Afghanistan soar above stumbling Ireland
Over the course of the last month in Greater Noida, the performances of two Associate countries, closely aligned over recent years, gave a window into what appears to be a pair of rapidly diverging future paths.
Afghanistan and Ireland have been practically joined at the hip at the top of Associate cricket since 2010, their popularity surging after they came of age in the social media era. But while Afghanistan have taken on the staying power of Facebook, with eight years in Division One of the Associate ranks, leading Full Members and T20 franchise leagues to send a growing number of friend requests and status likes, Ireland's trajectory is beginning to alarmingly resemble that of MySpace.
Thursday's victory by Afghanistan was their ninth over Ireland in less than three months. It began with a group-stage win at the Desert T20, followed six days later by a humiliating ten-wicket trouncing in the tournament final. Given six and a half weeks to lick their wounds, Ireland fared little better on their tour to Greater Noida: a 3-0 T20 sweep, two losses to start the five-match ODI series that was eventually claimed in the decider by Afghanistan, and then the Intercontinental Cup nadir - defeat by an innings and 172 runs.
After being the best in the Associate world for the better part of a decade, Ireland's recent decline has been startling but not altogether surprising. The defence for Ireland laid out during the worldwide broadcast, and elsewhere in print and social media, mainly focused on conditions favouring Afghanistan on the tour.
Such explanations cheapen the quality of Afghanistan's performance, which serves as a celebration of their superb domestic development structures. So also, to excuse Ireland's poor performance specifically in the I-Cup match, and more broadly on the entire tour, as a blip ignores their comparatively weak development system.
Since the 2011 World Cup, Ireland's core batting order has been more or less unchanged: William Porterfield and Paul Stirling at the top, Ed Joyce at first drop, Gary Wilson and the O'Brien brothers in the middle. Only retirements - Trent Johnston, John Mooney, Alex Cusack - have forced changes to their bowling unit today compared to their 2011 line-up. Boyd Rankin's temporary dalliance with England aside, he has been present for most of that time, as has George Dockrell, while Tim Murtagh has been a regular since he stepped on board in 2012.
Uncanny stability in team selection was a key reason for Ireland's ability to sustain their status as the premier Associate and to nip at the heels of Full Members in global tournaments. However, that stability has turned into staleness and has led to an increasing number of losses to all kinds of opposition since the 2015 World Cup. It began at home in the 2015 World T20 Qualifier to Papua New Guinea and has included defeats to UAE, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Scotland and Oman, not to mention a winless home record against Full Members.
In other places, such a rot would lead to players being axed, but in Ireland the same players continue to make the XI - in part because the domestic cupboard has been shown to be threadbare, and there is little pressure on the established vets. It is hardly a good sign for development that their best player in the I-Cup match, and one of the few to break past the core No. 1 to 6 spots since 2011, was 34-year-old John Anderson. The two Andys - Balbirnie and McBrine - have been among the others to semi-regularly pierce Ireland's marbleised team sheet in that stretch.
Despite having shown some promise over the last 12 months, Barry McCarthy has been on a fast-bowling selection merry-go-round with Craig Young, Peter Chase and allrounder Stuart Thompson. Perhaps their most promising talent not in the XI for the I-Cup match, legspinner Jacob Mulder, played most of his developmental cricket in Perth before migrating to Ireland in 2013.
For all the success Ireland have had at the senior level since that seminal World Cup win over Pakistan in 2007, the lack of youth talent coming through in the decade since has been lamentable. A brief spurt was evident in the initial five years of that period. The 2009 junior team, captained by Balbirnie, that won the ICC Under-19 World Cup Qualifier in Toronto and lost the Plate Final to Bangladesh at the 2010 U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, also featured Stirling, Dockrell, Young, Thompson and Stuart Poynter. Chase, McCarthy and McBrine came through the 2012 U-19 World Cup team, captained by Dockrell. But upstarts like James Shannon, Tyrone Kane and Graeme McCarter have been briefly tried and discarded.
In the last five years, Ireland's juniors have been soundly outperformed in Europe by Scotland. They failed to qualify for the 2014 U-19 World Cup and only appeared in the 2016 edition because Australia refused to send a team to Bangladesh. In that small group of junior players who have progressed to the senior team, Stirling is the only genuine match-winner, while Dockrell's one-time mesmerising spin powers have waned so precipitously that he was cut loose by his county, Somerset, in 2015.
In contrast, Afghanistan's development system is thriving. Their junior sides have qualified for every U-19 World Cup since 2010. After finishing in last place in New Zealand that year, they made it to the Plate Final in 2012, finished in the top half of their group to reach the knockout stage in 2014, and won the Plate Championship in 2016.
Along the way, they have recorded World Cup wins against Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. (Not to mention a 214-run bilateral beatdown of Pakistan U-19s in 2014.) On the same day that the seniors clinched their I-Cup win over Ireland, Afghanistan's A side beat India U-23s in Bangladesh, leapfrogging them into a semi-final against Pakistan U-23s.
Of the T20, ODI and I-Cup squads that defeated Ireland, six players remain from the group that took Afghanistan to their maiden ICC tournament, the 2010 World T20: Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad, Asghar Stanikzai, Shapoor Zadran, Noor Ali Zadran and Samiullah Shenwari. In the I-Cup win alone, they had several examples of junior graduates on display. Afsar Zazai, from the 2010 junior squad, struck his maiden century. Nasir Jamal, U-19 captain in 2014, was the leading scorer in Afghanistan's four-day domestic competition last year, with 1184 runs at 84.57, and made a composed 73 here.
