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Before England’s one-day international in Malahide in 2013, England captain Eoin Morgan riled many Irish supporters by suggesting that Paul Stirling could become the latest Irishman to play cricket for England. “He is so talented and has the capabilities of playing international cricket on a regular basis,” Morgan said. “I'm sure he will press his case over the next couple of years and push on and if he wants to play for England he will take that route of going through the system and kicking on.”
Many saw the comments as undiplomatic, given how Ireland were striving for Test status and that Boyd Rankin was about to make his England debut against Ireland. But Morgan’s words were a reflection of how highly he rated Stirling.
Seven years on, Morgan’s prophesy has not quite come to pass. The landscape of Irish cricket has changed: Ireland are now Full Members, able to play some Tests - albeit not as many as they would like - and, crucially, have a regular fixture list of one-day internationals and Twenty20s that they previously lacked. But the qualities of Stirling, his long-time Middlesex team-mate, remain evident.
Stirling has had an unusual journey. After starting his international journey aged 17, Stirling showed that his belligerence and sweet timing could take down some of the best attacks in the world. Before turning 23, he had already hit two ODI centuries against Pakistan, to go with powerful performances for Middlesex in limited-overs cricket.
While Stirling quickly became indispensable to Ireland, his international performances waned as he should have been entering his prime. Immediately after that second ODI century against Pakistan, Stirling averaged 40.8 at a strike rate of 96. But in his next 33 ODIs, Stirling averaged a meagre 22.3, even having a brief spell moved down from opening to number six because of his ability against spin. It was no true reflection of his talents.
Yet in the past three years Stirling has embraced his new role as senior player. It is a period during which Ed Joyce and Niall O’Brien entered the final stretches of their careers before both retired in 2018. The needs of the team have seen Stirling move decisively away from his natural game - attacking the new ball audaciously - to prioritising consistency.
Quietly, Stirling has undergone one of the most substantive reinventions in ODI cricket. In 71 ODIs until the end of 2016, Stirling averaged 32.9 with a strike rate of 92. But since the start of 2017 Stirling is averaging 42.7, at a strike rate of 80. Since 2019, the shift has been even more pronounced: Stirling has a brilliant average of 48.4, though his strike rate has fallen to 75. The change has helped him discover newfound consistency: he has nine ODI half-centuries in his past 16 innings, including hitting 130 against Bangladesh last year.
The metamorphosis has turned Stirling into one of the most valuable ODI players in the world, measured by the impact he has on his side. CricViz have a tool to measure a player’s average match impact, measured in terms of runs they add or take away from their side. Since the start of 2017, Stirling has an average match impact of 10.2 - the third highest of any batsman in the world, below only Virat Kohli and Shakib Al Hasan.
This does not mean that Stirling is the third-best ODI batsman in the world. Instead, it means that he has had the third-highest impact on matches: a reflection of the quality of his performances relative to the rest of his team, and how he has recalibrated his game to do what is best for his side. Breezy 20s will no longer suffice; the extra cover drives for six have still been glimpsed, but they have had to wait until the situation allows.
Stirling is emphatically playing against type - against the penchant to plunder the new ball that have made him one of the most destructive openers in the T20 Blast and even seen his name mentioned by IPL teams at the auction table. Had he followed Morgan to England, Stirling would surely be fulfilling a similar role to Jason Roy at the top of the order.
But leading players in weaker teams must adapt. Stirling will need to continue doing so if Ireland are to score the runs they need against England.