History often plays a key role in determining the intensity of a rivalry, especially when it comes to international sporting events. It holds true for India and Pakistan, especially in sports such as cricket and hockey, as it does for neighbours Ireland and England.
Ireland might not be England's fiercest rivals purely from a cricketing perspective, given the latter's history with other teams such as Australia, South Africa, the West Indies, India, etc coupled with the fact that the Irish cricket is still a developing entity. However, given the number of flashpoints in their shared history, including and especially Ireland's struggle for independence from the UK and the subsequent partition of the island, one can understand the satisfaction that Irish fans derive when they beat the 'enemy' in a sporting event, whether rugby, football or cricket.
Andy Balbirnie, who will be leading Ireland in the three-ODI series against England that begins on 30 July, agrees with the notion that history between two nations certainly does add flavour to a sporting rivalry, adding that people in Ireland almost grow up hating on the English.
"I don’t know if it’s as big as the India-Pakistan rivalry, having watched some of those games over the years. But, certainly growing up as a kid in Dublin you’re kind of brought up to not want… to almost hate the English, whether it’s rugby or soccer, you always want to beat England, and teams put in their best performance when they play England.
"There’s obviously so much history that I don’t know enough about, but I know that it means a lot to people over in Ireland that whenever we do play England, no matter what the sport, people get behind us and really want us to be successful.
"Given the fact that they’re world champions as well, it just adds to that rivalry that’s already there," Balbirnie told Firstpost in the build-up to the series.
The two nations might be a lot more evenly matched when it comes to sports such as rugby, in which England and Ireland are ranked third and fourth respectively in the men's global rankings. However, the disparity between the two sides is evident in the fact that one won the ICC World Cup last year, while the other failed to even qualify for the ten-team event.
Talking about the challenge that lies ahead of them, Balbirnie acknowledged England being world champions does make it all the more difficult even if the squad named for the fixtures has a lot of non-regular members. The England-Ireland ODI series has been sandwiched between the West Indies and Pakistan tours, resulting in the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) including a lot of fresh faces for the Ireland games. Just eight members of the World Cup-winning squad have been retained, while seven of them are yet to make their international debut.
"It will be a huge challenge. They’re obviously the world champions. But it is a different squad. They obviously have to pick two different squads because of the Test series that they’ve got with West Indies and Pakistan upcoming.
"They’ve still a lot of good cricketers in that squad, a few of us have played county cricket, so we know a lot of their new players and younger players. They’ve obviously got that core still of Morgan, Bairstow, Roy, Rashid. So they have got experience, players who have played in a World Cup final and have been successful," said Balbirnie.
However, heading into a series as underdogs isn't something that's new to the Irishmen, and Balbirnie believes England's superpower status in the cricketing world will do little to faze them.
"A lot of our cricket is about dealing with huge challenges because we’re playing against the best teams in the world on a regular basis, obviously pre-COVID. So, it won’t faze us. It’s just important that we go out there and express ourselves and not go into our shells."
England captain Morgan, who had represented Ireland from 2006 to 2009 and was a vital cog in their batting unit in those years before switching nationalities, is someone who commands a lot of respect within Irish cricket circles, and Balbirnie calls himself fortunate to have been playing alongside his senior in Middlesex.
"There’s a lot of respect for Eoin Morgan in Irish cricket for what he’s done. Not just for Irish cricket, but for English cricket and for world cricket. He was obviously a class above everyone else here at the time and he had an ambition and he fulfilled that ambition.
"There are three or four guys in our squad who are best friends with him, and would be really close with him, played underage cricket with him and played for Middlesex with him. Look, he’s a great guy and he’s someone who’s always good to have a chat with, and I, fortunately, got to play with him in Middlesex when I was there," said the right-handed batsman.
Will the familiarity between the Irish players and Morgan lead to some chirping at the centre when the English captain walks out to bat? Balbirnie disagrees.
"I don’t think there’s going to be extra chirp when he comes in to bat. There’s obviously a huge amount of respect for him, not just as a captain but as a cricketer, and we want to get him out as soon as possible obviously because he could be so destructive. But, we’ll have plans in place… but in terms of chirping, I don’t think so."
Balbirnie was part of the playing XI for each of the three Tests Ireland have played since entering the elite club along with Afghanistan in 2017. Their last Test outing was against England at the 'Home of Cricket' in July last year, just a few days after the World Cup final. The visitors threatened to pull off an unlikely upset when they had England bowled out for a paltry 85 in their first innings before collecting a 122-run lead. The second half of the Test however was a completely different story as England scored 303 to set a 182-run target, and skittled Ireland out for just 38 — less than half of what they managed to collect in their first essay.
It remains a special fixture for Balbirnie personally, as playing the most elite form of the sport at the hallowed turf of Lord's isn't something that happens quite regularly for Irish cricketers. However, when asked about the defining moment in Irish cricket, Balbirnie chose the 2007 victory over Pakistan in the World Cup as one that the country on the cricketing map.
"One that I was involved in, for me, it was probably the first day of the Test match at Lord’s last year. But I think the most significant for Irish cricket would be 2007 against Pakistan. We’ve had some great moments since then — Kevin’s hundred, beating the West Indies. But I don’t think any of that could’ve happened if it wasn’t for that 2007 victory against Pakistan. I don’t think I’d be a professional cricketer if it wasn’t for that," said Balbirnie.
The upcoming series will be no different from the West Indies in that there will be no spectators at the ground, with players and officials confined to a bio-secure environment in which the COVID-19 protocols will be followed to the T. Southampton, which will be hosting all three one-dayers, has the added advantage of having a hotel at the Ageas Bowl itself, making the job of isolating players all the easier for the ECB.
📸: TRAINING DAY
It was a training day at the Ageas Bowl under blue skies today.
— Cricket Ireland (@Irelandcricket) July 21, 2020
While a number of cricketers, both former as well as current, have spoken about the 'new normal' of playing in front of empty stands and how the sport isn't quite the same without the noise and energy that the spectators bring, Balbirnie for one believes the Irish team has the advantage of being used to playing cricket in the absence of big crowds, unlike their neighbours.
"Yeah I mean it will be strange no doubt. Look, we’ve played in stadiums around the world where we haven’t had many fans at all, playing Afghanistan in the Test match last year in Dehradun, there wasn’t a lot of people. Playing some games in the UAE, there wasn’t a lot of people. So, we’d probably be accustomed to it a bit more than the English guys who are used to playing in front of packed county grounds, packed international grounds.
"It will be different not having anyone there, not even family or friends, so that will take a bit of getting used to. But it’s the same for both teams. It might come into our favour because they’ve got a couple of big-game players who probably thrive on the crowd and the noise, and maybe they might struggle in the environment of no crowd.
"But, as long as there’s live sport happening, I’m happy and luckily we’re going to be part of that in the next few weeks," concluded Balbirnie.irel
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