia is just good enough to cut it at this level.
While Balbirnie may think the term ‘Full member’ is nothing more than a tag with no relevance as far as Test cricket is concerned, 2022 promises to be a year where it could be put to the test.