Lack of sponsorship inhibiting Ireland progress
In the second of a series of interviews with the chief executives and chairmen of the Associates, Murray Power, Irish Cricket Union's chairman, talks to Cricinfo about his country's future
In the last year you have been given ODI status (courtesy of the top six finish in the ICC Trophy). How has this changed the profile of the game inside Ireland?
Enormously. There's been a dramatic increase in the level of interest in Irish cricket, at every level. We've attracted much more media interest from home and abroad; we've gained additional sponsorships; Sports Council and ICC grants have increased very significantly; and the squad has within the past six months been honoured with receptions by both the President of Ireland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. At the most basic level, the man or woman in the street is now much more likely to know that Ireland plays cricket, and has recently been doing so very well!
Some chairmen have complained that the ICC has not given enough financial backing to support the marked increase in the demands on Ireland and your players. Would you agree?
I would agree that the extra money made available to the High Performance countries, while substantial, and absolutely essential to our ability to meet our commitments, is always less than the actual cost of participating in the extra programmes and tournaments. But I can understand, from ICC's perspective, why this should have been so. Its budgets are limited and it is tasked to get as much quality activity as possible out of them. This inevitably means leveraging in part of the cost through the countries. The current gap is, however, unsustainable, and it is essential that sufficient of the extra money that ICC will be getting from its new media rights contract finds its way into the High Performance Programme to cover a more realistic proportion of the countries' costs - in particular those relating to players' loss of earnings.
Given the financial gulf between the Full Members and the Associates, can the gap in playing standards ever be breached? Can you see one of the Associates, for example, playing Test cricket within a decade?
The financial gulf is, I suspect, largely related to television exposure, and therefore tends to start resolving itself once Test status is granted. More intractable, I believe, is the need for an underpinning structure of domestic first-class cricket. We would love to progress to Test status. Our record in the Intercontinental Cup suggests that we are probably, at least on the field, the Associate best equipped to do so. For understandable reasons, it took ICC several years to devise a fair, transparent and effective pathway to ODI status. A corresponding pathway to Test status now needs to be developed. It remains to be seen whether that pathway can be both developed and completed by an existing Associate within the next decade.
What are your views on players - and obviously Ed Joyce springs to mind - being lured away to play for Full Member countries?
I think 'lured' is a little harsh - certainly in Ed's case. His has always been a very special talent, and it's long been evident that he had the potential to play cricket at a higher level than Ireland could offer - even with ODI status. The only path to Full Member Test and ODI cricket is through playing professional cricket with a first-class team. Ed's years with Middlesex have enabled him to lift his game to an even higher plane - as he showed when helping us to qualify for the World Cup - and all his friends in Ireland have been delighted by his recent success with the England squad - particularly that century against Australia! But every promising young Irish player isn't an Ed Joyce, and we have had rather more instances of players getting county contracts but not forcing their way into the first team. A couple of years in the county seconds set-up doesn't necessarily move a player forward, and I can think of several examples where such players have come back to us less accomplished cricketers than when they first went to the counties.
With the boot on the other foot, what are your views on players from outside a country - for example, from Asia, Australiasia, Soth Africa or the Caribbean - being able to play for Associates after a relatively short qualification period?
I don't regard four years as a particularly short qualification period. Where someone genuinely moves home and takes up residence in a new country, they shouldn't have to wait an unreasonably long time before becoming eligible to represent that country. Our team has benefited greatly from the players who have come to Ireland from Australia and South Africa and settled here - often demonstrating their good taste by marrying Irish girls - and they're certainly every bit as committed to Ireland's cause as the Irish-born members of the squad.
Do you feel that the major countries give you enough help in terms of high-profile matches, A-team tours etc? What more could they do?
The only way in which Ireland will continue to improve is through regular matches against teams that are better than us. Now that we have ODI status, that should mean ODIs against Full Members. The World Cup is about to give us such exposure, but we really need it every year. As the only European Full Member, ECB clearly has a special responsibility in relation to the three European High Performance countries. We were delighted when England agreed to be our first ODI opponents in Belfast last June. It was a brilliant occasion, and did a lot to put Irish cricket on the map. It would be excellent if they would agree to play regular ODIs against their nearest neighbours, as well as using their influence to ensure that touring sides do so when they come each summer. Another key area where we need positive help from ECB is in ensuring that players with county contracts are automatically released when we need them for ODIs or other ICC competitions - just as England-qualified players without central contracts would be released by their counties if the England selectors asked for them.
How hard is it to attract sponsors to support the national side given the relatively low profile of the game in Ireland?
This has been a seriously inhibiting factor for many years. The situation has, however, improved a lot since our success in the ICC Trophy in 2005. The Bank of Ireland came on board last year as senior team sponsors and we are getting an increased flow of expressions of interest from other potential sponsors. We have a long way to go, however, before sponsorship income represents the proportion of revenue that it ought if we are to develop the game in all the ways we wish.
Should the ICC ensure that what are full ODIs should wherever possible be televised, or if not, that audio, video and live scores are available to the media to ensure that coverage is maximised?
Certainly we need this kind of media coverage - particularly terrestrial television - for all our ODIs. Where they take place in ICC tournaments, I believe ICC should put the necessary contracts and infrastructure in place - as they have done for the World Cup.
How hard is it for your players to strike balance between being essentially amateur players in a professional world?
Very difficult, and I've nothing but admiration for the way our squad have committed themselves to our pathway to the World Cup, and for the understanding that they've been shown by their families and employers. We are in a process of transition from amateur to semi-professional status, having introduced a relatively modest match fee/bonus regime last summer and then effectively bought the squad out of employment for the first three months of 2007. Ultimately, we aspire to having a fully professional squad, but it is likely to be some years before the necessary income flows can be developed.
While the results were disappointing, were you please with the overall performances at the World Cricket League?
There certainly were significant positives. We were by common consent the best batting side in the competition, and we got ourselves into what should have been winning positions against the three best teams. But we failed to convert those positions into results, leaving us with some major learning points prior to the World Cup. Ultimately, 'finishing' effectively in tight situations is a matter of experience, and I'm sure the guys will have identified the things they will need to do better next time.
What are your realistic expectations for the World Cup?
To perform competitively against the Full Members and, hopefully, to win at least one match.
How strong is grassroots cricket in Ireland, in terms of quantity and quality?
In terms of quantity, we have about 150 clubs, some 500 teams (men's, women's and youth), and some 500 active coaches. Youth cricket is particularly strong, all age-groups from Under-13 to Under-23 having won their respective European Championships in 2006. Quality trends in adult grassroots cricket are harder to appraise. The general perception would be that we are not moving forward as well as we would wish, and that a major inhibiting factor is the indifferent quality of most club pitches (combined with the damp Irish weather!).
What one change to the game would really benefit the game in Ireland?
The return of live international cricket to terrestrial television. Nothing promotes a sport more effectively than the regular availability of top-level competition in everyone's living room.
Where do you see Ireland cricket in five and ten years time?
In five years - to have qualified for, and performed competitively in, the 2011 World Cup; to have an increasing proportion of ODI wins, especially against Full Members; and to have made further progress towards a fully professional senior squad.
In 10 years - more of the same, plus measurable progress along the pathway to Test status.
Martin Williamson is managing editor and Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo