Gary Wilson column: Ireland in Abu Dhabi bubble for UAE & Afghanistan series

Ireland wicketkeeper-batsman Gary Wilson

After being in Abu Dhabi since 27 December and having spent their first five days in the Emirates in self-isolation amid the Covid-19 rules before they could start training on New Year’s Day, I know the Ireland boys are primed to get back into competitive action in Friday’s game against the United Arab Emirates.

Ireland have not played since the thrilling win over England in Southampton in early August but Friday’s opener against the UAE begins a run of seven one-day games in 18 days as they face the hosts in four matches before three crucial World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan.

I experienced the ‘bubble’ scenario in the summer but from talking to a few of the lads, it’s seems quite a bit tighter in Abu Dhabi in terms of what you can do.

In Southampton, I was lucky in that I still had my golf which I was able to enjoy with Andy McBrine on the down days.

There’s none of that on the trip with the lads largely confined to their hotel rooms and the team room – although there is the gym and a little part of the beach and the pool area which they have some access to.

Of course, boredom can be a factor. I wouldn’t be a big reader myself so if golf is out of bounds for me, Netflix and Amazon Prime is my staple entertainment diet.

‘Call of Duty PlayStation battles’

Four or five of the guys have regular Call of Duty battles against each other online on their PlayStations.

But it’s difficult as we’ve already found out on a few high-profile occasions in the world of sport to be effectively cooped up.

To have no options or very few options, I don’t think is sustainable moving forward with players going from bubble to bubble, but hopefully with the vaccine being rolled out, we’re going to see a different world.

In the meantime, while they will be focused on the cricket, it’s going to be tough for the guys.

In terms of the word from the camp, I’m hearing the bowlers have been looking in particularly good nick in practice.

Having Stuart Barnes as a full-time part of Ireland’s set-up now alongside his close colleague Graham Ford was a great move by Cricket Ireland.

Barnesy was with me for three or four years at Surrey and is a very, very hard worker and tactically astute as well.

He’s a brilliant coach and passionate about wanting to improve players.

It’s great for the bowlers to have someone to lean on again as it’s been a while since we lost Rob Cassell to the IPL.

Ireland batsman Harry Tector shows his delight after Kevin O'Brien hit the winning runs in the victory over England in early August
Harry Tector helped guide Ireland to victory over England in August and Wilson has a huge amount of regard for the talented youngster

Ireland likely to pick strongest side in opener

In regards to selection for Friday, I would think Graham Ford and Andrew Balbirnie will want to get off to a good start and therefore pick their strongest side.

The UAE cannot be underestimated. They have turned us over a couple of times in T20 games over the last decade and even since then, their playing pool has increased with the addition of some talented youngsters.

But while Graham and Andrew will want to lay down a marker for the tour with a couple of early wins, the games will come thick and fast with only a one-day gap between each of the four UAE games so squad rotation will be important.

After his composed display in helping get Ireland over the line in Southampton, I am looking forward to seeing Harry Tector in action again.

I’m a big, big fan of his. He’s got a great head on his young shoulders and the talent to match.

But it’s not just him. There are a lot of good young players coming through and it’s great to see.

In the past we relied heavily on the country scene in England to develop our players and with that not available any more, we have to find a way of developing our own young players.

With the new contracts out, there’s been a bit of shift towards the younger players and that’s positive for Irish cricket.

Ireland skipper Andrew Balbirnie and vice-captain Paul Stirling field during the country's shock win over England last August
Gary Wilson says Andrew Balbirnie is leading Ireland well and is receiving great support from vice-captain Paul Stirling

Balbirnie ‘passionate about Ireland’

The young boys and the rest of the lads are also being well-led by Andrew Balbirnie, who while he is not a dressing-room shouter, is nevertheless very passionate about Irish cricket and Ireland in general.

He’s got a good deputy there in Paul Stirling, someone with a lot of experience, and you still have old hands there in Kevin O’Brien and Andy McBrine.

While Graham Ford will be telling his players to focus totally on the UAE over the next week, the lads know full well that the business end of this trip is the three games against Rashid Khan and company.

My old wicketkeeper chum Niall O’Brien joked on Twitter to Rashid the other day that he gathered up quite a few of his T20 international wickets in dismissing Niall and myself.

That may be true enough but I have to say that I always enjoyed the battle with Rashid, and hopefully can look forward to a few more in the future.

Rashid Khan claims for a dismissal against Kevin O'Brien in a game between Ireland and Afghanistan in 2018
Wilson says Afghanistan’s bowling star Rashid Khan “plays the game in the right way”.

Rashid Khan ‘best bowler in the world’

Rashid’s a good character. He plays the game in the right way and is the best bowler in the world in my opinion.

But while he is Afghanistan’s cricketing poster boy, they are by no means a one-man team.

Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi are terrific bowlers and along with Rashid, will get through 30 out of Afghanistan’s overs.

They have good seamers as well now so it’s no longer a case of just seeing off Rashid and then attacking the other bowlers.

There is that perception that Ireland struggle against ‘mystery’ spinners such as Rashid but I would say that’s the case for most sides.

The bottom line is the more you play against spinners of that calibre, the better you are able to deal with them.

We have a very good video analyst in Scott Irvine who is constantly trying to find ways of reading Rashid but there really is no substitute for playing against guys like that.

That will be the challenge for the younger guys in the squad and that’s where the likes of O’Brien, Balbirnie and Stirling, who play Rashid very well, will want to take up that mantle and give the youngsters a bit more opportunity to bed in.

‘Needle between the sides but never nasty’

The youngsters will be aware that there have been a few moments of needle between Ireland and Afghanistan over the last decade as we both fought successfully to earn Test status.

There was a rather famous incident in a 2016 game at Stormont when Mohammad Nabi ran out Ed Joyce after clearly stepping over the boundary before delivering the ball to Mohammad Shahzad.

I think if Nabi looked back on that now, he would perhaps do things differently.

But that’s all water under the bridge. It’s good to have that needle in games. It never gets nasty. It’s competitive. Two teams that are really passionate about their cricket.

The boys will be really looking forward to locking horns with them again – after hopefully clinching a dominant victory in the UAE series.

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