IT is likely England would have seen Ireland’s opening game in the Women’s T20 World Cup as a straightforward one. Ireland haven’t been in the same parish as the fully professional neighbours for many years. The gulf in numbers is stark – 60,000 adult players and over one million schoolgirls in the UK, as against 1,500 women and girls in Ireland.

But any English complacency will have been dispelled by Ireland’s stunning victory over world champions Australia in a warm-up game on Wednesday, over Bangladesh the week before, and a narrow defeat to Sri Lanka. Add that to the victory over South Africa last summer and a 2-1 series win in Pakistan in November and there are plenty of reasons to suspect that Laura Delany’s side are ready for more scalps in the main event.

The side is mostly young – four teenagers and two over 36s in an average age of 24 – and play with an aggression and fearlessness that is new to the Irish game. Coach Ed Joyce has imbued in them a positivity that saw every batter continue hard to chase the Australia target with everyone hitting a boundary and almost all striking at a rate over a run a ball.

It was a theme the former Ireland and Middlesex legend was keen to stress before the tournament. ‘Last year, the thing I most enjoyed was the freedom we played with – that they feel they can go out and express themselves with the bat. Our opening bats are a 17-year-old batting with a 21-year-old, with a 19-year-old coming No.3. They all have the skills to do it and they could be world class players. It’s not that easy to take the game on but they do it.’

Joyce, who retired after a stellar career in 2018, took over the side the following year with the team at a low ebb. The world went into lockdown soon after, a time he recalls as a huge boost to his team.

‘Covid was not a bad time for us – we were allowed to practice during most of the period so we had a massive training block, which was hugely beneficial as we could work on skills and it was a huge benefit for everyone,’ he says.

Cricket Ireland also stepped up with full time contracts for the squad – and part-time ones for the large number of students – which allowed Joyce and his team much more time with their players. It helped get players used to their roles in the team and an increased playing programme has sharpened them as the World Cup approached.

Never has an Irish team been better supported, with a backroom team of 11, and they feel that with a good start from Amy Hunter, Gaby Lewis and Orla Prendergast they can be a match for anyone.

Next comes captain Laura Delany and Leah Paul, who both made centuries last summer, while injury to hard-hitting Rebecca Stokell has opened the door for Lulu Little, sister of Ireland star Josh, who played a key innings against Australia.

Wicketkeeper Mary Waldron is a middle order rock, alongside fellow veteran Eimear Richardson and Kiwi recruit Arlene Kelly. The bowling attack is mostly raw and exciting, with fiery teenagers Georgina Dempsey and Jane Maguire and all-rounder Prendergast all capable of making a name for themselves. Kelly has been a great addition, while Delany usually takes the crucial last over, putting herself under pressure in service to her team.

Lewis was upbeat this weekend ahead of an eight-day run in which they take on England, Pakistan, West Indies and India. She said: “Yeah, we've got great confidence from the last two games. We obviously had the win against Australia, which was massive for us. But look, it's only the start for us in this tournament, so we’re ready to go for England on Monday and we’re really excited to get going in.”

There’s another cricketing date on the calendar tomorrow, which could have even greater significance for the Irish players. The Indian Women’s Premier League (WPL) kicks off next month, bringing unheard of riches to the women’s sport. It’s nowhere near IPL levels – Ireland’s Josh Little will be earning $500,000 for eight weeks work this spring – but with five teams each having $1.5m to spend it will dwarf any previous monies available to women players.  

Six of the Ireland squad – Hunter, Lewis, Delany, Waldron, Kelly and Maguire – are in tomorrow’s auction, and if they are picked up will likely earn €35,000-€45,000 for three weeks' work. The hero of the win over Australia, Prendergast, is unavailable due to her UCD studies.

FIXTURES – v England, tomorrow 1pm; Pakistan Wednesday, 5pm; West Indies, Friday 5pm; India Monday 20th, 1pm.

SQUAD – Laura Delany (captain), Georgina Dempsey, Amy Hunter, Shauna Kavanagh, Arlene Kelly, Gaby Lewis, Louise Little, Sophie MacMahon, Jane Maguire, Cara Murray, Leah Paul, Orla Prendergast, Eimear Richardson, Rachel Delaney, Mary Waldron.