Craig McDermott's Irish mavericks will keep Australia guessing
Veteran paceman has a mixed bag of bowling talent with which to take on his countrymen
When the full Ireland squad, including two county champions, assembled in Colombo last week, Craig McDermott held a bowling session and was astounded to see 12 members of the 15-man party turn up to turn their arms over.
This will have confirmed to McDermott, the firebrand quick who was one of the few Australians to emerge with credit from their Ashes misadventures of the Eighties, that he had signed up to coach a group of players with a reassuringly pure, almost quaint, enthusiasm.
Then he will have watched them run up to bowl and been left speechless all over again.
Ireland are a terrific group, and their feats over the past five years would make any end-of-decade highlights packages. Yesterday they defended 164 to beat Bangladesh in their last warm-up match for the World Twenty20, having hammered Zimbabwe last week. They continue to impress in spite of the fact that their bowling attack, with which McDermott was hired by the ICC to work for the course of this month's competition, is something of a basket case.
England Lions seamer Boyd Rankin, who played six games for title-winning Warwickshire alongside Ireland captain William Porterfield, will turn in his green jersey after this tournament, in the hope that concentrating on county cricket will allow him to fulfil his dream of playing for England. This is another Eoin Morgan situation, but one that hurts the Irish more: Rankin is 28 and has probably run out of time in England terms, and he is unique and irreplaceable.
Rankin's new-ball partner against Australia today and, fitness permitting, West Indies on Monday will be Trent Johnston, a 38-year-old veteran of the Sydney Grades who has already retired once and had major knee surgery last year.
Backing them up will be a miscellany of nearly men and talented bit-part players: Middlesex stalwart Tim Murtagh, who was granted Irish citizenship in January on account of his grandfather being a Dubliner; Kevin O'Brien, an astonishing striker of the ball; Alex Cusack, who hails from McDermott's native Brisbane and whose body lurches to the left at the moment of delivery.
McDermott is not working as closely with Ireland's spinners as their seamers in Sri Lanka, partly because he does not have to. George Dockrell, Somerset's mature and intelligent left-armer, is almost the finished article at 20. Paul Stirling's loopy, part-time off-spin has claimed celebrated scalps. Andrew White, who played a few games for Northamptonshire, knows his strengths and sticks to them.
So, you have to ask, what is McDermott, who four months ago was working with and winning praise for his effect on Ben Hilfenhaus and the latest production line of young Aussie quicks, supposed to do with this wacky band? He acknowledges the curiosities of the project but is aggressively polite about it too, arguing that the aforementioned bowlers are "technically very good.
"I think it's a pretty well-balanced attack and we have a lot of bowlers. We have a bowling net and we get 12 out of 15 coming along to bowl – that's something I'm certainly not used to," he said. "We've got two spinners, some medium-pacers and a couple of quicks, so it's pretty well-balanced and that gives the captain some choices during a game. If somebody isn't getting the ball to come out exactly right, there's somebody else who can take the slack.
"It is an interesting mix of players, and you are going to continue to get that while the set-up is the way it is. But it has come a long way in the last 15 or 20 years."
If they were to beat Australia today, it would set them up for a fourth passage beyond the first stage of a major tournament. "Yeah, their record probably hasn't been as good as they would have liked in the past couple of years in Twenty20," he says of Australia, again being polite. George Bailey's side are ranked one place above Ireland on the T20 ladder, in ninth. "But I'm sure they are working pretty hard on their game too, so I'm not too concerned about what they are doing. We'll leave their cricket to them and we'll play our cricket, and whoever plays better will come out the winner."
McDermott was typically Australian in that he saved his greatest feats for the Ashes. He played 17 of his 71 Tests against England and averaged 26.30, and he took 8 for 97 at the Waca in 1991. He was a good bowler and, married three times, he has overcome personal problems to establish himself as a good coach. Today the enemy is Australia.
"It's one thing to have the knowledge of our opponents and pass it on, but we've got to be sharp enough and good enough to be able to execute what we discuss," he said, playing down his espionage role. "That's our goal. We've got to be able to deal with what the likes of the Warners, the Husseys, the Watsons and those sorts of players throw at us."
McDermott could not have known what awaited him as Ireland bowling coach. With nine bowlers carrying out his instructions, Australia won't know what awaits them today.
'We did not take T20 seriously'
Australia are finally coming to terms with the demands of Twenty20 cricket after failing to take the shortest form of the game seriously, their World Cup captain, George Bailey, said yesterday.
The four-times 50-overs World Cup champions' best performance in the T20 game has been reaching the final of the 2010 tournament against eventual winners England in the West Indies. They lost by seven wickets.
"My personal opinion is, I think, that it has taken a little while for Australia to take T20 seriously," said Bailey. "We have changed the team a lot. I think we are trying to get there."
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