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Cricket news - England kick-off World Cup preparation with hard graft
England may have emerged victorious against Ireland in Malahide but they were given an almighty fright by a determined and disciplined home side. Ireland gave it their all to reduce England to 101 for six, chasing just shy of 200, creating a huge opportunity to register just a second ever victory over their neighbours from across the Irish Sea. But Ireland, so committed, so good, just couldn't finish off the job. You could not but feel for them.
Once again, the folly of the ICC's decision to limit the World Cup to ten teams has been shown up for what it is: a shameless moneygrab by the more powerful boards. Scotland beat England, the world's number one team, last year and Ireland pushed them close today, rubbishing any suggestion of a lack of competitiveness between the established nations and the associates. Ireland will have the chance to hammer that message home in their upcoming tri-series against West Indies and Bangladesh that begins on Sunday.
That they pushed England so close was thanks to some clever, canny bowling, some excellent fielding and some poor England batting. Yes, the visitors were missing five of their first choice top seven, all of whom will return for the series against Pakistan, but their side contained enough class and experience to chase down Ireland's 198 all out easily. It should have been a walk in the park. Instead, it turned into a scatty, brainfade.
In truth, it was not a vintage game. On a bitterly cold day the match contained few glimpses of brilliance from either side, although some of Ireland's catching was superb. Conditions probably played a part in that, although the pitch was certainly better than the scores suggest, and so too, perhaps, did some rustiness from both sets of batsmen in their first international outing of the summer. Whereas the bowling was generally good, there were plenty of loose shots to go round.
Joshua Little, on debut, was the star of Ireland's show. Short, stocky and left-arm, he finished with 4-45, picking up the wickets of Eoin Morgan, James Vince and David Malan. Mixing up short balls with fuller ones, England just kept hitting him to fielders. He was probing, medium paced and wily, the type of bowler this England team hate. They would much prefer someone wanging it down at 95mph.
Not that Little's bouncer wasn't sharp enough. Just ask Morgan who was caught off the glove attempting to evade a delivery. Or Tom Curran, who was fencing Little away from in front of his face, both feet off the ground, late on.
Because it was not the rampant performance that many expected, there will be the inevitable cries that England are falling apart just at the wrong moment, imploding a matter of weeks before the World Cup after four relatively serene years of destroying all in their path. After all, their last assignment was an underwhelming drawn series in West Indies, the world's eighth ranked team, and with off-field issues distracting them in the build-up to this match, things are not quite going to plan.
But perspective is needed. At full strength, England have all bases covered, particularly now Jofra Archer's all-round package is available to them. They also have depth in their squad and a game-plan that they know and that has worked successfully for a long period of time. They also have Morgan, a fine leader who is not easily flustered. Things are a long way from being panic stations yet.
There's also the small matter of Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Jason Roy, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood to return.
There were positives for England today, too. Tom Curran and Liam Plunkett bowled well in sharing seven wickets between them, an encouraging response to the challenge laid down by Archer's inclusion in the squad, and Archer himself hinted that he is the sort of potent, wicket-taking option all good sides need in the middle overs. In calmly taking England to victory, Ben Foakes played like he had 100 caps to his name rather than just one. And as normal, Adil Rashid did Adil Rashid things. Namely, be ruddy excellent.
Archer's debut was low-key. His first spell with the new ball was slightly off and Paul Stirling greeted his first ball in international cricket with a crisp cover drive which raced to the boundary. But Archer gradually ramped up his pace and bowled better as the day wore on. He knocked over Mark Adair with a 90mph yorker for his first England wicket which is not a shabby way of opening one's account.
While England will be pleased to emerge unscathed, an Irish victory would have been so important to the hosts for a number of reasons, not least because of the exposure it would have given the game in a country where it still needs to fight for attention. That is the added pressure these Irish players are under each time they take the field.
Opportunities to beat the big boys don't come round very often, mainly because the big boys don't turn up enough to play them, but when they do, they aren't just matters of winning and losing for teams like Ireland. There's more to it than that. They have to make these games count, both financially and in terms of showcasing the sport in the best light. Victories against the top teams puts cricket on the front pages and on the TV and radio. Defeats, no matter how close, don't do the job of publicising the game nearly as well.
Of late, Ireland have been going through a transitional phase after the retirements of a number of long-serving players. Their form has been patchy and there's the sense that Test status, which they received last year, has come at a time when their playing resources are not as strong as they have been. Pushing England so close will, at the very least, have given them confidence that this current group can mix it with the best.
And in the performances of Little and fellow quick Mark Adair, there was also promise for the future, performances to inspire confidence in what Ireland can achieve and proof that they can develop players who have the skill and nous for the top level.
More than anything, though, it was further proof that more opportunities need to be given to countries such as Ireland. They should have beaten the world's best ODI team today. Uncompetitive? Stop it. The ICC and governing bodies need to open their eyes.
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