Ireland cricket March 2, 2013

Give Ireland the chance they deserve

Alex Braae
The ICC and Full Member nations need to encourage Associate teams like Ireland if the game has to thrive globally

The Irish have, for long, been a diasporic people. Over the past two centuries, it is believed nearly 100 million Irish have emigrated, a number that far outstrips the current population of the island. Limited opportunities and harsh economic conditions have created a culture of leaving to survive and prosper.

Cricket is just another facet of Irish society where opportunities don't exist at home, forcing their best to leave in order to advance their careers. As was the case with the many waves of the Irish emigrants, this is not the fault of anyone in Ireland.

The Irish cricket setup is the most professional among all Associate nations. However, they are given scant opportunities to show their development against Full Members. Over the rest of the year, Ireland will play three times against Full Members - twice against Pakistan and once against England. Even if they do win one of these games, it probably wouldn't help their cause, as evidenced by the situation they are in, in spite of having repeatedly beaten Full Member teams at ICC events.

Now there is news that Boyd Rankin will follow in the footsteps of Eoin Morgan, quitting Irish duty in the hope of an England call-up. Rankin is a talented and ferocious fast bowler, and would be a fine candidate for most Test teams in the world. His county cricket bowling average is below 30, a fantastic return in a competitive league. He has spoken about his desire to play Test cricket and who can blame him? It is the pinnacle of the sport we all love and he has a chance to play if he denies his homeland. The temptation to remain committed to Ireland must be strong on a personal level, but on a professional level he is right to make the best of what limited time is available to him as an athlete.

The ICC is nominally committed to growing the game worldwide, but it is dismally failing in this mission. As Martin Williamson argued, the prospects of Associate nations have diminished even further with lucrative Twenty20 leagues pushing them off the fixture calendar. Greed, it appears, is costing cricket the chance to develop into a truly global sport. Imagine the boost cricket would get if a fraction of the millions of people of Irish descent were given a real chance to cheer for their country.

Players leaving Ireland to play elsewhere is a symptom of a wider problem. Afghanistan, Holland, Canada, Scotland and Namibia are also promising nations who aren't being given the opportunity to develop. The message being sent by Full Member boards to Associates seems clear: They are second-class nations. The ICC which, alas, is dominated by the boards of Full Member nations must realise that their sport will stagnate and die if they don't stop chasing short-term cash over long-term development. They should not confine Associate teams to the ghetto of the Intercontinental Cup; rather they should show real leadership and force Full Member boards to play against Associate teams.

In the case of Ireland, they must be put on a clear pathway to Test status. Their national team should have first-class fixtures against A teams of Full Member nations and the latter must commit to playing at least five games against Associate nations every year. They could be in any format, and Full Members could even field second-string lineups, but the matches could have full international status. Third, all players who are eligible to play for an Associate nation should be granted some form of amnesty to return and play for them, ensuring that Associate teams have the talent required to test the Full Member nations.

With these measures, cricket could become a more vibrant, dynamic and global sport. It could have the global appeal of basketball or football; instead those who currently control it seem content to let it become akin to the rugby league. The Irish should be the test case - if they are given the opportunity to become a Test nation, perhaps the exodus of cricketers can be reversed and Irish cricketers will have a reason to return home.

This is a crucial moment for the game: it can either spread across the entire world, or it can choose to become a niche sport, uncared for outside the few nations who play it.