Ireland plan first-class structure
Plans are being put in place for a first-class structure in Ireland that could pave the way for the country to become a Test nation. Although still a long way from coming to fruition, possibly a decade, Cricket Ireland believes it is a realistic aim following the team's rise in one-day international and Twenty20 cricket.
Warren Deutrom, the chief executive, confirmed to ESPNcricinfo that talk of a first-class game in Ireland wasn't just a pipe-dream and that it is a major part of the road map for cricket's future in the country. Though he was not willing to commit to a date or expand on details of any discussions that have taken place, there is a belief that the game in Ireland is becoming strong enough to support a first-class system.
"Do I think it can be achieved? If I didn't I may as well not be in the job," Deutrom said. "There is no time frame to it, but it is certainly something we want to achieve."
While Bangladesh gained Test status without a first-class competition in place - that was all to do with the Asian bloc vote and is a major reason why they have struggled to adapt to the long format - Ireland would need to prove their game could sustain a decent standard. The development of 12,000-seater ground at Malahide, a suburb of Dublin, is a sign of Ireland's serious aims.
"I think don't anything should be ruled out," William Porterfield, the Ireland captain, said when asked about Test cricket for Ireland. "It might not be in my playing career, but it could be if you see the steps we've taken in the last four years. We have everything in place to push on."
Seven of the current squad for the match against England at Clontarf make their living in county cricket and one of the driving forces behind trying to expand the game in Ireland is the continued loss of players to the English game. It is being highlighted this week with Eoin Morgan leading England for the first time, while Boyd Rankin, who will open the bowling for Ireland, is on their radar and George Dockrell has been noted as one to watch.
Cricket Ireland now offer contracts to their leading players but young cricketers who want to reach Test level still have no choice but to follow the England route. Although Ireland can continue to play them until they are selected by the full side - not the Lions as in Rankin's case - the moment they play an international they can't switch back if their career stalls unless they spend four more years qualifying, as Ed Joyce did before the 2011 World Cup.
"In the last few years we've produced a lot of good cricketers and in an ideal world we'd be playing at the highest level ourselves," Porterfield said. "We want to become a Full Member, even if that's just to be a part of the FTP for one-dayers, we have to keep progressing. We have shown we deserve to be there. In an ideal world everyone would be based at home and we'd have a first-class structure in Ireland and wouldn't have to rely on England. I think that's the direction it's moving in and hopefully plans will be put in place over the next few years."
In the shorter term, though, the challenge for Ireland is to increase their exposure to top-level ODI cricket. Matches such as Thursday's against England are a key part but the team needs regular contests against the Full Members and Cricket Ireland are hopeful of having a visit from Australia next year.
However, the international schedule is crammed. In recent times plans have fallen through for series against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh due to their other international commitments which now include Zimbabwe's return to Test cricket. The Irish board are likely to accept an invite to join the Hong Kong Sixes for the first time this year, but while a welcome addition to their profile, it isn't proper cricket and there is hope that a trip to West Indies might materialise.
Early next year Ireland will take part in the World Twenty20 qualifiers to try and secure their place at the full tournament in Sri Lanka next September. There are places for two Associates at that event after the ICC's decision to revert to a 14-team 50-over World Cup for 2015 instead of a 16-team Twenty20 although Associate nations are still considering how to challenge that. While Test cricket is the dream goal for Ireland, the pressure is on them to keep qualifying for the major limited-overs events and build on the successes of the last five years.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo