Andy Balbirnie: Paul Stirling's form, his starts with Kevin O'Brien key for Ireland
Ireland may have one of the youngest squads in the T20 World Cup, but their captain Andy Balbirnie feels their opening pair of Paul Stirling and Kevin O'Brien could be key if they are to progress to the second phase of the competition.
The team's management made a surprise decision in early 2019 to move O'Brien - who had spent the majority of his long career as a middle-order batter - up to open alongside Stirling, and the reshuffle has paid off: in 37 opening stands in T20Is, they have put on 1479 runs at 39.97, with a partnership scoring rate of 8.46 runs per over.
"We've got our two main guys at the top of the order in Kevin O'Brien and Paul Stirling, who have been at all the T20 World Cups that Ireland have been in since 2009," Balbirnie pointed out. "They've got loads of experience they can hand down to the younger generation - people like Gareth Delany, Josh Little, Ben White, Mark Adair and Neil Rock.
"Six-hitting is a big thing for us and we know we have the batters [in the middle order] to go out and score at a pretty good strike rate, but the starts we have been getting with the two lads have been setting us up for some of our big wins in the format.
"Paul is hugely important for us. You just have to ask the other teams: when they're playing against us, he is - no doubt - the wicket they want to get. He's played all round the world in various different leagues and teams and he's just got better and better. If he has a really good week next week, it will go a long way for us trying to qualify for the next phase."
Ireland reached the T20 World Cup by topping Group B at the global qualifier in late 2019 but have undergone a significant shift in their squad since then. Gary Wilson, their captain in that tournament, has retired and is now part of the backroom staff as an assistant coach, while Boyd Rankin has also moved into coaching. Several key young players including wicketkeeper Rock, legspinner White, allrounder Curtis Campher and left-arm seamer Little have broken into the squad.
Calling Wilson's shift from a playing role to a coaching role "a strange transition for him", Balbirnie said, "Gary and William [Porterfield, another assistant coach] are two vastly experienced international and county cricketers, guys that you want in your coaching staff. And we're very fortunate to have - in my opinion - one of the best coaches in the world in Graham Ford. I love working with him every day. He's got one of the great cricket brains and is always willing to talk to you, no matter what role you have in the side.
"We do have a lot of youth and inexperience in our squad - this is the first big ICC event for a lot of our guys - but we've had a good build-up here, played some good games, and we're slowly getting to where we want to be in that first game. We've got a crop of young, hungry cricketers… who want to go out and express themselves on the world stage."
Ireland have been in mixed form in the build-up to the tournament, losing 2-1 in a three-match series against the UAE but pulling off comprehensive wins against Papua New Guinea and Bangladesh this week, the latter thanks to an unbeaten 88 off 50 balls from Delany, which included eight sixes. They start their campaign against Netherlands on Monday in Abu Dhabi, before fixtures against Sri Lanka at the same venue and Namibia in Sharjah.
"The last couple of T20 World Cups have been pretty disappoint for us, most notably Dharamsala [in 2016] and Bangladesh in 2014," Balbirnie said. "It's shaping up to be a really exciting group for the neutral - I'm not sure if any team is going to win all three [games]; I think that's going to be very difficult.
"There's been a lot of cricket played on these grounds so it'll be interesting to see what sort of wickets we get [but] our guys are really excited. We're ready for it now. We just want to get going, starting with that game on Monday. Hopefully, it's a week for us to put in three really good performances and peak at the right time. If we do that we can be successful, but if we don't, we'll be on an early plane home."