Ireland v Scotland T20 series: Paul set to spearhead new generation at Stormont

By Alvin McCaigBBC Sport NI
Leah Paul
Leah Paul averaged nearly 50 with the bat for the Scorchers last summer

"It's weird" - Leah Paul sums up the feeling of being older than most of the Ireland squad at the tender age of 21.

For when two teams partake in a warm-up kickabout before squad training, the Dublin all-rounder finds herself in the 'oldies' side to face the young ones.

It will be a fresh-faced Irish side which returns to action for the first time since September 2019 in Sunday's T20 series opener against Scotland at Stormont.

Sunday's contest will be another behind-closed-doors sporting event before the relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions by the Northern Ireland Executive means spectators will be able to attend the remaining three games in the series on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Paul is actually just above the average age in the squad which includes uncapped quintet Georgina Dempsey, Amy Hunter, Jenny Sparrow, Ava Canning and Jane Maguire.

The left-hander made her senior Ireland debut in 2017 and is part of a new generation of young cricketers gaining vital experience at international level.

"We've a brilliant group of teenagers and players in their early 20s - if we can all keep improving and get numerous matches under our belts then I think there's definitely a promising future," said Paul.

"I'm now in the older half of the team but it's really exciting to see the younger girls coming on and it will be exciting to see what they can do in their first few matches on the international stage.

Amy Hunter
Belfast schoolgirl Amy Hunter could make a first appearance for Ireland in her home city

"There's definitely been progress since I've come into the senior set-up, a significant improvement in the standard of cricket.

"We are a young team and this series against Scotland can help us build for the the T20 World Cup qualifiers this summer."

Paul was a star of last summer's Super Series, hitting 295 runs for the Scorchers and finishing with an impressive season average of 49.17.

Her superb form was recognised by Cricket Ireland when she was a awarded a part-time retainer contract in October.

Tying down talent

Cricket Ireland first brought in women's central contracts in 2019 - seven players are are now on retainer contracts with 12 on non-retainer contracts.

The ultimate aim is for professional status although Paul's contract allows her to enjoy more cricket while studying for an engineering degree.

Paul added: "With the Covid-19 restrictions last year everyone went out really excited to get back on the pitch playing again. I found it a more relaxed approach and enjoyed it - if you're scoring runs you're normally enjoying it!

"When I got the call to say I was added to the retainer contract list it was big surprise. It's great to have that contract at the moment - it gives me time for cricket while balancing it with my college work and in future it really helps people to manage jobs and their cricketing career.

"Hopefully more of the team will get part-time contracts and then for us to become fully professional, that's the long-term ambition. It would be a big step forward for Cricket Ireland and women's cricket.

"The young squad we have at the minute, they're all aiming to be full-time cricketers and that's really encouraging."

Leah Paul
Leah Paul has taken six T20 wickets for Ireland with her left-arm spin bowling

It's not just the return of international women's cricket to celebrate - fans will be back to watch Monday's second game following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland.

The final two matches will take place on Wednesday and Thursday as Ireland start a busy 2021, which includes qualifiers for both the T20 World Cup and 50-overs World Cup.

Ireland have not qualified for a 50-overs World Cup since 2005 and missed out in the 2019 T20 World Cup qualifiers in Scotland after making the three previous finals.

"Although we've had no matches for so long we've been able to train regularly and effectively so its exciting to bring what we've been practicing in training, to bring it into the matches against Scotland," said Paul.

"There's been significant individual improvement and within the team. We've had the Super Series and it's been good playing matches but that's different to an international series and with Scotland naming a pretty strong squad it should be a good challenging series, which is what we're looking for.

"It's brilliant to hear there will be spectators and hopefully with the games being played at Stormont it can further help develop cricket in the NCU with some young girls hopefully getting down to watch the games.

"If we put in good performances and keep improving towards the summer then hopefully we can be successful at the qualifiers.

"With the disappointment of the T20 qualifiers in Dundee in 2019 everyone is more determined next time around to get that qualifying spot. I think with all the hard work we've put in over the last two years it is definitely possible.".

The entry fees for spectators for the games on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday will be £3 with all proceeds going to charity.

Ireland: Laura Delany (capt), Ava Canning, Rachel Delaney, Georgina Dempsey, Amy Hunter, Shauna Kavanagh, Gaby Lewis, Jane Maguire, Lara Maritz, Cara Murray, Leah Paul, Orla Prendergast, Celeste Raack, Jenny Sparrow, Rebecca Stokell.

Scotland: Kathryn Bryce (capt), Sarah Bryce, Becky Glen, Lorna Jack, Abbi Aitken-Drummond, Ikra Farooq, Abtaha Maqsood, Samantha Haggo, Katie Mcgill, Priyanaz Chatterji, Ailsa Lister, Katherine Fraser, Ellen Watson, Megan McColl.

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