World T20 2016 March 14, 2016

Ireland's grand Test vision clouded by advance of T20

Their pursuit of a Test dream might have come in the way of success in T20, which many of their rivals now regard as the pathway to success

Dark clouds descend upon Ireland in Dharamsala © ICC/Getty Images

"Now we have a chance to go to the Super Eights. We have a massive f***ing chance to stay in the West Indies for an extra four weeks," bellowed Trent Johnston. "It's up to every single one of us, and see how much we want to f***ing stay here. I can promise you that it's gonna be tough out there."

It was St Patrick's Day 2007, and Ireland had just bowled out Pakistan for 132 on a green Sabina Park wicket in the World Cup.

Johnston, Ireland's captain, went to every player in the dressing room, reminding them of the stakes if they lost: a return to their mundane existences as teachers, postmen and farmers. "I sure as hell don't want to go back and sell fabric," he told his team, as recorded in Batmen - The Story of Irish Cricket.

For four more weeks, Johnston didn't have to. Led by 72 from Niall O'Brien, Ireland scrapped their way to a three-wicket win. Ireland were the sixth Associate to beat a Test team in the World Cup. Three had become Test nations themselves, and Ireland intended to become the fourth.

Historically the cricket young Irishmen followed was Test matches in England. As boys, the O'Briens would play Tests in the garden, and the thought of doing it for real has sustained many of their generation ever since

That ambition to play Test cricket gave Irish cricket an identity and sense of purpose. But nine years later, as they reflect upon a failed qualifying campaign in World T20, and it becomes incumbent upon a new generation to cement what began with Johnston's dressing-room speech, the picture has become more complex.

The evidence suggests that the unrelenting pursuit of a Test dream once thought quixotic has come at the cost of Ireland's performances in T20 cricket, which many of their rivals now regard as the pathway to success.

Many obstacles lay in Ireland's way in 2007. Their best player, Ed Joyce, had already left for England. Eoin Morgan would soon follow, and then, briefly, Boyd Rankin. They suffered from a dearth of ICC funding and played just 25 bilateral ODIs against Test teams between 2007 and 2015. The ICC refused to say what Ireland had to do to become a Test nation, and even voted to deny them a chance to qualify for a ten-team World Cup in 2015.

But this side would not be deterred. The O'Briens combined to beat Bangladesh in the 2009 World T20 to reach the Super Eights. Kevin O'Brien went barmy in Bangalore to beat England and embarrass the ICC into a rethink for the 2015 World Cup. When they finally got their opportunity there, they thrashed West Indies and beat Zimbabwe too.

Before 2007, Ireland had never been to a world event. They were not even an official international cricket team until 1993. In the next nine years they reached eight world events, missing only the 2007 World T20. The class of 2007 - the team of the O'Briens, Porterfield, Boyd Rankin, Johnston and John Mooney, with help from Paul Stirling, Alex Cusack and the returning Joyce - achieved remarkable deeds. Irish cricket was lauded the world over, and became the poster boys for the non-Test world.

Ireland players such as (left to right) Kevin O'Brien, William Porterfield and Niall O'Brien have always been chasing a Test match dream © Getty Images

This generation's dream was always to reach Test cricket. Historically the cricket young Irishmen followed was Test matches in England. As boys, the O'Briens would play Tests in the garden, and the thought of doing it for real has sustained many of their generation ever since. "I often have dreams, going to bed, of playing Test cricket at Lords. So hopefully that dream will become a reality," Niall O'Brien recently told CricketEurope.

As early as 2009, Warren Deutrom, Ireland's dynamic chief executive, declared Ireland's intent to apply for Tests. Irish players and administrators were united in regarding Tests as the pinnacle: it was the format of the game that Ireland's generation of 2007 had grown up watching.

Test cricket would make Ireland more attractive to sponsors and help pave the way for a more substantive fixture list. And achieving Test status was the only way that Ireland could stop the crippling flow of talent to England. Three players in ten years does not sound like a lot, but they were perhaps the three best players Ireland had ever produced.

Ireland relentlessly pushed their cause, despite receiving little encouragement from the ICC. After the ICC reforms of 2014, the creation of the Test Challenge was announced. It might have been absurdly convoluted, but Ireland finally had a pathway to Test cricket. The ICC is now discussing whether to make Test cricket a two-division affair, with seven teams in Division One and five in Division Two. It is what Ireland have always craved.

In first-class cricket, Ireland remain untouchable at Associate level. No other nation has the first-class experience that Ireland's players have gathered in county cricket. Since 2013, Irish players based at home have played multi-day cricket too, which Cricket Ireland hopes will soon be awarded first-class status. Ireland are the only country to organise warm-ups for Intercontinental Cup matches. They lead the table with a perfect 60 points from three matches.

This emphasis has come at a cost. Although the ICC could soon award them more cash, Ireland's resources are currently very limited: in 2015-16 they will receive just under US$3 million from the ICC, about a third as much as Zimbabwe. Every cent spent on the I-Cup or ODIs, which are becoming less sparse after their inclusion in a new 12-team ODI structure last year, means less to spend on T20Is.

Others see it differently. Besides Afghanistan and perhaps Scotland, other leading Associates have no ambitions to play the longest format. "I don't think that Test cricket is the future for Dutch cricket at all. I don't think it is the future for many Associates at all," Peter Borren, the Netherlands captain, has said.

Just as the decline of the England women's side reflects the burgeoning strength of female cricket, so Ireland's descent in T20 cricket is testament to the sterling improvement in the depth of the Associate game

The upshot, says Ireland's head coach John Bracewell, is that: "A number of associates see T20 as their only opportunity to get to the world stage, and so are really concentrating and focusing their resources into that format."

These pretenders have emphatically left Ireland behind in T20 cricket. The defeat to Oman was a cricketing debacle two years in the making. Since Netherlands plundered 190 in 13.5 overs in Sylhet in the last World T20, Ireland have lost to Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea and the Dutch in the WT20 Qualifiers at home, and then stumbled to defeats against PNG and UAE, neither of whom made the 2016 WT20.

They have only passed 150 once, in their defeat to Oman, since the start of the WT20 Qualifiers; against Hong Kong, PNG and the UAE they have failed to chase under 135. Little wonder that their approach to chasing 60 in six overs against Netherlands was so harebrained.

The élan with which Oman achieved their heist illustrated how other Associates have lost their inferiority complex against Ireland, at least in T20Is. "There's no longer that sense of 'Wow, we're playing Ireland,'" Borren said after thumping Ireland in the semi-final of the WT20 Qualifiers last summer.

"We did neglect T20, not through wish, but through resources and prioritising. Yes, we're probably paying the price for that now," admits Cricket Ireland performance director Richard Holdsworth. "Our goal of Test cricket is still very much the primacy of the organisation."

As exasperating as Ireland's defeat to Oman was, it will have no consequences for Ireland's future funding from the ICC, which measures their performances in the I-Cup and ODIs. In this sense, emphasising ODIs and the pathway to Test cricket is not romantic but deeply pragmatic: the best way to safeguard Ireland's future funding.

For now, the emphasis on Test cricket is one that no one in Irish cricket disputes. Yet there remains a nagging fear that, just at the moment Test cricket looms, the prize will become worthless, as the cricket world becomes ever more orientated around T20, and Ireland will be ill equipped to adapt to an age in which the shortest format is the premier form of international cricket.

Before Ireland, the greatest ever Associate side was Kenya. In 1996, they beat West Indies in the World Cup; seven years later, they bested Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and reached the semi-finals. In between they twice beat India in ODIs too.

So Kenya were targeted by the ICC, who awarded them the ICC Knockout Trophy in 2000 (the forerunner to the Champions Trophy), gave them extra funding, and announced that there would be a vote on whether to award them full membership in 2005.

The vote never came. Kenyan cricket had already been abandoned. They played just five ODIs in 35 months after the 2003 World Cup, and rumours of corruption among administrators and players alike (in 2004, Maurice Odumbe was banned from all cricket for five years for associating with a known bookmaker) swirled around.

Paul Stirling is Ireland's only automatic selection under 30 years old © ICC

Perhaps most importantly, though, Kenya's success was the result of a phenomenal generation of players. Attempts to nurture the next generation were forgotten. "From 1994 to the 2003 World Cup it was the same core of players," Aasif Karim later said. Seven members of the team who did a lap of honour in Durban in 2003 were in their 30s, the same number as in the Irish team who trudged off after their defeat to Oman.