In a year, Zahir Khan has gone from Plate champion at the 2016 U-19 World Cup to Afghanistan's leading wicket-taker in the I-Cup, with 21 in four matches. Among other recent players who have risen from U-19 level, Najeeb Tarakai showed his match-winning promise in the second T20I, left-arm spinner Amir Hamza has been a reliable weapon in limited-overs cricket for several years, hard-hitting Najibullah Zadran is "Half Man, Half Amazing", and Rashid Khan is the envy of both Full Members for his legspin wizardry and Associates for his IPL paycheck.
The argument put forth in defence of Ireland's performance against Afghanistan by those wearing emerald-tinted glasses was that Afghanistan seized "home" conditions in India, and that a sterner challenge would have been laid out for them at Malahide or Stormont, especially with a healthy Rankin and Kevin O'Brien back in the line-up. This ignores Afghanistan's superior skill across all departments and makes for a revisionist history of Ireland's recent home record, including a 2-2 ODI series draw against Afghanistan.
Ireland have not been seriously competitive at home against Full Members since 2013, Johnston's last season before retiring, when they tied a game and then lost a two-wicket heartbreaker to Pakistan in a two-match ODI series. Later that summer, they had England 48 for 4 chasing a target of 270 before hometown nemesis Eoin Morgan struck a cruelly ironic century to secure a six-wicket win. They haven't come remotely close to beating a Full Member on home soil in five completed matches since and their once infallible record against Associates has become decidedly human again.
Last summer was particularly jarring. Seekkuge Prasanna, a man who has spent the majority of his 31 ODI innings batting at No. 8 or lower, while averaging 13, belted 95 off 46 balls in his only career innings at No. 3 in a 136-run defeat of Ireland, where Rankin was carted for 86 off his ten overs. At the end of the summer, they were bowled out for 82 by Pakistan, with Imad Wasim taking a career-best 5 for 15 in just his seventh ODI.
Sandwiched in between those humbling results against Full Members, Ireland scraped to draw the five-match ODI series against Afghanistan thanks largely to Joyce scoring 40% of their total runs, including two centuries in victory. They rounded off the summer having to sweat more than usual for a 70-run I-Cup win over Hong Kong before losing convincingly by 40 runs to the same opponents in a T20I.
Both home and away, Afghanistan's bowlers have been more skilful. In Ireland last summer, the attack had considerable balance, with contributions from Dawlat Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Mirwais Ashraf and Yamin Ahmadzai in the pace department, to go with Rashid and Nabi's spin. Later on that same tour, Dawlat, Yamin and Mirwais took all ten first innings wickets at seam-friendly Voorburg as Afghanistan completed an innings win over Netherlands inside two days.
Kevin O'Brien and McCarthy were Ireland's best bowlers in the ODI series at Stormont, with ten wickets apiece, but attack leader Murtagh took only three. He was at least able to move the ball in home conditions but got little to no deviation in Greater Noida. Dawlat not only got new-ball swing, Afghanistan did not take the second new ball after 80 overs in the first innings because he was producing significant reverse swing. Rashid made Ireland's spinners, and batsmen, look like amateurs and outbowled them in Belfast too.
A knee-jerk elixir to cure Ireland's ills that has been proposed in some sections of the Irish press and fan base is to sack coach John Bracewell. Ireland's poor record has coincided with his arrival after the 2015 World Cup, when Phil Simmons left after eight years in charge to become West Indies coach. It is even easier for Ireland fans to pine for Simmons to make a return seeing that he is part of the coaching staff for the Afghanistan side that just gave them a severe beating.
The three home losses at the 2015 World T20 Qualifier were pooh-poohed by administrators at the time, who claimed that ODI and Intercontinental Cup success in preparation for a shot at Tests were higher priorities. A winless showing at the 2016 World T20 followed, and the prospects of them reaching a fourth straight World Cup in 2019 look more slim by the day. They have now lost their lead in the Intercontinental Cup, and lie one point behind Afghanistan, no longer in control of their own destiny as they try to win the competition to secure a four-match Test challenge series with Zimbabwe. A second-place finish would be a major failure for Bracewell if the ICC reforms to give the top two Associates (and not just the champion) a shot at Tests don't go through.
However, Bracewell is a soft target. Ireland's inability to develop talent was an issue that had been simmering for years but has boiled over since his arrival. If Cricket Ireland decides not to renew Bracewell's contract when it expires later this year, it is hard to envision too many quality candidates champing at the bit to take over with a talent pipeline running dry.
The best thing Ireland have going for them is their administrative nous, which has played a significant factor in them getting more opportunities against Full Members. But Ireland's coach in 2018, whether that is Bracewell or another, will be in charge of a side trying to qualify for the World Cup hamstrung: their best batsman is about to turn 40; their best bowler unable to stay on the field due to nagging injuries, and is approaching an age when quicks noticeably tail off; there is little depth behind those two, and no sign of reinforcements ready to jump into the fray.
Expectations are low at the moment and few will believe a face-saving win at Lord's on May 7 is possible, when Ireland play the second of two ODIs against England, nor victories against the touring New Zealand or Bangladesh sides later that month. The front end of Ireland's Intercontinental Cup schedule afforded them easy wins against UAE and Namibia; tougher fixtures against Netherlands and Scotland may be the tipping point for Bracewell. Anything less than 40 points and there's a good chance his tenure will reach its end.
But Bracewell wouldn't be the only thing gone for Ireland. A loss to either Netherlands or Scotland in the pair of four-day games and Ireland's Associate hegemony will be vanishing faster than a Snapchat message. Meanwhile the Vine loops of Afghanistan's wins against Ireland and other Associates are already being replaced by ones of that over Zimbabwe, and a tour against a struggling West Indies in June is an opportunity for more.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna