Paul Stirling heads into the T20 World Cup with Ireland's hopes and dreams resting on his shoulders, but he could easily have found himself watching the tournament from his sofa back home.
Two years ago Stirling was forced to make an unenviable choice. Ireland got ICC full membership, which meant that, following a two-year grace period offered by the ECB, he would be unable to play county cricket as a local player for Middlesex if he continued his international career for Ireland. Given he had roots in London, a decade-long association with the county, and a long-term contract on the table, there was a genuine possibility that he had played his final game for Ireland.
One factor tipped the scales, leading him to turn down Middlesex's contract offer and commit his future to Ireland: the opportunity to play at World Cups. "It's the pinnacle for us," Stirling says, "the top level we can perform at. We grew up watching World Cups and seeing Ireland punching above our weight - across our sports - and it's a great test of where you are as players and how far you've come."
That he was forced to make the decision at all was something of a surprise. Born and raised in Belfast (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland together play cricket as "Ireland"), he had only ever held a British passport but was effectively losing his right to work in the UK. He did not seriously consider launching a legal challenge - "just not my style" - and jokes about being "booted out" of his home country. "It was certainly strange, but you've just got to get on with it," he says.
Stirling and Ireland have not had a chance to perform on the global stage since the 2016 T20 World Cup, when a shock defeat to Oman in their opening fixture and a wash-out against Bangladesh saw them eliminated before their campaign had really started. They have since undergone a significant overhaul, with a young and much-changed squad in place for the 2021 tournament. Stirling himself has flourished; only Babar Azam has scored more T20I runs since the 2016 final.
The long interlude between T20 World Cups and Ireland's failure to qualify for the 50-over event in 2019 has seen Stirling go half a decade without the opportunity to play at the highest level, a hiatus made all the more frustrating because he has been in the prime of his career. "I was quite lucky early on that we tended to make it to World Cups, and to be honest - and not on purpose - you took it a little bit for granted," he says.
"Having that length of time, five years without being at a World Cup, it gives you that time to reflect and reminds you how important these games are and what a privilege it is to be here. I've missed getting into the later stages, in particular: that's where the real high-profile stuff is. It's a long way off yet and we've got big games coming up first, but that's the stage when the media jumps onto it back home and helps add to the profile of cricket back in Ireland.
"In general, when we play the big teams [in bilateral series], sometimes they can rest their players or play 'first-and-a-half' XIs. At a World Cup, you know it's going to be full-strength teams that you're playing against, no matter what. It's great to be back."
Stirling comes into the tournament as Ireland's undisputed star and a marked man, due not only to his performances in green but also in franchise tournaments. He has figured in a number of different leagues across the last four years, including the Abu Dhabi T10, Lanka Premier League and Pakistan Super League, and says that regular opportunities have helped "keep me ticking at that high intensity level".
His decision to turn down Middlesex's offer to stay on as a local player has not ended his career in England, either. Over the last two summers he has earned contracts with Northamptonshire and back at Middlesex in the Vitality Blast, and in 2021 he was Player of the Match in the men's Hundred final, making 61 off 36 balls for Southern Brave at Lord's while opening the batting alongside Quinton de Kock.
"Once you've made the decision for yourself, you've just got to go with it with everything you've got and make sure it's the right one," Stirling says. "To get those gigs in franchise tournaments has been really important for me: when you have periods without high-level cricket for three or four months, it's hard to switch things on like a switch. The top six or seven teams are always playing international cricket but that's not the case for us.
"The Hundred, with crowds back in, was great. When you haven't played in front of many people for a year and a half, that extra nervousness or anxiety before you bat comes back into play, as if you were 20 years old again. It was nice to get those cobwebs out of the way and to push myself, making sure I'm good enough to play at that level. A full house at Lord's in a final is hard to beat, and to have a day out like that makes everything worthwhile."
The World Cup will provide Stirling with a stage to show his talents once more, and for some of Ireland's brightest young prospects to make names for themselves on the big stage. Stirling highlights the involvement of four Irish players (Curtis Campher, Josh Little, Mark Adair and himself) in the Abu Dhabi T10, which follows the big event, as evidence that franchises are taking note of their performances. Also, the squad's youth is having a positive effect on senior players.
"The young lads have no scars and will hopefully go out and play with a lot of freedom as we've seen them do this year. Lots of these guys are only about 21 years old and have played a lot more international cricket against the highest-standard teams than I had at that age. They'll have a lot to give.
"Josh Little, for example, has been fantastic - he feels like he's the leader of the pack at the minute. He bowls fast, he's started to swing it, and as a left-armer, he has that point of difference. His ceiling is really high.
"Then Curtis, with every game he plays, you see that confidence growing, and Harry Tector has a really good head on his shoulder and is one of the best fielders in the competition.
"There's a lot of talent there. The thing about playing for Ireland is, you're often learning your trade on the international circuit - you don't necessarily have that level underneath to prepare yourself, so they're all learning on the job. You see glimpses that make you think, 'These lads are going to be really good' but it's when those glimpses turn into consistent performances that we'll really see results turn. It's sink or swim, but some of them are starting to swim.
"We felt as an Irish side maybe ten years ago that if teams took us for granted, that's when we could really slip in and get wins. We know not to do that because the standard across the board in associate cricket these days is as high as I've seen it. Namibia, who we play in our third game, are a great example: they're such a strong side, playing a good level of cricket in South Africa throughout the year.
"I don't need to say much about Sri Lanka because we know the experience and quality they've got, and the same goes for the Dutch, who are up first. All three teams are really difficult to beat, so it's important we focus on ourselves and make sure our game is up to scratch. I wouldn't want to put any expectations on us because I'm not sure how it will play out but it's exciting."