Little goes a long way as Ireland bid for Cricket World Cup spot
Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie believes the return of Josh Little from the Indian Premier League for a series against Bangladesh that could see his side qualify for the World Cup is proof of how much international cricket still matters to the left-arm seamer.
If Ireland gain a 3-0 sweep in a one-day international campaign that starts on Tuesday at English county Essex's headquarters in Chelmsford, east of London, they could leapfrog South Africa in eighth in the World Cup Super League(WCSL) standings and secure automatic qualification for the 50-over showpiece event in India later this year.
Little, 23, has been a cornerstone of the table-topping Gujarat Titans in the current IPL, taking six wickets in the lucrative Twenty20 franchise tournament, including a player-of-the-match 2-25 against the Kolkata Knight Riders at Eden Gardens last week.
But, amid talk of the threat posed to international cricket by the expansion of franchise tournament around the world, Little has rejoined the Ireland set-up for the first time since the tour of Zimbabwe in January.
"It's a huge boost," Balbirnie told a press conference on Monday. "He has become a world-class operator, and we're very grateful to have him back into the squad for these games.
"He's obviously had a really good time of it at the IPL...Hopefully, from our point of view, he can have a good week performance-wise and have an impact for us.
He added: "There's no angst about him not playing for us in certain games. We're just delighted with the progress he's made."
The first spots in the 10-team World Cup go to the top eight finishers of the WCSL, a competition that has run over the last three years. Reigning champions England, India, New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan have already assured their places.
The bottom five Super League teams travel to the World Cup qualifier in Zimbabwe from June 18 that will decide the final two entrants into the main event.
Ireland, beaten 2-0 away to Bangladesh in an ODI series in Sylhet in March, have enjoyed their greatest days in the format, with spectacular World Cup wins overs Pakistan (2007) and England (2011).
But they have struggled for series wins against leading nations.
"Consistency is what we crave as a team, but at the same time we know we are playing against world-class players and it's difficult to beat these teams in a series," Balbirnie said.
Balbirnie admitted it was "disappointing" to be playing this week's matches in Chelmsford rather than at home, with Irish pitches not deemed to be up to ODI standard at this early stage in the season. The expense of erecting temporary facilities required for staging internationals in Ireland was another reason for moving the fixtures.
Fans from the Bangladeshi expatriate communities in London are set to outnumber Ireland supporters at Chelmsford
Balbirnie was phlegmatic.
"I think no matter where we play in the world, there'll probably be more Bangladeshi people there than Irish," he said.