Of the eight sides in the first stage, only Oman and Zimbabwe have older squads than Ireland. Afghanistan and Scotland are both two years younger. Seven of the 11 to be selected for all three games were over 30. It would have been eight had Ireland's selectors managed to entice Joyce out of T20I retirement, as they tried: hardly an endorsement of the younger generation's gifts.

Some new players have emerged, but nowhere near quickly enough. Stirling is the only player under 30 who is established as an automatic pick in both T20 and ODI cricket. When asked about Ireland's succession planning, Bracewell cites the development of Andy McBrine and especially Craig Young since the World Cup. Both are bowlers of promise, yet still appear not to be fully trusted. Against Oman the two returned combined figures of 2 for 26 from five overs but were not trusted to finish the job. Although his economy rate was half that of thirtysomethings Sorensen or Tim Murtagh, Young was promptly dropped.

Meanwhile George Dockrell, so impressive in the 2011 World Cup and in his early forays in county cricket, has been usurped by McBrine as the first-choice spinner and has lost his county contract. Andy Balbirnie, the only batsman to break into Ireland's top seven in ODIs between the 2011 and 2015 World Cup, where he hit 97 against Zimbabwe, has since been dropped in T20 and first-class cricket, and barely played for Middlesex last season either.

None of this is to say that Ireland will go the same way as Kenya. Their administration is far better. They have been far more successful in developing their playing base - there were 47,000 participants in Irish cricket in 2014, compared to just 5000 in Kenya in 2003, according to the ICC census results. Youth development is far more of a priority in Ireland than it ever was in Kenya. Inclusion in the ODI 12-team rankings means that Ireland will get more fixtures and they have a pathway to Test cricket.

Ireland's fielding has been the second worst of the eight sides in the opening stage of the WT20, according to analysis by CricViz

Perhaps a more accurate comparison is between Ireland men in Associate cricket and the England women's team. Both treated themselves as professionals before they could afford to be, and were underpinned by proficiency in preparation, fitness and fielding. Others have now caught up: for so long the Associate leaders in fielding, Ireland's fielding has been the second worst of the eight sides in the opening stage of the WT20, according to analysis by CricViz.

Generational churn has also been hard to manage - Cusack and Mooney were Ireland's change bowlers in 2011 but were opening the attack in 2015 - in part because of a reluctance to move on from such successful players, and partly because their achievements masked shallow playing bases.

A lack of budget has meant Ireland have barely been able to arrange an A-team programme, although there are plans to redress that soon. Asked about why Ireland have failed to develop more T20 specialists, Bracewell makes an instructive point. "We can't say we're going to pigeonhole you in this format. We have to make the players multi-purposeful, because we haven't got that depth yet. That's the reality of the budget and the numbers that we deal with."

It is similar off the field. In 2009, Ireland streamlined their governance, largely mimicking New Zealand's successful model. Many of their rivals have since done something similar, partly because the ICC is pushing them to follow Ireland's lead. Just as the decline of the England women's side reflects the burgeoning strength of female cricket, so Ireland's descent, at least in T20 cricket, is testament to the sterling improvement in the depth of the Associate game.

As Ireland prepared for this year's WT20, Niall O'Brien expressed a wish to "go out with a bang" in his eighth and "probably potentially my last tournament". He would never have envisaged letting Max Sorensen's full toss in through his legs to consign Ireland to defeat by Oman.

In 2007, Ireland embarked on the World Cup with a squad of 13 amateurs and two professionals. The journey since has been intoxicating. Ireland have overcome the loss of their best players and a dearth both of ICC funding and fixtures against Test teams to repeatedly challenge the intransigence of cricket's ruling elite.

Only four of Ireland's raiders of the Caribbean - the O'Briens, Porterfield and Rankin - remain, yet the team seems more dependent on them, and the 37-year-old Joyce, than ever.

These men have given Irish cricket an identity and sense of purpose. But now it is incumbent upon a new generation to cement what began with Johnston's dressing-room speech.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

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