World Cup Qualifier more important than inaugural Ireland Test - Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O'Brien
Former Nottingham and Gloucestershire player Kevin O'Brien dons the Test kit at Malahide Castle

The splendour of medieval Malahide Castle in Dublin forms a fitting backdrop as Ireland players pose in their pristine new Test kits before the cameras.

For this is all about history - there's a nip in the air on a grey winter's day but come May surely the sun will shine in Ireland's inaugural Test just yards from the castle.

When the Ireland and Pakistan teams take to the field on that spring morning, it will be the fulfilment of more than a decade of campaigning for Test status and a new entry in Irish sporting history.

It's a pretty big distraction as Ireland attempt to secure a fourth straight World Cup appearance in 2019.

Swashbuckling exploits in the tournament, including famous wins over Pakistan and England, inspired and fuelled the successful bid for Test status.

All-rounder Kevin O'Brien was the Ireland hero in 2011 when he struck the fastest century in World Cup history to take them to a sensational victory over England in Bangalore.

Zimbabwe host the qualifying tournament for next year's World Cup in England and Wales, and Ireland take on Netherlands in a Harare opener on Sunday.

Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien celebrates his record-breaking century against England at the 2011 World Cup

O'Brien, who will be a key figure in the qualifiers and maiden Test, is clear on what matters most to him.

"I may say something that Cricket Ireland might not like but the ultimate for me is the World Cup qualifiers - I want to play in another World Cup," says the 33-year-old.

"These are the biggest games this year. I know with the tournament being held in England we would have a huge following there.

"It's going to be a historic day with the first ever Test for Ireland and it would be fantastic to play in it if selected.

"But first and foremost for me are the qualifiers and if Ireland don't make it to the World Cup it's going to be a huge disappointment."

The controversial change to the World Cup format - reducing the number of teams from 12 to 10 - leaves Ireland in the unaccustomed position of not going into the qualifiers as favourites.

Ireland now have to contend with established Test-playing sides West Indies and Zimbabwe along with their usual foes.

Odds against

The bookies reckon Afghanistan are also a better bet than Ireland to progress, with only two World Cup spots up for grabs.

Ireland beat West Indies in the 2015 World Cup and the two sides meet in Group A along with the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea and the United Arab Emirates.

The top three go through to the Super Sixes, which will determine the two finalists who will go into the decider on 25 March having secured a place in the World Cup.

It's a tough ask for an Ireland team adjusting to a new coach after Graham Ford replaced John Bracewell in January following a period of inconsistency.

"The transition from John to Graham has been smooth as they have a similar philosophy - he keeps it simple and it's still a player-led team," adds O'Brien.

"I certainly like the underdogs tag - it will benefit us going into the tournament and I like to prove people wrong.

Graham Ford
Former South Africa coach Graham Ford will lead Ireland into the World Cup Qualifier and inaugural Test in 2018

"It's going to be difficult and we have to improve, getting back to the heights of 2011 and 2015 and where all Irish fans want to see us.

"West Indies and Netherlands are very good sides, while we have lost to Papua New Guinea, so we'll to be at our best."

An impressive series win over Afghanistan before Christmas was followed by tri-series success against Scotland and the UAE a month later.

Paul Stirling scored 156 runs in consecutive innings as the good form was continued in World Cup Qualifier warm-up games in South Africa.

Thursday's final-ball victory over Scotland in Bulawayo completed Ireland's preparations, with seam bowler Boyd Rankin claiming a timely five-wicket haul.

Thinking big

Ford has his team ticking along nicely, and qualifying for the World Cup is just one of the ambitious targets set by the former South Africa and Sri Lanka coach.

"I would like to see Irish cricket recognised on the big stage, which would mean beating top teams in any format of the game," says the South African.

"If we can get a reputation as a side which, on our day can win these fixtures or come very close on a regular basis, I would feel very proud of what the boys have achieved.

"Every time they pull on an Irish shirt it's a major event for the team and they want to give 100%.

"We always have to up our game in all three disciplines - we can't go into a tournament of this intensity and be slightly off in any department of the game.

"The feeling in the group is one of total focus on the white-ball game and the qualifiers, and then switching to putting huge emphasis on the Test match."

Ireland World Cup Qualifier squad:

William Porterfield (Formby/Warriors, capt), Andrew Balbirnie (Pembroke/Lightning), Peter Chase (Malahide/Lightning), George Dockrell (Leinster/Lightning), Ed Joyce (Merrion/Lightning), Andrew McBrine (Donemana/Warriors), Barry McCarthy (Durham), Tim Murtagh (Middlesex), Kevin O'Brien (Railway Union/Lightning), Niall O'Brien (Nantwich/Warriors, wk), Boyd Rankin (Warwickshire), James Shannon (Instonians/Knights), Simi Singh (YMCA/Lightning), Paul Stirling (Middlesex), Gary Wilson (Derbyshire, wk).