Andrew Balbirnie took over from William Porterfield as Ireland captain © Getty
In an exclusive chat with Cricbuzz, Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie opened up on what he expects the pitches in Bangladesh to be like, the need for Ireland to play first-class cricket, integrating Curtis Campher into the dressing room with ease, how massive an achievement it would be for his side if they qualify for the 2023 ODI World Cup, and a lot more.
What was your major challenge in the BPL?
When you play in a new team you want to get to know people as soon as possible and I was quite fortunate that Tamim was in this team as well as Shai Hope and all those guys with whom I can talk about international cricket. So I think adapting to the team and getting to know them well and find out what makes them good. It was the main challenge for me.
What kind of wicket are you expecting in the upcoming series against Bangladesh?
You always have the perception of sub-continent and it’s always like slow, spinning wickets. I think the wickets were quite good in the BPL. Sylhet was a very good wicket, tricky under the lights. There are lot of high-scoring games in the BPL. Chittagong is probably the best wicket in the country and I think we will play the T20 there and it will be nice to get that.
How important is this tour in a World Cup year?
I think we have to qualify for the World Cup first and that’s still a bit hard for us. Bangladesh have its challenges and it is very different to what we play back home. So it’s an amazing place to play cricket, and I am really looking forward to taking the Irish team there. Hopefully have a pretty good series with Bangladesh.
What are your thoughts on World Cup Qualification?
It’s interesting. We have a three-match series against Bangladesh in May. We probably got to win three nil to qualify. That would be very difficult, you know Bangladesh are a very good one-day team. It’s made a bit easier that we will be playing in our own condition rather than here (in Bangladesh) as I think over the last couple of years they have proved to be a top 50-over team particularly in their own condition. If we don’t qualify automatically we will go to the qualifier in Zimbabwe which is fine and it will be tough.
When you took on the leadership role, Ireland were going through a transitional period. What was your major challenge then and what is your major challenge now?
I think the major challenge at that time was making sure that we had a good group of young cricketers and exposed them to international cricket on regular basis. It was tricky during covid and it wasn’t that much cricket. Our A teams could not play much cricket because of restrictions and so there was that challenge and we had to make sure we nurtured some young players and make sure they were ready. You know the older guys that retired like Porterfield, Kevin O’ Brien and we need to make sure that they [youngsters] perform as well as they did. That was the immediate challenge.
Then we have grown and we became a successful team and started winning game regularly and competing on the world stage. I think slowly over two-three years since I have been captain, we have done that. We had a good world cup in Australia and our 50-over form is pretty good and we have beaten some top teams. Certainly qualifying for this World Cup will be our biggest achievement, if we can do that.
What will be your major challenge if you qualify for India?
I think if we qualify, we will have substantial time for preparations and if we qualify we will go to India a good couple of weeks beforehand to get used to the condition as much as possible. I think if we qualify, it will be 10 teams and we will be playing nine very good teams. We will probably be the lowest ranked team among them if we qualify so it will be really tough for us to progress. We like that sort of challenge.
If we qualify, we will have some sort of momentum. There is couple of guys like George Dockrell and Paul Stirling who played 2011 World Cup in India and their knowledge will be valuable as well. There are a lot of different thing that we can look to prepare, but first what we have to do is get there and qualify.
You have beaten some of the top teams in the world. How do those win motivate you?
I think that’s been a mental thing for our team. We have beaten South Africa, we have won a series in the Caribbean and we have beaten England in one-day cricket and T20 cricket, so we have beaten top teams and we know if we play good cricket on our day we can beat anyone and that’s bit of a shift in mindset. In previous years, a team has to have a bad day for us to win but that’s not the case anymore and we have shown on the biggest stage that we can beat these team.
About your batting approach. You’ve always liked to take on the attack when the chips are down. Is that the sort of mentality you’d want to pass on to your players as well?
I think so. If we want to compete with the best teams in the world, we have to play cricket like the way they play cricket. Certainly in the World Cup in Australia, we were playing England, Australia, and New Zealand. If we play cautious cricket against them, we weren’t going succeed, so we were happy to play in a certain way, and if we lose we lose, that’s the game. At the end of the game, we should be proud of our performance and that’s the most important thing. We made a thing to focus solely on our performance and not worry about result because the result will always look after itself no matter who you play and where you play. We just want to play good cricket so people come and watch us.
Do you miss Test cricket? Ireland doesn’t have many Tests coming up?
I think it’s still my favourite form of cricket. I have been very fortunate to play Test cricket. I played three Tests and got the chance to play at Lords and play Ireland’s first Test and those are memorable occasions for me. I think for us to develop as a Test nation, we have to play more. We are going to play against Bangladesh, and in June play against best Test team probably at the moment (England) and debut against India and Australia. How we are supposed to pick a Test team? We have no first-class cricket and I don’t even know where my white pads are.
You would have to pick the Test team based on ODI performances then?
I think you have to. We play pretty solid ODI cricket. We don’t have 40 players or 50 players to pick from, we have 20 to 22 players. We have a fair bit of idea of a lot of players’ technique and what they can do. We are just going to pick a squad and back them to do it for a longer period of time rather than 50 overs.
Don’t you think Ireland should introduce first-class cricket and on regular basis?
Yeah, definitely. Going forward that has to happen. I think I understood why they got rid of first-class cricket because there were no Test fixtures, and Covid happened and money was an issue and so they decided to focus on white-ball cricket so domestic cricket was all white-ball cricket.
Now we are starting to get bit more Test cricket, so it would be nice to have some first-class cricket in Ireland. We need our 19, 20 or 21 year-old cricketers to know how to bowl with the red-ball and bowl eight-over spells, for example. At the moment they don’t because they never done it.
What are your thoughts on Curtis Campher and his decision to move from South Africa to Ireland in search of regular opportunities?
Yeah that was an interesting one. I always said I have a lot of respect for the decision Curtis made. He was only 21 and during Covid he moved away from his family and friends and moved to Ireland and fully committed to Irish cricket. He got stuck into club cricket, played domestic cricket and had an amazing start to his international career. He is close to a lot of guys and he plays golf and everyone plays golf. He just fit in right away and he plays with passion and he has his heart on his sleeve, and that’s the sort of cricketer you want in your team.
Don’t you think playing county cricket could have helped you?
I think when we got full-member status, we couldn’t play county cricket as locals and we became overseas players so our opportunities were limited. My worry was once that happened, our young players won’t be able to go over and play county cricket and get that experience but I think we have shown that people like Josh Little, Harry Tector and others and all these young cricketers coming through the system didn’t need county cricket, and that’s given us confidence that we are doing things right in Ireland. Now these guys are playing in various T20 leagues and learning from a lot of world class players. I was very fortunate that I got to play county cricket but I don’t think we need that now as much as we did back then.
What kind of rivalry do you have with Afghanistan, considering you play each other quite often?
Yeah we play them a lot. I probably played against Afghanistan more than any other team and they are an incredible bunch of cricketers and their growth have been incredible to watch. I really enjoy playing against them because you know you will get a close game. It’s always a test when you play these top spinners like Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi.
How do you want to look back at your captaincy stint once it is done?
I think people always talk that they want to leave a legacy and I think I took over from one of the most successful captain William Porterfield who did that for so long. I know I won’t do it for as long as he did, but certainly when I leave as a captain and a player I want to sit back and watch that team play with confidence and no fear and then I can say that I have something to do with that. I think captaincy on the pitch and tactics can go right or wrong, but mentality is something you can instill in players and I like to think when I finish that lot of players will say of me that I gave them confidence to play the game.