THE importance of today’s World Cup qualifier in Bulawayo cannot be underestimated for the future health of Irish cricket. Beat Sri Lanka and they still entertain slim hopes of playing in India in October. Lose and they can pack their bags.

It’s a lot more than a missed tournament however – after three glorious World Cups in 2007, 2011 and 2015, storied for giant-killing feats, Ireland would be absent from the competition for 12 years by the time the next one comes along.

And given the huge impetus those successes brought cricket here – and what a missed opportunity it was to fail to qualify for England 2019 – they cannot afford to be so long out of the public gaze.

Defeat today will lead to recriminations, and the cricket public will not be fobbed off with another expensive ‘review’ by English consultants.

Never before has a Test nation lost three consecutive games against associates, as Ireland have done in going down to Netherlands, and this week’s defeats to Oman and Scotland. Of their last seven ODIs against sides outside the test world, Ireland have only won two.

“We targeted the first two games because they are teams we should be beating but we didn’t,” said the captain, Andrew Balbirnie. “The beauty of this tournament is that every team is capable of beating any team and, unfortunately, we have been on the wrong side of that twice now.

“We knew we had to start the tournament well and clearly we haven’t done that and we are going to have to be at our very best to win the next two.”

Hopes are thin for today’s match against Sri Lanka. The Asian side demolished Ireland twice by an innings in Tests in April, and swatted away Oman on Friday in a ten-wicket win. Confidence might be higher if one could be sure Ireland picked their best team.

No-one has explained the thinking that saw Curtis Campher sidelined after a run-filled winter – he had the good sense to then embarrass the leadership by scoring 120 against Scotland.

It beggars belief that an uncapped specialist spinner was called up when there were FIVE slow bowlers in the side with 230 ODI wickets between them. And having picked him, he was persevered with for the full ten against Scotland, which cost 5.9 runs per over when the more economical Andy McBrine (4.4 rpo) was left five overs short. Ireland have played 15 ODIs since the start of last year – did it really not occur to anyone that it might have been an idea to give a game to a man who might play in such a vital fixture.

Gareth Delany seems to have been selected as a No8 specialist bat – his match-winning 3-16 against West Indies in October seems to have been forgotten.

The cares of captaincy are weighing heavy on Andrew Balbirnie – before he was appointed to lead in all formats he averaged 33, since then that figure is 25. Since May 2022 he’s batted 46 times for Ireland at an average of 19.6.

He doesn’t look like a man enjoying the role, and the frustrations are enormous. He might take a look at Joe Root, who stepped down as England captain last year and increased his average contribution by nine runs. Balbirnie has rarely shone in T20s so taking a step back from next month’s qualifier might free his mind for a time.

It’s a wearisome job, one that grinds you down in the same way as it ground down the previous coach, Graham Ford, who resigned after years of enduring substandard facilities and broken promises.

That situation hasn’t changed, and some close observers say they wouldn’t be surprised if current coach Heinrich Malan walked away.  His burgeoning reputation in the world game has been damaged by this job and it may prove hard to find a suitable replacement.

Meanwhile, Cricket Ireland sails on regardless, still keen to pour €30million into a vanity project in Abbotstown that no-one will want to play in, except touring sides keen to boost their averages.

The last failure prompted CI to hire ex-Ireland and South Africa coach Adrian Birrell to write a scathing report which was then ignored.

Balbirnie has to sound optimistic, saying “After losing two games so quickly, it’s a big uphill task for us now and we have to get our heads round having to win two games to hopefully get through.”